Advice, Experiences, Learning

Course Reviews: Development at Tufts University’s Fletcher School

Don’t be fooled by its full name: The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy isn’t a law school or a Foreign Service training program. A graduate school at Tufts University, Fletcher’s course offerings cover the full range of topics in international affairs, including business, security, communications – and, of course, development.

Regardless of their specific field of study, all students in the school’s primary program earn a MALD (Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy). However, many graduates refer only to their area of focus – for example, by listing “M.A. in International Development” rather than MALD on their resumes. It’s a two-year, full-time, in-person program, and most students do an internship, often abroad or in D.C., during the summer.

Fletcher differs from many similar schools in the U.S. in that there’s no one track for studying development. So, how do you study development there? The school’s curriculum has two main components. The first is a breadth requirement, which mandates that students take classes from three categories: law, diplomacy and politics, and economics.

What? I thought you said it WASN’T all about “law and diplomacy!”

It’s still really not. The categories are broad, and each one has development-related classes: Law and Development, Political Economy of Development, and Development Economics: Policy Analysis, for example.

To fulfill the second component, the breadth requirement, students complete two fields of study.

But wait, I only want to study development!

Don’t worry, multiple fields of study focus on different aspects of development, like Development Economics, Law and Development, or Public and NGO Management. Some can also be tailored to emphasize development, like Human Security and International Organizations. And others can be complementary to development, like International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution if you’re interested in post-conflict reconstruction.

If none of that sounds quite right, you can also design a field of study to either complement or deepen your development studies. Some recent self-designed fields include gender studies, monitoring and evaluation, education, and social and political development.

The bottom line: as a Fletcher student, you can really study whatever you want, and you can keep your focus as broad or as narrow as you choose. Regardless, you’ll come out of the program with some background in both quantitative and qualitative work.

The perks of Fletcher

Besides the flexible curriculum, I think the school has three big draws.

Diversity

Around 40 percent of Fletcher students are international, and all areas of the world are represented. No matter what region you’re interested in, you’ll almost certainly have a classmate who can tell you what life is really like there. Because the school’s admissions process emphasizes professional experience, most students come into the program after working at least a couple years – and backgrounds run the gamut from finance to non-profit and the military to the UN. Students come in with a range of interesting international experience, and there’s a large population of former Peace Corps Volunteers and Fulbright scholars. Fletcher is a place where you’re guaranteed to be introduced to a host of new perspectives.

“The Fletcher Mafia”

Fletcher’s known for its close community feel – and, equally, its tight-knit alumni network. We’re not called The Fletcher Mafia for nothing! While most schools maintain alumni relations and provide opportunities for students to network with alumni, Fletcher goes further. Fletcher alumni really look out for their own. Students looking for internships and recent grads on the job hunt have access to the entire network of alumni – most of whom are more than willing to help out a fellow Fletcherite. And after graduation, you’ll inevitably find yourself with dozens of people to visit and couches to crash on, in all corners of the globe.

Cross-registration

Even though I doubt you’ll have too much trouble finding the courses you want at Fletcher, the school’s offerings are only the surface of the available classes. Fletcher students can cross-register in classes in nearly any other department at Tufts, as well as at Harvard’s business, public health, education, design, and Kennedy schools (and, unofficially, at a few other universities, including MIT). If like me, you’re interested in impact evaluation, there are hardly better professors to have than those at Fletcher, Kennedy, and the MIT Economics Department.

So, who is Fletcher NOT right for?

If you want to work while in school.

There’s no option for part-time, evening, or online study at Fletcher. If you’re looking to work full-time while in grad school, Fletcher’s not an option.

If you want to sit in a circle for discussion with five other students.

While some classes are very small, and many promote participation, a lot of classes have 30 to 60 students or more. You’ll probably be able to have a small-group discussion feel for a few classes, but it won’t be the norm. Many students, though, find that the sometimes large classes are offset by the fact that, because there’s no cap on class sizes, students can take all their top-choice classes each semester.

If you hate the cold.

The Fletcher School is in Boston, and it gets cold. But hey, that means you’ll get some snow days!

