Welcome Back!

Welcome back to another school year from all of us at the Undercurrent! We hope you had a wonderful summer filled with sunshine, exploring, pleasure reading, farmer’s markets and of course, relaxing. While you may not be overly excited about getting back into the school grind already, here at the Undercurrent we’re very excited for this school year. Over the summer, two of our Associate Editors stepped into new roles as the Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor for the upcoming year. We created an Advisory Committee and hired new Associate Editors, a Blogger and an Outreach Coordinator. However, we still have room on our team for associate editors, a communications associate, a graphic designer and translators! Learn more about these positions HERE. We’ve also been working on revamping the Underblog. Although it looks the same right now, we promise you, changes are coming! We have a host of new blog categories that we plan to debut in the upcoming weeks. Here’s a sneak peek at them:

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Moira Hennebury

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Moira is a forth year student at the University of Waterloo majoring in International Development with special focus on Sustainable Local Economic Development. Her research interests include urban planning, sustainable food systems, and public health. In 2012, Moira became the first Faculty of Environment student at the University of Waterloo to be awarded the prestigious William and Nona Heaslip Scholarship. 

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Andrew Hay, Carleton University

DSC_0295 Following a career with the Canadian Forces, Andrew has been working as a paramedic in Ontario for the last 4 years. His passion for helping others has evolved into a keen interest in the field of international development. Specifically, Andrew has recently been working with the Can Go Afar foundation and the Eritrean Afar State in Exile group to promote awareness of the practices of ethnic cleansing currently being perpetrated against the Afar people. He is currently in his final year at Carleton University studying history and political science. Read More

M’Lisa Colbert, Senvion SE (B.A Concordia University)

20140313_233317 M'Lisa Colbert will be graduating this coming fall with a BA in Political Science and English Literature from Concordia University in Montreal, QC. She speaks English, French and Spanish. She has worked as a writer for the Political Bouillon; an inter-university political review journal based in Montreal and as a research assistant for the Projet Accompagnement Solidarité Colombie (PASC); a Canadian NGO working to improve relations between mining towns and multinational mining corporations in Colombia. She is currently working on community and government relations strategies as an Intern with Senvion; a leading international manufacturer of onshore and offshore wind turbines. She has aspirations of finding a position in the field of corporate social responsibility and sustainable technologies before continuing on to complete her Masters. Her scholarly interests include: international development, corporate social responsibility, sustainable technologies, post-colonial narratives, culture, identity, media, leadership and, ethics. Read More

Nathan Stewart (B.A., University of Guelph)

Undercurrent Bio pic Nathan is a recent international development graduate from the University of Guelph currently taking time between his undergraduate and graduate studies. In the past, Nathan has worked with a variety of environmental non-governmental organizations, political organizations, and government agencies. He is currently working on developing the National International Development Students Association in the hopes of connecting the wide array of international development programs and students that exist across Canada. Specializing in environmental and economic development, Nathan spent the last year of his degree crafting two cap-stone papers titled “Zones of Exclusion: Geographies of Displacement and the Neoliberal Degradation of Urban Competitiveness” and “Moving Beyond the Discourse: A Critical View of Special Economic Zones and the ‘Shenzhen Model’ in the Global South”. Having minored in Hispanic Studies, Nathan spent a semester living and studying in Antigua, Guatemala and hopes to one day return to Latin America as a development professional. Read More

Caitlyn McGeer

Undercurrent Option 2 Caitlyn is a graduate student at the University of Oxford's Center for Criminology. Caitlyn has a variety of international living experiences, and she has worked with community development initiatives in Ghana and Ecuador. Within Canada, she previously worked for youth-development-focused NPOs. Caitlyn is actively involved in both youth and migrant rights organizations. Her main research interests include transitional justice, criminal justice policy, post-conflict reintegration and reconciliation, and transnational migration. Most recently, Caitlyn's focus has been on exploring frameworks to achieve post-conflict reconciliation in Guatemala. Follow her on Twitter @caitlynmcgeer.   Read More

