SIR Voices: In Their Own Words
Rising to the Challenge in Burundi
Jerry Bender Africa Award Internship Report: June – August 2013; Bujumbura, Burundi
by Francesca Bessey
In June of 2013, I boarded a plane destined for Central Africa, not knowing what to expect beyond a difficult but almost certainly rewarding adventure. I had been hired as a field intern for the non-governmental organization Search For Common Ground (SFCG). For the next two months, I would be supporting programming at their office in Bujumbura, the capital city of a small African country called Burundi.
Traditionally in Western media and scholarship, Burundi has been eclipsed by the humanitarian disasters of its neighbors to the north and west: Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In reality, these three nations together comprise Africa’s Great Lakes Region. They share a history of strife beginning with the brutal Belgian colonial regime and continuing well into the twentieth century: the colonial legacy of exploitation and ethnic hierarchy would fuel government corruption and mass violence that continues to this day. In 1993, a year before the massacre of 1 million Tutsis in Rwanda would shock the world, an estimated 300,000 Burundians, mostly civilians, were killed in an ethnic struggle. As the country began to rebuild itself in 1995, SFCG launched a Burundi program to aid in the peace-building process and support the national government’s transition to democracy. Today, they are working to promote free and fair elections in 2015. They strive for a future where all Burundians can engage in political and decision-making processes and work to equip all sectors of the population with the tools necessary to make this vision a reality.
"I didn’t have the chance to sit down with the Country Director for more than fifteen minutes before she had to leave for a regional conference in Rwanda, along with the only other fluent English speaker in the office"
I left for Burundi knowing very little about the specific work I would be doing. I also happened to arrive in country the exact day SFCG was moving offices—chaos. And I didn’t have the chance to sit down with the Country Director for more than fifteen minutes before she had to leave for a regional conference in Rwanda, along with the only other fluent English speaker in the office. Burundi being a Francophone country, and the language of SFCG’s Burundi office being French, I had been hired on the condition that I was an adequate French speaker. But I had never had to use the language in the “real world” before and the experience promised to be a challenge.
Before I had left for Burundi, I made a promise to myself: not to fear the uncomfortable during my trip. Three years previously, I had embarked on a similar solo mission to Kathmandu, Nepal, where I had volunteered at a clinic for four weeks. The experience had been incredible, but I had been reticent. This time, I vowed I would dive right in, immerse myself in the local culture, start conversations with people, check out the nightlife. Now, stranded as I was, without prior instructions or a supervisor, I had the opportunity to “dive in” like this right away. I was forced to be proactive—to introduce myself to my coworkers, to ask how I could help, to trust myself to carry out conversations in French.
That first week, I had no specific assignment, but someone suggested I take a look at the organization’s Facebook page. I grabbed a notebook and spent two hours scribbling critiques. Since starting college, I have been an avid Facebook user—not for social reasons, but as a journalist and an organizer. I had never given it all that much thought, but the creation of punchy social media content with a broad-based appeal had become second nature to me. I was now, however, working with the medium in a different language and for a drastically different audience. I decided to spend some time investigating SFCG’s page for the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was an extremely successful example with over 5,000 likes. Later that day, I tracked down the person responsible for social media and we began what would become an eight-week collaboration to reinvigorate the organization’s Facebook presence and to train the staff in its effective use. I had never experienced a partnership quite like this; we were both journalists by trade, deeply interested in communications and human rights, but our backgrounds and what we had to bring to the table were extraordinarily different. The opportunity was rare, and one that I recognized as unique to organizations like Search For Common Ground.