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Projects

Challenging The Western Narrative Of Africa: An interview with the filmmakers behind FRAMED

What’s behind the West’s fascination with “saving” Africa? What really happens when Americans go to Africa to “help?” Why do Western media outlets consistently paint Africans as helpless victims?

These are the questions filmmaker Cassandra Herrman and anthropologist (and Africa Is a Country contributor) Kathryn Mathers plan to explore in their upcoming documentary, FRAMED. Their Kickstarter campaign, which will fund travel, filming, and editing costs, has eight more days to raise an additional $6,519.

I recently had the chance to talk with Cassandra and Kathryn about mainstream perceptions of Africa, the inspiration behind the film, and what they hope it will accomplish.

How did you come up with the idea for the film? What pushed you to want to make a documentary about perceptions of Africa and Western aid?

Kathryn: My Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley was about how travel influences Americans’ ideas and attitudes toward Africa and Africans, what they learn, what facilitates that learning, and whether travel and cross-cultural connections can genuinely change the way people think. My research was driven by my encounter with American ideas and attitudes toward Africa and South Africa when I first came to Berkeley to study anthropology. I met Cassandra while doing my fieldwork with American travellers to Southern Africa. We really believed that the increased circulation of images of suffering Africans in the absence of alternative images, especially in mainstream media, needed to be addressed. Not just because these are false and troubling images in and of themselves, but because they generate ideas about Africans that limit the way we engage and invest in African countries and people.

Cassandra: I have spent a significant portion of my career telling stories about Africa in a medium where, more often than not, outsiders mediate the continent. I grew compelled to re-channel my creative energy toward reversing that lens and working on projects that explore how representations inform personal actions and policy decisions. As a former volunteer in Kenya, I understand the appeal of “Africa” to young Americans, and I’m empathetic to their desire to go there. But as a consumer of Western media, and through my work as a journalist, I’m acutely aware of the damage caused by representations of Africa.

Who do you see as the intended audience of the film?

Cassandra: Our target audience is young people, primarily in America, but also in Europe and Africa. We’re trying to speak to people who have a humanitarian impulse and challenge them to think more about the stories and images that drive their actions.

Our vision is to create a social media space and web portal for young Americans and Africans to connect, have a collaborative dialogue about representation and social action, and build better ways to engage in and support meaningful change on both continents. The film and media campaign will challenge young people to think critically about social actions, from KONY2012 and Save Darfur to (RED) and TOMS Shoes. We believe the film will also appeal to a range of people who care about Africa or about America’s role in the world today. That includes: the many Americans who travel to Africa or plan to work as humanitarian volunteers; college and high school programs; media organizations; think tanks and policymakers; and the growing number of organizations who are increasingly concerned with the imprint of their work in Africa.

What effect do you hope the film will have?

Cassandra & Kathryn: Images and stories of Africa as a tragic continent requiring salvation have inundated Western television, film, and advertising, and we hope our documentary can contribute to the body of work countering those representations. It intends to hold up a mirror to the collective imagination of Africa that we have in America, and spark a conversation about why it exists, who it serves and how, and what we need to do to change it.

We really want to make it possible for young American activists and Africans to have a completely different conversation. We also want to motivate Americans to think about how they need to change politics and business at home, both as a way to improve their own communities and as a way to think about the challenges of poverty in Africa from a different perspective, one that takes into account that it is not ‘natural’ to Africa but is affected by policy and investment choices made in many other parts of the world. Perceptions of Africa have real-world implications – they drive public opinion, business practice, and foreign policy.

FRAMED features several people from South Africa and Kenya. Do you think their stories and commentary are applicable to the rest of the continent?

Kathryn: We have had a real challenge throughout the planning and making of this film, in trying to say something about the relationship between Africa and America without essentializing either place and especially without treating Africa as a single space, in the way the narrative we are challenging does. We have considered and begun work in Ghana and Nigeria and have really struggled to tell a complex transcontinental story.

