Experiences, Learning

Last Day

On my last day at work, I was handed a box. It was understood that by five fifteen the contents of my cluttered desk would be in it and my ten months working for Oxfam International would have come to an end.

I started with the paper tray which since the first day had slowly piled up giving visual evidence of the poor organisation the placement was supposed to cure. The stack was helpful, therefore, in giving a chronological journey through my time at Oxfam and an opportunity to reflect.

I found CONCORD Europe’s paper on policy coherence for development from my first week underneath posters I had designed for the European Development Days, where I saw celebrities from the development world debate the post-2015 agenda. I came across my press pass from the EU-Africa summit and mountains of media reactions, erratically scribbled on by my boss. It was only ten months, but everything seemed so long ago.

I remember in September I had been anxious. Unpaid internships, I had often been told, could range from the tortuous expectations of coffee runs and anti-social hours to the twiddling of thumbs waiting for the boss to pass down even the smallest menial task. I had been misguided.

At the age of twenty-two and new to the office environment, it would’ve been unreasonable for me to expect a large amount of trust from day one. It is because of this that, at times, I did feel underused. As my placement went on, however, it emerged that rather than being unappreciated, I was simply being lazy.

At the half-way point in February, I was effectively told that; if you can’t do the menial very well, you probably won’t be asked to do the more creative jobs. First lesson learned.

Around that point, my work load started changing. No long was I solely scribbling synonyms for press reactions or watching over the office’s social media. I was given more freedom on more traditional media work, penning a number of opinion pieces and blogposts. Policy advisors started asking for help with research on issues including tax justice and climate change. Work started to feel diverse and I actually started, well, learning something.

And the back drop to this was the ever-changing Brussels life. The bureaucracy which often bores the British started making sense and actually become quite exciting. Brussels, which presents itself as a mundane, very European political centre, started to seem like the centre of the world: Obama visited, as did the heads of state of almost every African nation. The world’s second largest elections were announced there and European diplomacy seemed to be based around its institutions. The work I was doing was directly entwined with this.

The pile of reports and papers was eventually placed in the box, which in turn is now stored, out of sight in my attic. Although hidden, they represent the most notable change that has occurred since September: knowledge. Corny, yes, but true.

I do not believe that Media & Communications is the best fit for me, but I believe work in development or the European Union (or both) is. Internships offer that opportunity.

The development world is intriguing, particularly large non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam. At times you may find yourself confused with internal politics; even I – the young, inexperienced intern – felt disenchanted with some of the issues they followed. But I have been lucky to work with passionate professionals who were always willing to debate my concerns. And now, I return to university to finish my degree with the a heightened feeling of good karma and a brain filled with opinions on Europe’s role in the developing world.

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Commentary

What The European Parliamentary Elections Mean For International Development

UKIP is right about something: whether you agree with it or not, the European Union has a lot of power. Whilst some of it can be narrowed down to regulating the shape of bananas or allowing immigrants to wander in and out of countries as they please, much of the discussion over this week’s European Parliament election has avoided the more intricate, far-reaching policies and ideas the institutions have moulded in the past five years.

Seldom have we heard about the comparatively progressive EU 2030 Energy & Climate package or ongoing negotiations on the EU-US free trade agreement (TTIP) which, if realised, will be the most expansive of its type in history. Not once has the EU’s investment in humanitarian assistance or international aid been called to question despite it being the largest, most far-reaching budget of its kind in the world. Instead, voters have been left with a more black-and-white choice: Europe is either good, or bad.

This is an idea some NGOs have been keen to brush aside. The implication of a stagnant European Union is tough to swallow when success is measured by the scope of the Institution’s ambitions. If polls are correct in predicting a Parliament split down the middle in their approach to Europe, it is likely the Commission will adapt to this seismic shift. Issues such as controlling tax avoidance and funding for refugees, already politically sensitive, will come under greater scrutiny, particularly if Europe finds itself jolted to the right and newly isolationist.