SFCG had impressed me from the outset because of the great emphasis they placed on local capacity-building. While I was in Burundi, our office was constantly partnering with local civil society organizations, community educators, mediators and government representatives. The staff was almost entirely from Burundi — unusual for an international NGO — including a team of four journalists who were responsible for broadcasting the organization’s very own radio show on conflict management and political dialogue. This organizational composition facilitated a unique two-way exchange between local and expatriate staff that served as the cornerstone for the internship program. At the same time that I was benefiting from the perspectives of those who had grown up and lived the realities our organization was working to change, I was able to provide expertise I have gained from my Western education. Such expertise, I learned, was an important resource as organizations like SFCG rely entirely on the grant money they receive from aid programs—most of them based in the Western world. As a result, I was almost immediately put to work grant-writing, preparing reports for our donors and authoring promotional materials, such as articles for the organization’s international blog. While the organization was technically bilingual, a lot of intra-organizational resources were only available in English, so I also spent some time translating these documents for my French-speaking colleagues. In such a setting, I was able to see myself as a cog in a system that was making a demonstrable difference in people’s well-being and in the efficacy of the political process. And I was able to grasp this system’s impact so much more completely while working alongside individuals who not only appreciated our cause, but whose own lives and the lives of their children stood to benefit from the work we were doing.
What was more, my internship in Burundi was an opportunity not only to experience meaningful work, but meaningful work in a field that I had been largely ignorant of in the past. While I have long been interested in global development and human rights, I had never really been exposed to the development sector enough to envision a future career there. While an intern with SFCG, I experienced both the thrills and frustrations of development work. My own tasks were closely integrated with those of my coworkers and I was regularly consulted for my feedback on different projects. I was also invited to staff meetings and frequently had the opportunity to speak to the Country Director one-on-one. Even as an intern, I was granted the freedom to be innovative with my work, to try out new ideas. I was expected to learn fast and to manage the language barrier, but this only made it all the more rewarding when I accomplished the tasks I set out to do. I appreciated the space to experiment in this way, to work at my own pace and to use my creative judgment when preparing a newsletter or translating a document. I am certain that my work was better because of it. In some cases, such freedom was a direct result of a lack of administrative oversight, which sometimes hindered the organization’s ability to set, pursue and achieve concrete goals, but this always seemed to frustrate other international interns whom I met or spoke with more than it frustrated me. Functionality is built, not forced, and my experience with SFCG served to confirm for me that I am comfortable in such work-in-progress environments. I learned to actively seek out places where I was needed and holes I could fill; it was an invigorating challenge and afterwards, I always knew what I did had mattered. I suppose I’ve returned with a bug for development work of this nature, one that will certainly shape my academic and career goals over the course of the next few years.
"what I wish to share with my peers are all of the experiences in between"
There is a plethora of avenues available for the adventurous college student to go to Africa, but I encourage those who really want to broaden their perspective not to settle for insular programs that leave them interacting with their fellow expatriates more than the social, political and cultural landscape they have come to experience—and perhaps change—in the first place. Spending quality time with individuals whose backgrounds and personal stories differed so radically from my own allowed me to finally, viscerally grasp the striking similarities among people who live on opposite sides of the globe. I have spent years advocating for the human rights of people whose lives are led far, far away from mine, and those same years griping at the constant roadblocks thrown up by people who have shut the door on giving aid to those they believe can’t be helped. It is tempting, as an activist, to attempt to wrench that door open with depressing statistics and graphic slideshows, but such tactics will not move a person any more than a violent sequence from a video game if that person does not first understand that the people who are suffering are real.
When I look back on my time in Burundi, I will remember first the friends that I made and the critical work that I did to support the activities of Search For Common Ground, but what I wish to share with my peers are all of the experiences in between. Meeting the children of my colleagues. A zookeeper’s joke about an escaped snake. Hospitality. Music. My favorite waiter bringing me my favorite juice. Feeling normal, despite the incredibility of it all—that is what I wish to emphasize. Because if I can communicate that sense of normalcy, of life-as-we-know-it, however many miles away, I can hopefully help my audience to recognize their fellow human in those who suffer in the Global South, allowing their desire to help said fellow human to extend that much further.
- Bessey's article on a Great Lakes regional conference for women journalists, published on SFCG’s international blog
- Search For Common Ground Burundi’s Facebook page
Professor Berton's New Book
Originally a 1957 dissertation, Professor Berton's work on diplomatic relations between Russia and Japan at the turn of the century was just published and made available to the public by Routledge in 2012.