Ultimately, we had to focus in on specific sites, and the conjunction of two very different kinds of activists and artists like Boniface Mwangi (Kenyan photographer, activist, and founder of Picha Mtaani and PAWA254) and Binyavanga Wainina (Kenyan writer and author of, among many things, a satire on Western writing about Africa) in one country felt very powerful. While they are not meant to stand in for or represent other parts of Africa in a statistical sense, we do believe that by showing their work and putting them in conversation with Americans, we can change the way Africa is thought about and talked about among young Americans who want to do good.

One of the problems mentioned in the trailer is that narratives of Africa are often over-simplified, as in the case of KONY2012. Do you think there is a way for journalists and activists to avoid over-simplifying stories of Africa but still compel people to read, understand, and care about the issues?

Kathryn: Absolutely. A good story about a local community organization or activist is a good story. In working with my students, I have found that they are desperate for these stories, for an understanding of what is happening on the ground, for some way to access specific people’s lives and understand how to help them do their work. The dominance of the “white savior” narrative has made this harder than it should be, but it can be replaced. There are compelling and seductive stories for journalists to tell about so many aspects of life in so many African countries, but it does require perhaps an additional investment in particular places and less reporting from a regional perspective.

Cassandra: People can handle a little complexity, and it doesn’t have to come at the expense of a compelling narrative. I think a lot of those stories do exist – they’re just not given the spotlight that the “white savior” narratives are.

Can you recommend any websites or publications that you think do a good job of portraying Africa?

Cassandra & Kathryn: There are, of course, many, but a few that we would recommend are:

If you want to see this film get made, be sure to join me and 355 other backers in supporting the Kickstarter campaign (and get some cool rewards!) before it ends on July 12.

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Commentary, Experiences

Volunteering: The paradox at the beginning of an aid career

As commencement has come and gone and the Class of 2014 is entering or returning to the working world, I’ve been thinking more about how people begin careers in international development. Most often, by my guess, they get their start by volunteering, often at schools or orphanages, during post-high school “gap years,” undergraduate summers, or between college and graduate school.

I began that way myself, starting with volunteering at a small NGO in Uganda during my final summer of college and later serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda. I’d estimate that at least half of the students who studied development in my graduate program had similar experiences.

Aspiring development professionals aren’t the only people who engage in volunteer work abroad, of course. In fact, the majority of short-term volunteers are not probably future aid workers, but rather other students or people on vacation from their regular jobs.

In this day and age, when anyone with the money to travel can land a volunteering gig in a developing country, volunteers too often have little to no technical knowledge, project design or management experience, language skills, or cultural understanding. I myself am not a teacher but have taught English abroad. I know people who aren’t construction workers who build houses in developing countries every summer. I’ve heard of Peace Corps Volunteers with no medical training delivering babies. I’ve talked to missionaries who visited Bangkok’s brothels to persuade sex workers to leave, only to remember upon arriving that they didn’t speak Thai. A missionary in Rwanda once asked me whether the country had gorillas or guerrillas. The list goes on.

Many poignant articles have illustrated the uselessness, and even harmfulness, of poorly-conceived volunteer programs, especially those at orphanages and schools, which seem to be the most common. There’s no question in my mind that short-term, untrained volunteers are often ineffective at best, and I think most aid professionals would agree.

The thing is, it’s difficult to get a first job in development without having prior experience, which can often only be gained through volunteering. In fact, many (most?) aid professionals, like myself, got their foot in the door by doing volunteer work.

The aid industry is quite odd in this way: professionals ridicule volunteer work, but won’t hire new people who haven’t done it. This is just another way in which the aid system is broken.

You can’t get a “professional” job until you’ve gained experience by doing something the industry considers ineffective and antithetical to its actual goals. It’s a classic case of “you need experience to get experience,” and volunteer opportunities allow people to fill in that gap.

Part of the problem here is that students seeking careers in international development are frequently oblivious to the problems of volunteering, as I was when I volunteered as an undergraduate. I didn’t realize that these problems are widely recognized and well-documented. With the explosion of the Internet and social media, though, more and more young people access, and participate in, the conversation in the field than before. Many of the undergraduates I know today have a far more critical perspective on aid than I did as a college student, which I think is thanks largely to Twitter and to blogs like these, which didn’t exist when I was in college.

