During the Iraq war, the humanitarian community went through the militarization of aid and politicization of aid more so than before. Military actors involved in humanitarian response based on geopolitical objects increased.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up in California and throughout my mid-twenties I worked as a paralegal for Atlantic Richfield Company, an oil and gas company, but what I really wanted to do was more overseas focused work because I had not explored other countries and cultures and knew no other languages. I had to decide between becoming an attorney or to do something else. So I decided on joining the Peace Corps which was a bold choice as no one I knew had done it. So from 1997-1999, I was a health core volunteer in Zambia in the eastern province of the country in a small village to decentralize health care. That put me on the path to where I am today.
As a volunteer you were at the grass roots and it was amazing, but there were things that didn’t trickle down to the poorest people. For example food from World Food Program was present in the country and we would go to the warehouse during the hunger season to collect the food and it would already be gone or stolen. Or where I lived people would have to walk two hours to get to the rural health clinic. There was development in the country, but it wasn’t getting to them, so this inspired me to move into focusing my career on policy.
So after the Peace Corps, I got my Masters, I was an Intern at Amnesty and ended up at Oxfam through a conflict diamonds campaign. And here I am today 10 years later at Oxfam working as the Humanitarian Policy Manager.
What was it like to arrive in Zambia as your first international experience?
My first impression was the sky was huge. I grew up in Los Angeles so being able to see the sky all around me was different. It was a new language, new land and ideas. For me ignorance was bliss in that I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into – no transportation except my bike, experiencing poverty on a level I would never see again, snakes in my house, bedbugs, etc. Some volunteers left early because of one reason or another but my experience was that even with the snakes and the bedbugs the people were so kind and generous that I never thought about leaving. It was the people who made it worth it. I realized that it didn’t matter where you were in the world; you can still find those people who make you laugh no matter what the language, who become good friends even though you grew up in completely different worlds and even those who annoy you. Really, you can connect with people anywhere in the world.
Mtubaya is the village where I lived and learned a Bantu language called Chichwa. I lived in the middle of the village in a mud hut with a straw roof that was very dark inside. I had to open the door in the morning to get light in and there would be multiple children in my door way that just sat watching me every morning. I lived in a fishbowl and had no privacy. The village area had about 2300 people, including Mtubaya.
Can you explain a little about what you do now?
After returning from Peace Corps, I moved to DC to work for Peace Corps and then went to graduate school to get an M.P.A and had to decide what I wanted to do. Through my internship at Amnesty where I worked on the Africa program I knew that I wanted to work at a Nongovernment Organization and I wanted to work on humanitarian issues, because it was the huge crisis like Rwanda and Somalia that grabbed me and where I wanted to focus my efforts.
I ended up working on policy for humanitarian response issues as a policy advisor and then a senior policy advisor to leading the humanitarian policy team. The issues and countries I have worked on have included Iraq, the Horn of Africa, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Complex crises where you have conflict and natural disasters like Somalia where you have conflict and drought have always interested me because people living in those situations are struggling every day just to survive and deserve our attention and help.
Can you explain the evolution of policy that you have seen during your time at Oxfam?
During the Iraq war, the humanitarian community went through the militarization of aid and politicization of aid more so than before. Military actors involved in humanitarian response based on geopolitical objects increased. Colin Powell referred to NGOs as force multipliers which completely flied in the face of how most NGOs view themselves. At Oxfam, we provide aid that is independent and impartial and based on need and Oxfam America does not take US government money, so we never viewed ourselves as force multipliers. In Iraq, some NGOs worked directly with the military and some chose not to and I believe that those who worked directly with the military in Iraq did not uphold humanitarian principles and contributed to NGOs losing any moral high ground they may have had.
Efficiency of aid was also in question around the militarization of aid because if you had the military building schools in Afghanistan they were then targeted by the Taliban and destroyed which means aid money flown out the window.
Another issue is the quality of aid around militarization such as the military building latrines that end up being too close to the community water source which means the source is contaminated. Humanitarian organizations would never set up a security perimeter to go after bad guys because it is not our line of work and we don’t know how to do it. Along that same vein, why was the military providing aid when that is not their line of work and they don’t have the experience and expertise, especially when there were civilian actors present who could do it. If it was to win hearts and minds I think history will show, it didn’t work and a lot of taxpayer money was wasted on the inefficiencies created in trying to win hearts and minds.
With all of these experiences, what is a story that stands out in your mind?
Here, in the States, life is predictable and boring, but in Zambia it wasn’t. Every day was an adventure. I used to write down the t-shirts that everyone would wear; mostly the clothes come from America. I would go to church that had no windows and no roof where there would be a boy with no pants but a shirt that says Stanford University or on the bus I would see a man with a shirt with an arrow pointing downward that said “bun in the oven” or another man with a shirt that says “long live the deep south”. These moments and many others were surreal.
I was the first non-Zambian that lived in the area where I was a volunteer. Many of them had never seen a foreigner before, especially a white woman with blond hair. The kids would stare at me with their mouth open. People would know where I was at every moment, like if I was riding my bike and a bus was coming down the dirt road, sometimes the bus driver would pull over when seeing me and hand me a note from someone in a town hours away, usually another volunteer. Everyone made sure I was absolutely safe; men would guard my house while I went to Lusaka, the capital. If my bike broke, someone would tie a wire around it and fix it magically. Everyone knew everything about me, sometimes before I did anything, like they had ESP and people always took care of me. I learned more from them that they learned from me, like cooking by fire, cleaning my latrine and how to live the way I did. There was never a word said about it, they just helped out,. The people are incredibly resourceful and resilient and even though they have so little there was always lots of laughter and drumming, singing and dancing in the evening.
We work in so many countries that have so much conflict. There are so many cycles of conflict that play out time and again and that has made us become so desensitized to it.
In Syria, for example, there is horrible conflict and although the media is playing out stories about the plight of refugees the world is not enraged like we should be about the 70,000 people that have been killed and the 4 million people who have fled the country. If we were more outraged and there was more of a focus on the people affected instead of arming one side or another, I think it would change the response around the crisis. It is a regional crisis, so what are regional leaders not doing more to stop the bloodshed?
In regards to policy, I often think about the disproportionate support to militaries and their weapons around the world instead of development like education and healthcare and humanitarian aid. For example, the United Nations just passed an Arms Trades Treaty after 10 years of campaigning and one of the cases the campaigners used is the billions of dollars lost in Africa due to recurring conflicts.
If you could wave a magic wand and change your issue of choice, what would it be?
It would be for there to be more support and assistance on the ground to local actors and local governments to respond to emergencies instead of international organizations swooping in to ‘save the day.’ It would save money, be more efficient, and create some sustainability on the ground to deal with the next crisis. Like my Peace Corps experience taught me, we should all be working ourselves out of a job. What better way to do this then to support local actors and civil society in responding to crises.