Reviewing Russo-Japanese Relations, 1905-1917: From Enemies to Allies for the American Historical Review, Frederick Dickinson (Dec 2012) remarks: "this brief but pithy volume is a valuable new resource for students of early twentieth-century diplomacy and World War I alike."
Professor Berton was born in 1922 in Poland. At the age of six, he moved with his family to China. He studied violin in Japan with the world-renowned Alexander Moguilevsky and became fascinated with Japanese language and culture.
In 1950, he began graduate studies at the East Asian Institute, Columbia University. Professor Berton started the Asia-Pacific area studies program at the USC School of International Relations in 1962, and continued as coordinator for the next thirty years. He also developed the University’s first lecture course on Japan.
Inagural Lecture of Peace and Conflict Series
Professor Geoffrey Wiseman has worked with SIR this year to bring Ian Martin to campus for the first lecture in the new Peace and Conflict Speaker SeriesOn Thursday, April 25th at the Davidson Conference Center. The Speaker Series will bring a leader in peace and conflict to speak at USC each year in the Spring semester. Along with a public lecture and Q&A session, the guest speaker will meet with USC professors and graduate students as well as advanced undergraduates in smaller meetings and roundtables.
Bringing students, professors, and other colleagues at USC together with an experienced practitioner to confront one of the most pressing issues of the day, this year the discussion revolved around the challenges of state-building and post-conflict advisory role of the United Nations in Libya. Martin was one of the key people on the ground for the UN in Libya, and has a wealth of insight and experience to share when thinking about creating new consitutional governance documents and structures, arms control, factionalism, security, government accountability, democracy education, post-conflict reconstruction, corruption, women's political participation, and the implications of the Libyan case for other countries with civil unrest and authoritarian governments.
Martin was Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Head of Mission in Libya until October 2012. Secretary-General of Amnesty International from 1986-1992, Martin has also held many senior positions in the United Nations, and was the Vice President of the International Center for Transnational Justice.
In Memoriam: Cold Warrior with a Warm Heart
The SIR family was saddened to learn of the passing in mid-March of William Van Cleave, Professor and Director of the Strategic Studies Program at USC from 1967-87. Bill had vast experience in, and influence upon, U.S. defense policy. This came in part from his service in numerous policy-advisory positions. For example, he was a delegate to the U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (SALT) and a member of the "Team B" review of intelligence estimates on the Soviet military, both in the 1970s. From 1979-81, he was senior advisor to Ronald Reagan and Director of the Defense Transtion Team for his new Administration.
The prominence of his policy positions, or of his many (200-plus) publications, do not even begin to tell the story of Bill's impact on USC and on U.S. security policy. He had a large and loyal following, and placed many of his graduate students in important exectutive-branch, Congressional staff, and think-tank posts. He stirred controversy with hard-line positions favoring a large U.S. military buildup, one that many now credit with accelerating the USSR's global retreat in the late 1980s and ultimately ending the Cold War.
Even Bill's critics--and he had many--admired his passion for ideas and dedication to his students, many of whom were acknowledged as among the best that SIR produced (inlcuding Air-force Secretary Michael Donley, former Deputy National Security Advisor J.D. Crouch, and various top State and Defense Department officials). Keith Payne, Director of the National Institute for Public Policy, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, recalled Bill as "an incomparable mentor, friend, and constructive critic." Riki Ellison, former USC and NFL linebacker, and currently Director of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, remembers him as "a surrogate father" in whom burned "the fire of enlightenment".
A former (some say lifelong!) U.S. Marine, Van Cleave recieved his BA in political science summa cum laude from Cal State Long Beach, and his MA and PhD from the Claremont Graduate School.
“Down with the international community!”
The Mali military coup: SIR Alumnae Report
Cynthia Macias, SIR Alumna
It is 6 am Thursday March, 22nd , 2012. As usual, I wake up to the sound of Ruthie, my neighbor, lighting the fire to prepare breakfast for her two children before school. Soon the young women will begin to arrive to the sewing and literacy center; they will pass by my door to greet me, “I ni sogoma Aminata,” as it is customary before we begin our classes. In an instant I receive a text message from the Peace Corps headquarters: “Last night, Wednesday, March 21st the military has staged a Coup d’Etat, they have taken control of the presidential palace, the national means of communication and airports. President ATT has gone into hiding, we will keep you informed.”