But still, colleges send their students off on ill-conceived volunteer programs every summer and praise them for working in orphanages and schools and doing other jobs they’re unqualified for and that could be done by a local. Schools should provide more guidance to students looking for volunteer positions and encourage them to carefully consider the impacts of their actions on local populations, rather than blindly praising them for “doing.”

Ultimately, it is hiring managers who are responsible for, and positioned to, bringing an end to the paradox of starting an aid career. As a nice guest post at How Matters recently discussed, they need to look beyond the simple fact of having volunteer experience and question how applicants perceived their experience and what they learned from it.

But changes in the system will take time and may never become the norm. Meanwhile, what should today’s students and aspiring aid workers do, when their institutions encourage volunteering, current professionals in this field started this way, and even entry-level jobs in development often require it? People who want experience abroad aren’t going to stop volunteering, but here are a few suggestions to encourage conscientious volunteering:

  • There’s lots of advice out there on how to volunteer effectively. Follow it.
  • Before volunteering, study development as intensively as you can. Try cross-registering or doing independent studies if need be. Read blogs and follow people in the industry on Twitter.
  • Study abroad in a developing country before going abroad to volunteer.
  • Try to do volunteer work that is supplementary to what already exists, rather than taking over existing positions or creating parallel ones. (One way might be to provide after-school tutoring or English conversation practice instead of working as a teacher.) Supplementary work allows volunteers to add value and is less disruptive.
  • Advocate for better practices within the organization you volunteer at: talk to the leaders about the need to replace international volunteers with local workers.
  • Longer-term volunteers are usually more useful, so stay as long as you can and volunteer with the same organization the whole time.
  • Don’t volunteer at an orphanage in Cambodia. Just don’t.

Finally, I’d love to hear from aid professionals who started their career without volunteering, so please share your stories and advice in the comments. Anyone?

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Learning

The 20th Commemoration Of The Rwandan Genocide: Link roundup

While April is a celebration of spring in many parts of the world – or, here in Boston, at least of the hope that winter is finally over – the 7th of this month marks the beginning of Rwanda’s period of mourning, in commemoration of the 1994 genocide. On this day each year, Rwandans begin an official week-long period of mourning, in the form of ceremonies, speeches, films, marches, prayers, and shows of solidarity that take place in schools, churches, stadiums, fields, and streets across the country.

Scholars, activists, journalists, and other observers watch from abroad, recognizing the lives that were lost in 1994, measuring the progress that has been made since then, and examining the extent to which justice has been served. I, like my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Rwanda, also look back on the Aprils we spent there. I find myself holding my breath, hoping this year doesn’t see the mass violence of the Aprils I remember, and that my friends in Rwanda are safe and able to commemorate their own losses and experiences in peace.

In recognition of Genocide Memorial Day, I’d like to offer a round-up of the myriad articles about Rwanda that have come out in the past few days, in preparation for the 20th commemoration.

  • The Guardian posted an overview of Rwanda’s improvement on development indicators over the past twenty years.
  • This article from The Atlantic and this one was the Montreal Gazette focus on the dire state of mental health in the country and the dearth of psychosocial support.
  • A Rwandan lawyer and genocide survivor now working as a professor in the U.S. published a compelling New York Times op-ed in which he examines how the country’s culture of unquestioning obedience contributed to the genocide and how it is affects reconciliation efforts today.
  • Over at Slate, this piece questions the extent to which Rwandans have truly reconciled and expresses concern about the methods the government has used to promote reconciliation.
  • In comparing the two dominant narratives of Rwanda today (a development miracle versus an oppressive dictatorship), Rachel Strohm asks, “What’s the right analogy for Rwanda?”
  • Just yesterday, France announced it would be pulling out of genocide commemorations, in response to President Kagame’s discussion of the country’s role in the genocide.
  • Finally, the newest episode of the Humanosphere podcast features an interview with Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager portrayed in the film Hotel Rwanda and, if you haven’t read it yet, this incredible BBC piece on one of the UN peacekeepers who helped protect hundreds of people inside Rusesabagina’s hotel.
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Advocate, Causes