Too Inexperienced To Know What You’re Good At

International development graduates occupy a purgatory in the development field: thoroughly trained to identify ethical problems, they can have a hard time producing imperfect solutions; thinkers on a systemic, global scale, they are best suited for the executive level but have little of the corresponding experience or skills to get there; possessing a broad social science education, they are ill-qualified to work in any particular sector. Having made the transition from an international development program to working at a mid-sized WASH consulting NGO last summer, I’ve experienced all of those issues personally and can attest to the generalized ‘weakness’ that possessing a general humanities education brings. Yet, there are unique strengths in those who study IDS. Most IDS graduates are motivated by experience and meaningful work, not money, and will sacrifice the latter to get the former. This is a quality that organizations do well to capitalize on—the seemingly peripatetic community of IDS grads is actually intensely loyal when rewarded with plentiful, meaningful work. This is a boon for organizations that can’t afford the talent they need. IDS grads, furthermore, have the pedigree to fill a key gap in the international development community: the need for better organizational partnerships. Collaboration, aided by technology, is uniquely inherent to this generation (and there are studies supporting this claim). Understanding of the need to tackle systemic issues with massive networks and collective responsibility is similarly inherent in an IDS education. I would go so far to say that IDS grads in the millennial cohort are not only trained, but also bred to tackle the internal and external issues that the international development field will be confronting in the coming years. Consider the tight funding environment the field faces now; the recognition by governments around the world that NGOs need to be reinforcing each other, rather than myopically looking for progress as a sum of their efforts. Consider the all-encompassing nature of climate change and the massive tragedy of the commons that is our current global economy. Consider, even, the commercialization of academia and the ‘credential inflation’ that produces.[quote align="right" color="#999999"]...internalize the notion that the flipside of inexperience is potential.[/quote] Solving these issues will require a paradigm shift from the current mindset—it will require a deep-seated instinct to collaborate or die, to view progress as short-term sacrifice rather than immediate and perpetual mutual gain. This generation of IDS grads possesses that instinct. An international development education equates to a four-year lesson in ethics, critical thinking, and what-not-to-do. Some general lessons I think we can all relate to:
  • Growth does not equal progress;
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Story from the field: “The Words of a Twelve Year Old Girl That Forced Me To Question My Role in Development”

The Words of a Twelve Year Old Girl That Forced Me To Question My Role in Development By: Chelsey Acierno

In January of 2013, I participated in an exchange through SFU to the University of Cape Town in South Africa in which I was fortunate enough to secure an internship with a grassroots HIV/AIDs organization. Having previous experience in the field, the organization welcomed me onto their projects. Among other things, I was tasked to liaise between the women working diligently in the townships and a group of high risk HIV+ youth from a black township ten minutes outside Cape Town. As a young person myself, the woman saw me as a tool to connect with the younger generation of “born frees”, the generation of South Africans who have lived their lives absent of the racist and segregated Apartheid regime, but who are living amongst the families suffering from generations of anger, loss, and the scars of an oppressive regime. As my time progressed in the townships, I began to (slowly!) gain the trust of these young girls, a cohort of 12-18 years old of which the organization identified as the most at risk in their group. An at risk youth in South Africa falls among the usual: substance abuse, gang activity, criminal behavior, and family degradation. Additionally, though, these young girls are suffering immensely as victims of sexual violence and rape. South Africa has long been in the headlines for the atrocious violent rapes that have cast the country as the ‘rape capital of the world’ and of this cohort, 6 of the 12 girls acquired HIV from rape, the other half from mother-to-child-transmission. The sad reality of this small group of girls is that of those 6, the majority were raped by members of their own family. So when a 12 year old approaches you in full trust, asking how to stop her father from raping her, what does one say? As many people who enter development, it is not rare to be thrown into situations where one is not qualified to assess the situation. We are often asked to do things or find ourselves amongst situations that we do not have the answers for. So what do we do? When that little girl spoke those words out loud, my heart shattered into a million pieces. I asked myself “what are you doing here!? You cannot answer this! You will never understand their life.” I began to panic internally, realizing that until that moment, I was able to deal with what had been thrown my way, though not easily. I knew that whatever I could tell her to do, or do to attempt to help her (with the aid of the organization and police intervention), this, or things like this, would continue to haunt her life just by nature of the prevailing systemic issues within South Africa’s townships decades past Apartheid. But in these moments of absolute helplessness and complete incapacity to alleviate ones suffering, we still need to do something. [quote align="right" color="#999999"]We are often asked to do things or find ourselves amongst situations that we do not have the answers for. So what do we do?[/quote]As all these emotions and thoughts circled through my brain, I still had a wide eyed, beautiful little girl sitting in front of me, asking for help. I learned that I was the first person she had ever admitted this to and slowly we walked our way through her horrid late night encounters with the man who was supposed to protect her from all harm. Situations and questions like these flooded my ears as the youth began to see that someone would listen. Do not get me wrong, the women who work within the organization are doing incredible things in the Townships, but identifying with young people have always been a struggle for organizations. My experience in South Africa demonstrated that my qualifications have limits and within professionalism, need to be passed off to those who have the skills to deal with situations like these. However, I learned that I may not be qualified (yet) on paper, but I will always be qualified with my heart. Often our hearts are our strongest weapon if we are prepared to sit and listen, wipe tears, and be an ally. I know I cannot tackle rape and masculinity in South Africa; cracks and scars are heavy in the hearts of those who lived through decades of racial subjugation and unfortunately, these young girls are just one small group living through the country’s quest to heal itself. I learned things in South Africa that no human should ever experience, yet these young girls face them every day and still have the courage to keep on living. I was shown the power of the human heart for those who have the courage to open it up.   Chelsey Acierno is a fourth year student at Simon Fraser University. The story is of an experience in an internship in Cape Town, South Africa, while doing an overseas study exchange through SFU at the University of Cape Town. Chelsey is expected to graduate in June of 2014 with a major in International Studies within the stream of International Security and Conflict. Throughout her degree she has focused on HIV/AIDs and Youth Development. Read More

