It is amazing how time flies. Standing here at the brink of Autumn, heading into my senior year at Macalester, I find my mind wandering backwards to contemplate this summer as much as it surges forwards, pondering how these lessons, connections, and ideas will inform my work in the future. My experience with the Live It project has taught me lessons I definitely didn’t anticipate, and allowed me to forge connections that hopefully will remain for years to come.
I started this project in January while working as an intern for A Tu Lado, grappling with understanding the scope of the vision of the organization, while simultaneously struggling to keep my footing on a constantly shifting field of immediate priorities and concrete necessities for the organization. Lesson number one: small NGO’s may have big visions, but the everyday realities of funding, logistics, and communication take up the majority of staff time. Big accomplishments are possible, but it’s necessary to buckle down and take care of the nitty-gritty work (while not getting completely subsumed in it).
This project also taught me that even if you have a big, beautiful vision that seems to make all the puzzle pieces fit and is guaranteed to improve a situation, as a global citizen, you have to recognize that your individual analysis of the situation is not the only important one. A week ago, after two months of increasingly spotty communication from our Bolivian partners, we received the news that the project was being put on hold, due to a miscommunication over a proposal for the electronic medical record system. This shocked and saddened me; although some of our point people had been not as engaged on this element of the project, I had no idea there was so much confusion within the organization as to cause a major hold-up in the process. Reflecting on the development of the proposal, and the project in general, I realized that the A Tu Lado team, and I personally, analyzed, discussed, and dreamed to put together a plan for how the service could improve, and it seemed, in general, to be a good plan, incorporating evidence-based self analysis, tracking of performance, and improved communication. But although we were constantly updating our partners in Mano a Mano and discussing these issues with them, somehow the vision ended up not being shared or understood fully by each side. Or if it was, the implications of such, and the responsibilities and commitment it entailed was not understood by members of our partner organizations. In short, although there was always enthusiasm expressed for ideas and plans we brought to the table, it often seemed that we were left enacting them on our own, unsure of how dedicated our partners were to the idea. Some of this was cultural difference at play: we moved fast, and didn’t take into account the bureaucracy and need for processing time that our partners had. We also didn’t count on the fact that perhaps there is a cultural tendency to avoid expressing difference of opinion, and in the future, I will be exploring ways to ensure that when I am working with people from different backgrounds, we create space for discussion that is more open and sensitive.
Fortunately, from recent conversations with our partners, it sounds like the project will be back online after Mano a Mano completes an internal review. The lessons learned from this incident were the hardest I have faced yet, but important ones to learn for a student interested in international work.
Despite these setbacks, reflecting on my summer I am so glad I had to opportunity to carry out this project. In teaching the course, I forged relationships with truly inspirational citizens of Bolivia, who are dedicated to developing themselves to better serve their neighbors and communities. I also had the opportunity to learn so much about the potential and drawback of technology in development, the benefits and difficulties of working with a small NGO, and the beauty and frustration of networking with organizations and individuals across cultural and geographical distance. The relationships made and the lessons learned will stay with me for many years to come, and have definitely influenced how I see my role as a citizen of the world.