Four Critiques Of RCTs That Aren’t Really About RCTs

As most people who follow international development know, the use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) has sparked impassioned debate between so-called “randomistas” and the researchers, practitioners, and evaluators who oppose RCTs. Academics have been arguing about the merits and ethics of RCTs since they first came into use, and bloggers of all stripes have  contributed to the debate over the last few years. (A compilation of posts can be found here.) I hear these same conversations take place among my graduate school classmates and professors, whose opinions on RCTs are also divided.

In each of these arenas,  strong criticisms of RCTs have been made, some of which I don’t have good answers to. But many of the common critiques I hear really apply to research, aid work, and evaluation in general, and I fail to understand why these criticisms are levelled at RCTs specifically. I find it particularly troubling when researchers, aid workers, or evaluators make these critiques of RCTs without applying them to their own work.

Below are some examples of common critiques that I don’t believe are really aimed at RCTs.

“Studying People”

Many of my classmates and professors dislike RCTs because they are uncomfortable with the idea of “studying people,” particularly if nothing is provided to those people (in the case of a control group). In particular, for many RCTs, teams of surveyors go to people’s homes, schools, or workplaces to observe them or ask them questions, often of a personal nature. Opponents of RCTs argue this is voyeuristic and intrusive and that it interrupts people’s daily lives – and all for the unsavoury purpose of “studying people.”

Yet, as Kirsty Newman has explained, these complaints apply to much social science research, which is similarly based on going to other places, talking to people there, and gathering stories or data about them. Research is, in its essence, the study of people, done with the aim of extracting knowledge about them and their community, lifestyle, or past experiences and without providing benefits to them. I don’t think it makes sense to oppose RCTs on the grounds that “studying people” is bad, without also opposing the many forms of research that affect people in the same ways.

“Withholding Treatment”

I also frequently hear opponents of RCTs argue it is ethically wrong to “withhold treatment” from some people (again, in the case of a control group). RCTs rely on the ability to compare those who received an intervention with those who did not. Opponents believe that “withholding treatment” from anyone is unethical and that organizations should offer their interventions to everybody. They argue it is unfair for some people to receive a service while others don’t.

However, a similar critique could be made of aid programs in general, which Kirsty also noted. Like all providers of aid, those conducting RCTs have the funding and capacity to provide programming to a certain number of people. All aid projects provide services to some people and not to others, and no organization can include everyone in its interventions. In their inability to provide assistance to everyone, and the feelings of unfairness that result, organizations implementing RCTs are largely representative of NGOs in general.

External Validity

A more technical critique of RCTs is the argument that they lack external validity – a program that an RCT finds to be effective will not necessarily work in other settings. Because their results cannot be generalized, the argument goes, RCTs are useless.

But alternative types of evaluations (which are often based on before-after differences or comparisons of non-random treatment and control groups) face exactly this same problem, as Timothy Ogden explains. Organizations often use non-randomized evaluations to determine whether a program should be scaled up or expanded to additional areas, based on results from its initial implementation. However, there is no reason to think these evaluations would have higher external validity than RCTs.

Little Use

A final critique I want to address is the belief that the knowledge generated through RCTs rarely gets used to create improvements in aid. The results of RCTs are generally published in journals and primarily read by academics, not by people designing projects or making policy. For this reason, critics argue, RCTs do not actually lead to improvements, because they are inaccessible to the people in a position to them.

This is another way in which RCTs are no different from other types of evaluation, a point Kelly Steffen makes here. It’s no secret that organizations are typically resistant to admit failure or make changes, and a common complaint among evaluators is that their reports often go unread and their recommendations are frequently ignored. Though I think people in both areas are working to overcome this problem, neither RCTs nor other types of evaluations get used as much as they should.

