Latest Event Updates
Leandra Merz graduated from the MDP program in 2014. She provided us with this update from Zambia, where she and her husband are co-directing an organization that provides educational access to orphans and other vulnerable children.
IIM International is dedicated to providing increased educational access to orphans and vulnerable children in rural Zambia. Leandra and Aaron Merz were inspired to start this NGO in 2012 in order to further assist the villages they served as Peace Corps Volunteers. The passion for helping these communities led Leandra back to the University of Florida for a Masters in Sustainable Development Practice. She was able to apply much of what she learned to improve the organization, but the most valuable information was related to fundraising and grant-writing. These invaluable skills have allowed IIM International to grow significantly in the past 2 years.
From 12 students in the first school year of 2013, IIM International now sponsors 21 high school students for the 2015 school year. Primary school is free in Zambia and many times uniforms are not even required so most children are able to attend grades 1-8. However, grades 9-12 are $200 a year for tuition alone. For a subsistence farmer (as most rural Zambians are) with an annual salary of $300-$400 a year, it is very difficult to send even one child to high school. We applaud the many families who sacrifice greatly in order to provide their children with an education. Sadly, this system leaves no hope for orphans or vulnerable children to attend high school. There are no government scholarships and very few private scholarships within the district. This is why IIM International has stepped in to offer sponsorships to academically qualified students with great financial need.
Evaluations of the first year of programs revealed that even with sponsorships many students struggle to perform well and to stay on track for graduation. IIM International realized that scholarships were only the beginning of what was needed to transform lives in this community. Poor boarding facilities and lack of support from caregivers were extremely detrimental to our first class of sponsor students. Through extensive fundraising efforts, we raised over $25,000 in order to build a student life center. This includes a male dormitory and a female dormitory with a capacity of 40 students, a kitchen, a house for a full-time caregiver, a borehole for clean water, and basic toilets. In January, the Student Life Center opened its doors to 18 students who now have a safe place to live, 3 nutritious meals a day, clean water, health care, and support from several staff members and volunteers.
We are pleased to report that two of our scholarship recipients, Mbachi and Elizabeth, graduated in December. Mbachi began working as a cook for us in order to save some money and she is now preparing for college. In April, she will begin a nursing program and continue pursuing her life-long dream of becoming a nurse. Mbachi represents the full mission of what IIM International is trying to accomplish in Zambia. Her mother passed away when she was a child and she has been living with her father who supports her and her siblings while working at the local health clinic. Our scholarship allowed her to stay in school and delay the typical process of starting a family and serving as a homemaker. Even if Mbachi chooses that role now, her extra years of education have made her more prepared to carry out that role in a more informed manner, take better care of her children, and properly manage a household budget. But our hopes are that she is able to realize her dream and continue on the path towards a profession in the medical field in order to better support her future family.
Future goals for IIM International include adding poultry, rabbit, and pig facilities as well as kitchen gardens. These livestock and agricultural projects would provide more affordable sources of food, some income generation and an opportunity for students to learn more advanced methods of farming. IIM International also hopes to begin offering vocational and life skills seminars to students and community members. We realize that many people are unable to attend school because of the pressure to generate income. Likewise, many young women who have qualified for secondary school have already found themselves pregnant and have no daycare options that would allow them to attend school full time. We hope that by offering programs designed to improve the quality of life, the business and family management skills of individuals, and instruction in a broad range of income generating activities we are able to impact a larger demographic of the community in which we work. To learn more about IIM International or to donate towards our mission please visit http://www.IIMinternational.com.
On February 13, MDP students joined students from other disciplines in presenting posters at the 13th annual Latin American Studies Field research clinic. This was the first time that members of MDP Cohort 4 presented the results of their summer field practicums as a group.
MDP Cohort 4
Join us for this exciting event!
This semester, UF’s Center for Latin American Studies welcomed Dr. Susan Paulson as a core faculty member. Dr. Paulson previously taught at Miami University in Ohio and Lund University in Sweden, and has been involved in a number of international development initiatives, mostly in Latin America. Dr. Paulson is currently co-instructing the core MDP course “Sustainable Development Practice,” and in this role is aiding MDP students in their preparation for their field practicums. We posed a few questions to Dr. Paulson to learn more about her experiences working abroad, and her advice for future development practitioners.