In a similar vein, a Europe which is unaccountable and constructed on pessimism is less likely to be bold in its mission of creating a confident, global Europe. It has been five years since the European External Action Service was born which, despite a greatly criticised start, has recently become more confident in itself with the institution become a more recognisable face of joint EU foreign policy. Europe is shaping itself into a rational actor in diplomacy, alongside a series of peacekeeping and training missions in unstable countries; all of which are a product of newly found confidence, something which can only deteriorate in this political climate.

Generally speaking, NGOs avoid taking a position on Europe but rather stick to the mantra that if the tools are in place, they should be used productively . This is why CONCORD, a confederation of over 1,800 NGOs from across Europe, has launched the #EuropeWeWant campaign. By highlighting that the European Institutions can be key in unlocking pan-European and global issues including inequality, poverty and environmental degradation, it hopes to influence not just the way voters look at the ballot but also how perspective Members of the European Parliament choose to use their tenure.

The next five years are decisive in formulating Europe’s international development policy. A shift in private-sector based aid is a clear example of this; whilst NGOs are cautiously accepting the idea, doubts remain in whether this kind of growth can ever be entirely ‘pro-poor’. This fits into the overarching concern which plagues the Brussels-based third sector: the European Union might be exemplary in some aspects, but often falls short in ensuring it’s broader, free-trade based foundations are truly coherent with international development.

If Europe finds itself taking a step back on such development issues, it is unlikely that it will do on the policies which directly affect these. A more right-wing Europe could continue to push trade deals, support the private-sector, including oil and gas, and give preference to European industry, but – if the worst fears are realised – with a less global, ambitious rhetoric to match

 

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Experiences

Getting Lost At The EU-Africa Summit

It is easy to forget that Brussels is the second most powerful city in the world. The smell of frites fill the air, policemen stroll down the streets puffing on cigarettes and tourists huddle around a statue of a tiny, peeing boy. It is an unkempt, slightly disorganised town, not quite the capital city home to the European Union, NATO and, of course, the Belgian government. Then Obama arrived, closely followed by Chinese Premier Xi Jingpao. A week later around sixty Heads of State from both Europe and Africa follow suit.

Within a matter of days, Brussels exploded into a flurry of policemen and barricades. No longer could you park, unticketed, five meters from the Commission building. Snipers lined the buildings outside of the Council and helicopters patrolled the skies day and night.

It was for the Fourth EU-Africa Summit that I had managed to slip out of Oxfam for a couple of days under the guise of a journalist working for the Europhilic online paper CaféBabel to cover this event. My first summit as an amateur journalist would be one which would bring together a bizarre mix democrats, kings, polygamists and bureaucrats in the name of “People, Prosperity and Peace”. This was an opportunity for the populists to say something outlandish, for the political nobodies to huddle with the elites and, at the end, extol a new era as “a partnership of equals”.

History has entwined the two continents, but despite Europe being by far the largest donor of foreign aid, the Summit arrived at a time of tension. Migration and failed trade talks represent two of the key disputes, as well as the older issue of human rights emerging with new crackdowns on LGBT communities. The EU refused to invite a representative from neither Western Sahara nor Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, contributing to Robert Mugabe’s boycotting of the event.

In the jungle of photographers at the VIP entrance, the president of Niger briefly stopped for the camera’s to say “Europe doesn’t care about Africa”.

Expecting further anti-colonial sentiments and heated table-thumping I  headed for the press zone where hundreds of journalists from the global media frantically typed on their computers and consumed copious amounts of coffee. I felt entirely lost, out of my depth. It quickly became apparent to me that, unless you are from high-brow media, you were doomed to watch from the sidelines. Despite frantic requests for interviews with anyone from the King of Swaziland to the President of Latvia, CaféBabel held no swing with their press officers.

My image of stumbling across a story quickly disappeared; this was a job for the BBC or AFP, not a blog with a readership entirely disinterested by African development. Instead, I saw this as an opportunity to learn a little bit more about a continent I know little more about than a few well-constructed Oxfam sound bites.

With this is mind, I wondered across a press briefing from Madagascar. Now this is a country I know nothing about. As I waited for the conference to start, I looked up a few things. Madagascar: unstable political structure, President who resembles Kim Jong-Un, national language French. The last point was disconcerting for me, but I stayed put. In came the President to a room of around seven journalists, surrounded by a few officers, and delivered his speech in a language I could not speak. He looked happy, so I smiled at him, but the other journalists – primarily from African press – were frowning, scribbling frantically on their pads. It later transpired that he was desperately trying to convince us that “rule of law” was being restored in his country.

