This inaugural post begins with a personal reflection about the topics pertaining to this blog and how I came to research and write about them. I am often asked how I chose my dissertation topic, which culminated in the book featured on this site. I have never been to Afghanistan or Pakistan, and aside from several years working at a small nonprofit in DC and my graduate programs, my direct personal exposure to the work that falls under the broad umbrellas of humanitarian aid, development, or peace building is limited.
That said, I grew up around development and also with what I would call a natural interest in understanding the sources of conflict and violence in the world, particularly given that I am the product of an Iranian mother whose plans for future were derailed by revolution, and a father who spent much of his career consulting for the World Bank. As a third generation DC native, I am familiar with the swamp. The government bureaucrats, do-gooders, power-hungry politicos, the migrants of small town America alongside the international elite seeking to be a part of it all. As a daughter accompanying her father on “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day,” I was inspired by the Bank’s mission of living in a “world free of poverty” and excited by the small exposures to development projects presented to us by various staff members. As a child with rose-tinted eyes, it all felt very important, and thus began my general path of inquiry surrounding the themes of progress, conflict, and the general ebb and flow of power.
Fast forward to 2011. I just finished my MA in International Peace and Conflict Resolution and was still bright-eyed and bushy tailed in my early 20s. I began working at HasNa Inc., a small nonprofit in DC. The founder was a Turkish woman retired from a career in the Department of Education, who like many in the diaspora, sought to re-engage, build peace and affect change among the populations of her homeland. At the time, HasNa ran peacebuilding programs to reduce tension and stigma between groups in Turkey, Cyprus and Armenia. We curated curriculum that essentially constituted a combination of professional development and conflict resolution trainings for groups of Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Greek Cypriots, and Turkish Cypriots. The idea was if you get people learning new skills together while equipping them with frameworks to address conflict, they will build collaborative working relationships and contribute to building peaceful societies. The mission was certainly idealistic, and not without its programmatic shortcomings, but the vision had merit and was building the skills of individuals, organizations, and their communities. It was work I could be proud of.
In both the design and implementation of programs, we worked exclusively with NGOs on the ground in Turkey, Armenia and Cyprus, and not with their governments — the underlying assumption being that working with the government might cast an unsavory light on our work and also make the very populations we were hoping to work with skeptical of our programs. Anything that could potentially politicize the work was to be avoided. The programs I oversaw trained environmental NGO leaders in Cyprus, Turkish and Armenian women entrepreneurs, as well as Turkish and Kurdish NGO leaders.
I soon discovered many of the challenges that come with working with local NGOs in countries where the very concept of the social sector and understanding of its role in building a functioning civil society is not commonplace, and often tied to Western donor purses. My experiences working with our partners was varied in many ways. Some were very engaged, while others were clearly just hoping to have us fund programs with them to boost their status as NGOs and perhaps make them more competitive for other funding competitions. Some had resources, Westerners on their staff, and thus greater access to knowledge and resources for their activities, while others seemed to be organizations only in name. Some appeared genuinely interested in cultivating long lasting relationships with us as partners, while others just seemed to “yes” us to continue access to programming and potential resources.
Our organization was usually one of the primary sources of funding for programs (if not the primary funder). Even when we proactively solicited engagement, insight, and feedback on the design of programs, setting realistic outcomes, as well as in identifying obstacles to short and long term objectives, very often the feeling that we were the “donor” seemed to impede genuine collaboration, transparency, and the cultivation of long-term partnerships. Holding the pursestrings in many ways, even on small scale projects, made the relationships feel in a certain way disingenuous.
I worked at HasNa for almost four years, and the experience raised a lot of questions for me — about the nature of the donor-recipient relationship and about the capacity on both ends to define and achieve progress together. At the center of all this was this word, capacity, that I kept seeing and hearing everywhere and was purported to be both the problem and solution to any and all issues development related. Everyone and every organization needed greater capacity in some way, shape, or form. Donors needed to invest in building the capacity of individuals, organizations, civil society, the private sector, government institutions, the state, and on and on ad nauseum.
To be transparent, at the time, I was drawn to the idea of a grand solution and enthralled by what seemed to be a clearly identified problem that encompassed a cross-section of social, economic and political issues. If we knew what the core of the problems were, why were they so hard to fix? Of course, I was aware of the contextual complexity behind intractable conflicts, their roots tied to the legacy of colonialism, but the donor narratives of the issues and solutions — their tools of measurement and formulas for capacity — remained largely divorced of this explicit context. I sought to explore this gap.
At the same time, I began my doctoral program in Sociology at George Mason University. After my coursework and exams, it wound up taking the better part of a year to narrow my project down. Since I had written my MA thesis on indigenous conflict resolution frameworks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I already had a bank of knowledge about the socio-political dynamics and history of the countries I felt comfortable building upon. The choice to focus on USAID was also in certain ways a matter of practicality. USAID reports, assessments, and evaluations on USAID policy and projects were available both online and in the physical archives, which I lived near at the time. This ease of access was not guaranteed with most other institutions I considered studying, plus USAID has a longer history than most development agencies. Through pulling and examining hundreds of documents, I discovered both the hopes and failures of donors over time, the struggle for ownership over development, as well as the way in which discursive transformations — the use of language and terminology — can absorb, conceal, and depoliticize competing global agendas.
In this blog, I plan to share some of my findings, including some of the figures I created from my book that help to visualize the conceptual transformation of capacity, different forms of the military-development nexus, as well as shed clarity on how sub-national and transnational networks of resistance became radicalized. I also plan to share different resources, as well as other reflections and commentary on related issues. I hope my posts will be of interest and of use to students, researchers, practitioners, and scholars, and hope to illuminate some of the issues and potential paths for those interested in furthering rights-based approaches to development.