What specific areas within the development field are you passionate about, and why?
I enjoy working with farming practices, agrobiodiversity management, agroforestry, especially when farmers invite me to learn by working alongside them.
What are some of the most meaningful initiatives that you have been involved in in other countries, and why were they meaningful to you?
An experience that was especially satisfying for me was participating in several stages of a Canadian project designed to support the academic success of Latin American students pursuing Masters degrees in Latin America-based programs in Environmental Studies and Sustainable Development. Colleagues and I devised this project with the goal of empowering local men and women to do research and lead development initiatives in their own territories. It is a sweet irony that ultimate success of ours and similar efforts would render obsolete our work as “international experts.”
How would you sum up your “international development” experiences?
I’ve received many unforeseen lessons in the course of my work supporting initiatives with FAO, UNIFEM, World Bank, Family Health International, USAID, CARITAS, Save the Children, and others. I now insist that “opportunity to learn” appear among the objectives of all development projects: it can be quite successfully fulfilled when no other objectives are met!
What drew you to become involved in academia and in the MDP program?
During fifteen years that I lived in South America, I was inspired and energized by involvement with graduate programs related to sustainable development practice. More recently, I had the pleasure of teaching some modules in an MDP sister program in Lund, Sweden. The opportunity to work with MDP students was one thing that motivated me to join the University of Florida in summer 2014.
What advice do you have for MDP students and graduates about working in the field of international development? Do you think there is anything that we need to be particularly aware of or cautious about?
My one advice is: think critically. Reflect critically on your own assumptions and roles in the process. Question the explicit and the underlying purposes of projects with which you are involved. Never stop asking: What is development? What do we want to conserve or sustain? In whose eyes? For whose lives?
This semester, the MDP program welcomed Dr. Andy Noss as the new program coordinator. Andy has been involved in several international development and conservation initiatives in Central Africa and South America over the last couple decades, and returned to Gainesville in early 2012. We posed a few questions to Andy regarding these experiences and his role as program coordinator.
What are some of the most meaningful international development initiatives that you have been involved in in the past, and why were they meaningful to you?
Supporting several of Ecuador’s lowland indigenous peoples—especially the Waorani, Cofán, Secoya, Kichwa, Sápara, Awá—in managing their territories. The most exciting and rewarding times were traveling together—by small plane, or boat, or truck, or foot—to visit communities in the Amazon and Chocó (yes, into areas touched by guerrillas in southern Colombia, and by “peoples in voluntary isolation” in Ecuador), glimpsing people’s lives, sharing their homes and their food (yes, masticated chicha and monkey soup).
Contrary to some of Cary Farley’s more negative experience with USAID (micro-management, moving goalposts, hardware over software), I had a flexible and productive relationship with USAID-Ecuador. USAID had supported lowland indigenous territorial organizations for at least 10 years previously, and my USAID counterparts had been with USAID the entire time. They therefore knew personally many of the leaders and technical staff of these organizations, having frequently visited offices and communities. USAID representatives introduced me to the leaders of the indigenous organizations with whom we developed sub-grant agreements, and continued to participate in field visits.
Our project was comprehensively if not loftily titled “Integrated Management of Indigenous Lands,” as recommended by one of the indigenous partners, avoiding the term “conservation” used in previous periods as too restrictive. Sub-grant agreements were not developed until after the funds were granted by USAID, during a several month planning period. Each organization had a clear agenda—from priorities for support through to formal strategic plans—and in joint meetings we identified pieces of their respective agendas that USAID could support, as well as complementary resources provided by other supporters. Therefore we could contribute to on-going long-term institutional processes rather than limiting ourselves to discrete short-term interventions.
Postscript: USAID withdrew from Ecuador in 2014, unable to agree on an overall memorandum of understanding with the government of Ecuador.
What specific areas within the development field are you passionate about, and why?
Promoting wildlife and forest conservation with development in Central Africa and South America. Working with local communities that have title or use rights to land and wildlife, within and around protected areas.
Overall, helping people to help themselves, because conservation and development must be local, achieved by those with rights over and responsibilities for resources.