These four arguments aren’t necessarily incorrect, but they’re not really criticisms of RCTs. Unless we consider them reasons to stop doing research, aid work, or evaluation in general, these critiques do not offer compelling reasons to stop doing RCTs. Instead, we should think more about how to best counter these shortcomings in all facets of development and social science work.

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Advice, Support

6 New Year’s Resolutions For Development Grad Students

With the New Year under way and a new semester just around the corner, development students are setting resolutions that will help them learn about the field and prepare them to embark on careers in international aid. The Guardian’s recent series on New Year’s Resolutions for Development Professionals prompted me to share some resolutions specifically for graduate students in development.

1. Read blogs

The aid and development blogosphere is rich with knowledge, opinions, and anecdotes about all aspects of the field, and provides a great complement to classroom learning. Reading blogs allows students to engage with the field informally, dig deeper into topics that interest them, keep up-to-date with new research, and see debates unfold in real time.

Though updates on many blogs have become less frequent lately, there are still dozens of excellent ones, with a tremendous amount to be learned from them. Some great bloggers to check out include Chris Blattman, Ken Opalo, Duncan Green, and the teams at WhyDev and Humanosphere. [Ed: we have an extensive reading list for the internet addicted bottom-rungers here]

On a related note, the aid Twitterati is very active and offers links to relevant posts and abridged versions of the discussion found on blogs. Both The Guardian and WhyDev recently posted lists of top development Tweeps to follow.

2. Read non-academic books related to the field

Students (myself included) often find it difficult to commit to doing much outside reading, but I’m not suggesting everyone study extra statistics textbooks in their spare time! Rather, I think reading non-technical books is a low-stress, enjoyable way to deepen our understanding of development and aid.

Books that informally address material learned in class can help the concepts sink in and give students a chance to see how these concepts get applied in the real world. Similarly, memoirs by aid workers offer insight into the life for which students are preparing themselves. For example, Zen Under Fire, written by a human rights lawyer about her experiences working in Afghanistan, thoughtfully discusses struggles many aid workers face in both their personal and professional lives.

Novels and non-fiction works set in developing countries can also provide a new perspective and some cultural understanding. For suggestions of books from (literally) any country of interest, take a look at A Year of Reading The World.

3. Connect with students in other schools and programs

No more reading resolutions, I promise! It has become very clear to me that there are many, many different ways to approach development work – public policy, anthropology, economics, public health, gender studies, business, even engineering. All these fields and many others offer their own approach to development, their own lens through which to view development issues, their take on the most important problems and the most effective solutions. Even among the APSIA schools, which offer somewhat similar degree programs, each school has its own bent on the study of development. Connecting with students from other programs and schools can offer great insight into the many approaches to development and enhance students’ understanding of the field at large. In short, resolve to attend a happy hour.

4. Learn a relevant computer skill

Admittedly more technical (and probably less fun) than the above resolutions, becoming proficient in a relevant computer skill can only be beneficial. In my job-search and networking experience, many organizations are looking for employees and interns who are skilled at Stata, ATLAS, GIS, CSPro, HTML, or other software or languages. Do some research to identify which one is most relevant to your goals, and see if it is taught in any courses or workshops at your school or through online tutorials.

5. Listen to foreign language podcasts

On a somewhat similar note, resolve to keep up a foreign language. Most students in international development speak at least one foreign language, though maintaining proficiency probably isn’t a priority for most students while they’re in school. Since you will likely be called on to use another language during internships and future jobs (including in interviews), it’s advantageous to stay familiar with it. I’ve discovered a simple way of doing this is to listen to foreign language podcasts while commuting, which at least keeps comprehension and vocabulary from getting too rusty.

6. Watch Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”

At one point or another, regardless of the exact type of aid work you ultimately do, you will have the responsibility of portraying people from other countries. It could be in official reports for your organization, on a personal blog, during conversations with other aid workers, or in letters to your grandmother. For the sake of both dignity and accuracy, it is critical that portrayals – in whatever form they take – go beyond stereotypes, simplifications, or a “single story.”

Please share your own resolutions and recommendations for blogs, books, and other resources in the comments.

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