Story from the field: “Lessons Learned”

Non-Governmental Actors in Ibarra, Ecuador: “Lessons Learned”  By: Melissa L. Ball

When I initially arrived to the city of my assigned research placement with a small migration office, named “the Pastoral Migratoria”, I wasn’t sure of what to expect. Standing in the middle of a crowded bus station in downtown Ibarra – with its boisterous atmosphere and bright colors from the small street vendors outside selling homemade sweets and “plantanos” (dried banana chips) – I held my handwritten directions to the migration office in one hand, and my heavy luggage in the other. I had only lived in Ecuador for 3 months at the time, and felt fatigued from my worries of starting my research project in a city I barely knew. But I stayed positive and fuelled my desire to “keep going forward”, perhaps weary from the stresses collected from my total immersion into a new culture and language. When I arrived to the Pastoral office in the mornings before 8:30 am, there was often a long line of people waiting to receive legal aid consultations and social assistance. An appointment with the Pastoral’s lawyer and social aid worker was based on a first-come, first-serve system. In the corner of my eyes I would catch glimpses of these people staring at my long red hair and fair skin as I helped the staff assign their numbers for these meetings, calculated to stop at 2 pm. Often, some people were turned away and encouraged to return the following day – the office couldn’t provide enough of these services for the high volumes of people that arrived each morning. I felt guilty when we turned these people away as many had experienced difficulties getting to the office from outside the city. There were even regular recipients in the legal aid department that came regularly every other week during the duration of my research placement. I knew that the refugee populations in Ibarra were large, but it was a surreal experience to meet them and learn of their challenges on a personal level.[quote align="right" color="#999999"]I was fortunate to have a professor there who urged me to write detailed field notes everyday, which has shown me how my perspective towards international development had progressed throughout my research placement.[/quote] The Pastoral Migratoria worked in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (henceforth ACNUR – its Spanish acronym) and the Hebrew International Aid Society (HIAS) as a way to account the heavy demands for its services placed on all three entities. When I attended one of my first objective meetings from ACNUR, a colleague from the Pastoral explained to me that most migrants and refugees from Colombia don’t know where to go once they cross into the Ecuadorian border. They try to settle in bigger cities because they know there is a higher concentration of services available to help them. I thought this would benefit them, thinking that their immersion into a large city would give them access to services, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities without being confined to the boundaries of a designated refugee camp. However, the vast majority of these migrants experienced strong forms of discrimination and xenophobia in the bigger cities like Quito, and were most likely to experience unemployment and exclusion from affordable housing given the negative perceptions of their identities linked to crime and economic competition. I was impressed with the level of collaboration between the Pastoral office, HIAS and ACNUR. I initially underestimated the complexity of discrimination towards Colombian refugees in Ecuador, and I learned the types of collaboration between these three non-governmental entities, in terms of financing, networking and information transfer, was essential for the Pastoral’s ability to deliver emergency and non-emergency aid. Coordination mechanisms and collaboration methods were themes from my fourth year international development seminar, yet I never really thought about how important or difficult it is to implement until I spent my time in the field with the Pastoral Migratoria. I strongly feel that my time in Ecuador matured me. When I initially boarded the bus to Ibarra, I knew little Spanish and felt uncertain about my research topic on refugee issues in Ecuador. I was weary of all the challenges that came with the research. I made it through; I flourished, rather, under my new pressures to immerse myself within my research topic. I learned that anything is possible so long as you are creative and determined to succeed. I would recommend that anyone interested in becoming involved in non-governmental work or research abroad, seek similar opportunities during or after their undergraduate degree. I was fortunate to have a professor there who urged me to write detailed field notes everyday, which has shown me how my perspective towards international development had progressed throughout my research placement. Someone once told me, “If you want a stronger body, you can’t hire someone else to do the push-ups for you”. I would argue that the same holds true for your intellectual and personal development.   Melissa Ball has recently completed her Honours International Development degree from the University of Guelph. In 2012-13, she spent nine months on letter of permission in Ecuador, as part of Trent University’s experimental learning program known as “Trent-in-Ecuador”.  For three and a half months she worked and collected qualitative research in a migration office, called “el Pastoral Migratoria” in Ibarra, that focused on delivering humanitarian assistance for internally displaced persons and Colombian migrants and refugees. The Pastoral Migratoria works in close collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (ACNUR in Spanish), and the Hebrew International Aid Society (HIAS) in the city of Ibarra, providing subsidized housing and social, legal, and psychological services for its aid recipients. Read More

Story from the field: Impoverished Yes; Impotent No!