In the Bolivian Chaco, for example, we developed a program of “parabiologists”, who initially worked to collect data for biologists and conservationists. But boosted by Peter Feinsinger’s “schoolyard ecology” approach and workshops, these indigenous technicians and scientists began to pose research questions, collect and analyze data, and present the results to their communities as well as to national and international conferences. They also managed a series of conservation programs including field research camps, environmental education activities with Isoseño-Guaraní schoolchildren, and one of the first legal commercial use of wildlife programs in Bolivia (red tegu lizard and collared peccary skins).
In Ecuador, we could provide financial support that enabled indigenous organizations to hire their own technical / administrative / legal staff, and in turn to access funds from their own government, so they could implement their own agendas on behalf of their communities and territories.
What drew you to become involved in academia and in the MDP program?
The opportunity to support students with interesting backgrounds and strong motivation to work in development. The opportunity to work with the dynamic and collaborative faculty associated with MDP, the Centers for African Studies and Latin American Studies, the TCD program, and several other departments and units on campus that I am just getting to know. The opportunity to continue learning. The opportunity to link Africa and Latin America, and to link academia with practice.
In your role as MDP program coordinator, what is something that you would particularly like to concentrate your efforts on, and why?
Support MDP students. Help to increase the number of African students in the MDP program.
Support MDP core and affiliate faculty.
Explore opportunities for the MDP program to engage in corporate social responsibility. For example, gas and oil companies in Bolivia, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea have long-term concession rights to areas within or adjoining community lands and protected areas. These companies have engaged with local communities and supported development and conservation efforts over long periods. I think there is an important role, as well as employment opportunity, for development practitioners to enable and improve these processes and initiatives.
Last week, development practitioner and UF alum Cary Farley gave a talk and facilitated a discussion on the question: “Can development really be sustainable?” Check out this resource list for some books, articles, and videos that critically tackle some of the “big questions” facing development practitioners.
The MDP program and the Center for African Studies invited Dr. Dereje Feyissa to UF to speak about the relatively new phenomenon of “land-grabbing” in Eastern Africa. At his talk on November 17, Dr. Feyissa gave a overview of the issue, and also gave some examples of local responses to the land-grabbing phenomenon. Here is a brief overview of Dr. Feyissa’s talk.
In Ethiopia, land the size of the country of Belgium is currently being leased out to foreign investors, including foreign governments (mostly from Asian countries) as well as private agricultural corporations. Other east African countries are also pursuing land-rental opportunities; in Madagascar, controversy over land-rental was one of the main contributing factors to that country’s recent political turmoil. Dr. Feyissa explained that although “land-grabbing” is often viewed as a form of neo-colonialism, African governments are in fact actively demanding and pursuing opportunities to lease their land to foreign investors. However, Dr. Feyissa sees several problems with this situation.
One issue is that, in many areas, the rates that foreign investors are paying for land is so minimal that they are “practically getting the land for free:” yearly rental rates in some locations are less than $2 per hectare. Secondly, although the land often appears to be empty and unused, many times there are pastoral, hunter/gatherer, or otherwise nomadic peoples that depend on this land for their livelihoods, even though they are not actively engaged in agricultural activities on this land. Another issue is that water rights, although rarely explicitly discussed, are usually included in the land-rental deals; in many cases, this has led to adverse consequences for populations living downstream of the foreign-rented land. Additionally, local people often do not benefit economically from land-rental deals, as they often lack the technical capacity to be considered for agricultural employment on this land. In some cases, laborers are even sent in from other continents, leaving little benefits of these land-rental deals (if there are even any benefits) to the local population. The underlying problem for most of these issues is that local people are very rarely consulted when making land-rental deals.
There have been some attempts at local pushback to this land-grabbing phenomenon. Political pressure on local governments has led to delays in land leasing deals in some cases, as have demonstrations, and even sometimes, armed resistance. Advocacy has been successful in some regions, although in Ethiopia, this channel has been limited because of a legal prohibition on advocacy from organizations that receive more than 10% of their funding from foreign sources. Organizations such as FAO have been attempting to assist local, smallholder farmers by increasing their technical capacity (and thus agricultural productivity), and vocally opposing large-scale, foreign-run agriculture in the region.
However, as it stands, the benefits of foreign land-renting still lie overwhelmingly with the foreign actors, with very little benefits for east African countries or their citizens. Dr. Feyissa does not see the kind of “trickle-down” effects that foreign investors often promise, and feels that conflict is likely to increase in the region if this issue is not addressed more directly in the near future.