Latest Event Updates
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.
Poster accompanied by an interactive TV display
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.
Transmitted by mosquitos, Chikungunya is the newest viral disease in my MDP global health repertoire. Although it isn’t deadly, according to the Pan American Health Organization, Chikungunya causes joint and muscle pains that can “last for months or years and may become a cause of chronic pain and disability.” Without a vaccine or medicinal treatments, this is the latest affliction to impact Haiti. Like Tuberculosis, Malaria, and Cholera before, Chikungunya will undoubtedly provoke updates to government travel warnings, put a damper on tourism expectations, and claim most of the country’s annual sick days. Halfway through my practicum, supervisors, friends, and my entire team have come down with the symptoms. Yet, miraculously I remain unscathed and, because of a semester of meticulous preparation, so has our research.
Despite the many additional chronic pains that plague Haiti (e.g., a lack of electricity and/or water), our baseline expert panel survey on improving international scholarly exchange continues to thrive. Using a modified Delphi method, we’ve collected over 50 responses for our qualitative phase and recently launched the second component, a ranking exercise. Our goal is to release a consensus building instrument next week and have preliminary results to disseminate before our team departs to California for the annual Empowering Sustainability on Earth Conference. Already, we’re getting great cross-sectoral feedback and participation that will certainly reveal a strong priority list of service areas to improve.
In an unprecedented bout of productivity, I’ve also managed to find time for riding my GT Performer around the capital, change apartments, and complete a number of side quests for the U.S. Embassy, Comité Interministériel d’Aménagement du Territoire (CIAT), and Bibliothèque Nationale d’Haïti (BNH). My future plans include organizing an International Exchange Alumni gathering to celebrate Haiti’s global scholarly community and to visit Cap Haïtien for either a teacher training or leadership conference. Meanwhile, my latest adventure involves facilitating an archaeological effort that could reveal a lost settlement of historical significance.
In any practicum experience, there will be good days and bad days. With all the challenging aspects that come with working in Haiti, I find it’s more rewarding to focus on the positives and take each day at a time. I have to admit I’ve been extremely lucky so far this summer, but thanks to my committee, faculty, and departmental staff I was also prepared for adversity. With only a month remaining, I’m comfortable and confident that we’ll meet our objectives and take the necessary steps to ensure a brighter future for Haitians.