Impoverished Yes; Impotent No! By: Ellen Sparling

I met Geza, a United Nations Peace Ambassador from Ethiopia in 2011. Naturally, though dealing with a language barrier, we hit it off over our passion for travel, culture, and social justice. Over time, we decided it was time to humbly approach the vast issue of water inequality by starting in the village that raised him; a little village called Dukem. Throughout the course of a year, we raised approximately $6,500 in hopes of providing his home community with a well. This well would provide 3,000 people, who lack many essentials of life, with the clean water they needed in order to increase their standards of living. At the end of the year, I decided it was time for me to make the journey to Ethiopia. Not only to see the need and the poverty., but to to see the impact that clean water could have on this community, and why it was so crucial. I also went in hopes of following the trail of money. So often, people blindly donate money to large organizations they believe to be credible when in reality, money gets caught up in the costs of administration and advertisements, rather than the call and cause itself. So, I packed my bags and took a thirteen-hour flight to Addis Ababa. Upon my arrival at the airport, I was greeted by Geza and told that while I was in Ethiopia, we would meet the president. I couldn’t help but to laugh and say, “Yah, okay Geza,” with a sarcastic grin across my face. For the duration of the next four days, we spent hours in meetings with engineers, drilling companies, churches, and numerous other individuals. We also were privileged to spend time with the community we hoped to help. Now, I had been to many developing countries in Latin America before, but never to Africa. Amid planning my trip, I found that I was constantly reminding myself that I would see children with no clothes, no shoes, in absolute dire poverty. That really scared me—it scared me because as a young person, I had not one clue as to how I was supposed to respond to the firsthand poverty I was bound to witness. However, when I arrived to the local school in Dukem, I was caught off-guard by the happiness that the kids possessed. How could it be that these kids could be so happy? It was clear that they were expecting us, as they greeted us with song and jubilation. Cue the waterworks. The children were confused as to why someone would be so upset at the site of smiles and excitement. But how else could one respond to this seeming paradox of pure happiness in the middle of a poverty-stricken place? Anyone who knows me knows that I am a firm believer that if you want to help anyone, you have to have spent time with them. You have to understand and learn to appreciate their culture and why things are the way they are. So, we continued to spend time with the community, and do things the way locals do. Although I was only there for a short period of time, surely not long enough to grasp all aspects of this beautiful culture, my appreciation grew, and grew fast. I have high hopes of returning to Ethiopia to continue to learn more and allow my desire for development to grow.[quote align="right" color="#999999"]On the fifth day, we found ourselves walking down the long corridor of the Presidential Palace to in fact meet and have lunch with the President of Ethiopia. [/quote] It was about the fourth day into our trip when Geza reminded us, “Okay, we’re going to meet the president”. We couldn’t believe how persistent this man was, but after spending time in Ethiopia, we had simply learned to go with the flow. Sure enough, we began receiving calls from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then from guards at the Presidential Palace. On the fifth day, we found ourselves walking down the long corridor of the Presidential Palace to in fact meet and have lunch with the President of Ethiopia. Geza did what we thought would be impossible. I have a strong belief in him that clean water will be provided to his community. While I learned extensive amounts from the community and its members, the most important lesson I learned was from Girma Wolde-Giorgis, the President. We expressed how we felt so blessed to be in Ethiopia and that we were inspired to help the community that our dear friend Geza was raised in. While President Wolde-Giorgis was grateful for the work we were doing and our passion for social justice, he raised an amazing point. He said, “I appreciate that, but Ethiopia is not a poor country. Our people will work hard, and make progress.” That was not only humbling, but also somehow empowering. We had to keep in mind that he is a diplomat and has to protect the integrity of his country, but by him making this point, it became clear, clearer than it had ever been before, that you should never underestimate the power of the poor. Just because they have been placed into a vastly different lifestyle does not make them incompetent or incapable. It became even more apparent to us that clean water was just the foot in the door Dukem needed to build a better future for themselves. The lesson in all of this is that we, North Americans, are not the heroes, the liberators, or the teachers. We’re coworkers, teammates, and most importantly, students.   Ellen Sparling a first year student at the University of Guelph, majoring in International Development and minoring in Spanish.  She can be contacted by email at sparline@uoguelph.ca Read More