Outside of the sporadic press conferences, the leaders spent most of their time huddled round conference tables reading statements on issues as broad as trade deals to gay rights, climate change to migration. Naturally my press credentials didn’t allow me access to this room, so like most of the journalists we sat in the press briefing room watching it on a big screen (without translation and streamed online). I think in my mind I imagined walking shoulder-to-shoulder with the leaders, watching their discussions live; not on a TV next to a passed-out cameraman.

Disheartened, I went to a jargon-filled briefing on Europe’s imminent intervention in the Central African Republic; interesting, but uninspiring. I had no story, just a few quotes already broadcast and published online. With little to write about, I headed for the exit. But chance was on my side again as I stumbled in on another press conference; this time with Hollande and Merkel. It was genuinely exciting and the atmosphere was buzzing. It might be true that, for a first time journalist, a summit might not give much room for original thought, but as the two prominent heads of states entered the room, I realised that it didn’t matter. I was sitting in a room with some of media’s biggest European correspondents, watching the President of France and the Chancellor of Merkel deliver their vision on Africa’s future; it might not excite everyone, but it fascinated me.

 

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Fresh look

Developed and Developing: Time to start over?

As interns in the development arena, we constitute the “bottom rung” of a very large and diverse industry of practitioners, academics, and knowledgeable commentators and bloggers. A media hungry reader might stubble upon this blog and find him/herself wondering why thoughts from this lowly subterranean bottom rung are worth reading.

Well, you skeptical pragmatist you, what we offer here is an outsider’s look – authors with minds somewhat untamed and untarnished by industry assumptions.

Some might call that condition ignorance. I call it perspective.

Sure, we lack experience and expertise in many ways. But we also lack bad habits, excessive cynicism and the lazy thinking of familiarity. Based on that one can derive a rather grandiose mission statement for this humble blog [Ed. Play nice!] – question what others might have accepted. If we are indeed to give inquisition a fair shot, I suppose it is fitting that we start at square one:

Why is that we label nations as ‘developed’ and ‘developing?’ (or ‘under-developed’ or ‘less developed’)

These terms are the most basic of a complex vocabulary that constitutes our industry discourse, and yet with this first step, it seems we have already come into difficult territory

The term ‘developed’ has an air of completion. Its use of the past tense seems to indicate that we in the industrialized nations have crossed some theoretical finish line.

Additionally it gives undue credit to the process that got the industrial world where it is, as well as a certain authority to push that model off onto others. However, there are some serious weaknesses to the model that deserve recognition. If every ‘developing’ nation managed to cross the threshold and earn the ‘-ed,’ we would need another seven or so planets to provide the needed resources to sustain that sort of global affluence.

The term ‘developing’ on the other hand oozes influences of ‘modernization theory’. This is the idea that there is one road from poverty, a designated path that leads to prosperity. Often in the texts of academics and practitioners alike one will find comparison to 15th century England, Early 17th century Europe, or China Pre-1978 being applied to diverse regions with unique cultural and historic backgrounds.

It isn’t good enough.

While this critique of discourse may seem a bit overwrought that doesn’t change the fact that our terms are lacking. After all, Harry Truman first launched this lexicon of “the under-developed regions of the world” in his 1949 inauguration address. Keeping in mind that Western thinking at the time justified colonization across the globe, we may want to avoid considering the leaders of that paradigm our ‘founding fathers’. The Cold War’s contribution of ‘the third world’ (i.e. that which lies between the spheres of the US and capitalism and the USSR and communism) has improved our vocabulary very little, if at all.

As interns we have a unique capacity to evaluate this discourse. When a new term is introduced to you in your work and it seems a bit odd, consider the possibility that it is not solely because it is novel to your ears.

Keep your questions and maintain your suspicions.

Certainly you will have a limited capacity to alter this industry’s terminology and learning it may seem challenging enough. However, simply adapting to it perpetuates current flaws and stifles our collective imagination. So let’s think of some new terms.

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