Sunday, May 14, 2006

My past and my future?

Fuel wood market, Eritrea

I'm in Monrovia for a series of meetings that are making me think a lot about my career. How did I get into development without knowing anything about it? The actual answer is that on two occasions my Geographic Information Systems background (which itself was a tangential step from my academic work, which was glaciology) sent me to developing countries. I'd begun working for the Canadian government in 1986 and ten years later they'd already sent me to do brief GIS work in Egypt and eventually Eritrea for a couple of months. Then I left the government to do my Fine Arts degree in photography but in 1998 the government re-hired me to go to Eritrea for a splendid year. (Eritrea was then a very easy place for a westerner to be comfortable, except for one little episode of Ethiopian bombing in June.) Because of this and Mom dying I took five years to do a three-year degree.

In the fall of 2002 I joined the evil Bechtel corporation in Washington State for a couple of restless years. More about that job and the town I was in another time. But while I was there I responded to question from CARE International in Sierra Leone on a GIS discussion list. I was able to help them with their first question but not another one so I suggested they fly me to Freetown to help out. Amazingly, they did. My two weeks there opened me eyes to NGO work and I began to look around. The next step was transitional - I got a job as a GIS and mapping officer with the Survey Action Center in Washington DC - not knowing that they would send me around the world to help with Landmine Impact Surveys - eventually in Afghanistan, Angola, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somaliland (Somalia). In 2004 they posted me to Kabul to work continuously on the Landmine Impact Survey of Afghanistan which we completed in early 2005. That work was great for my career and personal development but I'm pessimistic about the results being properly used. Then I did an unrewarding six-month contract with Oxfam in Afghanistan. Now I'm with Merlin in Liberia and everything is grand.

I've also been thinking about my goals. (They're subject to change.) Right now I think I want
to work here until our two current projects are complete (one ends next February and one ends next March) having helped to develop excellent proposals for the following projects. Then, as I see it now, I'd look for a challenge within Merlin somewhere else in the world. Perhaps somewhere less humid. I'd also like to do some development studies via distance learning but currently I'm just too busy.

I had a great conversation about anti-malaria bed nets the other day with staff from Concern Worldwide - one of our friendly partner NGOs. Concern distribute thousands of bed nets but they are learning that the effectiveness is sometimes disappointing because:

  • people are selling them for food

  • people find them difficult to install in their types of homes

  • children go to bed too far after dusk, when the mosquitoes are biting

It's an interesting reminder that problems and solutions aren't always as easy as assumed.