I’m past my midpoint here at GRAG and thinking about the learning goals I put down two months ago.The summer has been a good one, both because of the sunshine sweeping down on Dakar and the office atmosphere that’s always so positive. Even the long afternoons during the holy month of Ramadan, always slowest around the usual time for lunch, haven’t done much to deter the assorted GRAG staff. July was full of completed program funding bids and new projects to take on.
My academic and career goals have become intertwined because of the nature of my internship. GRAG is first and foremost a research organization, so my academic goals (augmenting my classroom knowledge of West-African development with firsthand involvement) and my career goals (gaining more experience in crafting advocacy materials and promoting NGO/research findings) are being met every day that I sit at my desk and draft a proposal section or edit a survey questionnaire.
I’ve read a lot about the different ways to go about international aid and over the past 2 months I’ve seen a lot of them in action. GRAG builds a knowledge base by doing its own studies based around target populations, but it also evaluates projects being done by other NGOs and government offices. Working on the outside evaluations has been especially helpful. I’m gaining more of a logistical look into the realities of aid programs and the various things that can go wrong, ways they can be improved, and in general more of a scope for understanding these ventures. Academically, this glimpse into the industry has answered a lot of questions I had about projected versus achieved results. There are more factors going in than I had thought or read about and now I know more about the multitude of difficulties that can and do arise during implementation.
I have farther to go before I’m prepared for an actual career in an organization like this one — assuming I even choose to work in this industry — but I’ve taken big leaps in some areas. My technical writing skills have definitely improved and I’ve gained a lot of experience drafting different proposals — for funding, for proposed projects, and for proposed evaluation reports. A lot of elements go into each document, and details are especially important for the advocacy materials and the study questionnaires that we distribute. Tact is essential, plus simplicity of questions and language use. Many of the materials go to poorer communities outside of Dakar so they don’t necessarily have access to the French education in public schools here. There are as many as 7 local languages at use in some regions of the country and many people here are bilingual or more, so a lot of translation work happens at the office. And sensitive issues like gender roles or sexuality can quickly cause a problem if confidentiality agreements don’t hold. I’m still learning exactly where to toe the line with subjects like that but it’s been an interesting education on the topic.
In terms of personal goals, it’s been interesting seeing the amount of focus everyone maintains in the office while working on sensitive subjects. Just yesterday my supervisor was telling me about the implementation of a project that was started before I got here on integrated health services in Senegal, and he spoke about how he is now suggesting that they take out the issue of domestic violence from the study. Researchers understand that many of the issues afflicting poor communities are intertwined, but there’s also the danger of over-saturating a survey and losing the focus of a particular research mission. In attempting to tackle too many issues at once, you run the risk of too little in-depth analysis and in fact not helping to solve any problems in a major way.
One of my learning goals was to find that emotional balance necessary for NGO work, especially during fieldwork, to juggle the heavy subjects that are the center of such studies. The GRAG team doesn’t completely separate themselves from the human elements of their research or else they wouldn’t be able to fully account for the needs of the target populations. Instead, attention is shifted to concentrate on the particular issue at hand and take the larger socioeconomic problems case-by-case. I’ve been doing the same in a lot of ways. There are always smaller pieces of a problem to work on and each project brings us closer and closer to bigger changes. My contributions don’t look like much on a day-to-day basis, but they’re part of a bigger whole and it helps to keep that in mind.
I wasn’t certain that I could do much in an international research organization back in May. When the Francophone nature of the office was added in I was almost positive that I was jumping into a place that I might not be able to keep up with. It was a surprise to discover that GRAG could teach me a lot about the field, but also that my supervisor and co-workers took my opinions to heart and my intermediate language skills didn’t end up being a problem. I am proud of the fact that I took the initiative to dive into a new experience without as much surety as I’m used to and still managed to have a great time and learn so much in the past months.
Only a few more weeks to go in Dakar until I pack up and leave both GRAG and Senegal! Things here have been heavy and confusing at times, but they’ve also taught me to keep on my toes and work on tight deadlines. Overall I’m enjoying my time in the city and trying to take in everything I can. This summer has definitely been an interesting one and I’m sure August will bring its own flavor to the mix.
-Natasha Gordon ’15