Five months before, I set out on an experience of a lifetime; with the full support of colleagues, mentors and university professors, I committed two years of my life to the Peace Corps as a “Small Enterprise Development” volunteer working in the West African country of Mali. It meant that my academic work in International Relations and my professional experiences with NGO’s, microfinance institutions and other development work would finally be put to the test in the field.
It was a hard decision to make. I was the first in my family, and a woman, to venture into one of the most remote places in the world. My family and friends were worried; and rightly so. In recent years, Mali had gained notoriety through several cases of kidnappings of European nationals in Timbuktu and the surrounding desert by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magherb (AQIM). The war in Lybia and fall of Muammar Gadaffi contributed to turmoil and instability in northern Mali. But the Peace Corps had operated in Mali for 50 years uninterrupted, and adventure was calling.
To many, the military coup came as a surprise. On the 22nd of March, low and middle ranking military members, led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, staged what seemed an unplanned, almost accidental coup. Quickly the U.S. and France condemned the military junta, threatened to cut all foreign aid, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) closed Mali’s borders and froze their assets. The news of the coup did not make top news stories, especially in the U.S., until about 3 days after all this occurred. But, as with any story, there is a back-story.
The Mali military had fought Tuareg rebels and AQIM for years. They were suspected to be armed by Gaddafi, while in the capital of Bamako, overpasses, roads, communication and most recently, a brand new government complex that housed many major national ministries in Mali were the visible Libyan “gifts.”
The scheduled presidential election of April 16th was preceded by intensified clashes between military and rebels, forcing many Malians to seek refuge in Niger. The military death toll was small but constant, 3-4 deaths per reported clash. (ORTM-Mali, Feb. 2012)
Mali was at war in the North. Reports of insufficient arms, ammunition, vehicles and other equipment surged in the news; people and the military grew restless and the death toll kept rising. “The president is sending soldiers to die!” said my host mother, Mrs. Diony, whose own son was in the military. Malians begun to suspect President Amadou Toumani Toure was deliberately continuing the conflict as an excuse to delay elections and remain in power.
So those of us in Mali were not surprised by news of the military coup nor by the support for the junta. Something needed to be done and solutions were not coming from civil society or the government. To us it was clear the coup was not an attempt to create a military dictatorship in Mali; the junta was trying to take control of the worsening crisis in the North. Or so it seemed at first.
10 days after the initial text, we got the call for all volunteers to go to Bamako. It was the final call; we knew it.
I tried to say my goodbyes to the community I had only known for a few months, but had grown to love, admire and respect. I found Oscar my language tutor watering his garden at home. We had a short but pleasant goodbye; I will treasure our talks about politics over tea and playing freeze bee in his yard. Nema, a grocery store owner and one of my first friends, assured me I would be coming back and that soon all this will be all over.
I had to fight back my tears as I said goodbye, Malians do not cry, nor hug, which made my farewells rushed, forced and awkward. I wanted to hug them, thank them for their hospitality and tell them that I will try to help from afar, or visit them in the future. But I swallowed my words.
From a diplomatic perspective, suspension of aid is a strategy intended to inflict pressure on the government; but on the ground, such tactics seem far less righteous and their repercussions are sometimes irreversible. With a poor crop yield already predicted due to drought, cutting foreign aid was a devastating blow. I could not help but think about my community’s future, their health and their safety.
The suspension of the Peace Corps program was another tragedy. Over 90% of its staff was incredible and amazing Mali nationals, now these people would find themselves unemployed. Worse all the amazing volunteers’ projects that communities and organizations depended on were halted.
The intimate relationships we developed with our communities are indescribable. More than volunteers, we became friends, family members, supporters, sources of inspiration and learning; and they became ours. We witnessed deaths, marriages, shared happiness and sorrows. Though it may not be the most scenic country in Africa, the beauty of its warm and welcoming culture, people’s good humor, their hard work ethic and their love and respect for foreigners, all make Mali a terrific country to visit and live in.
The coup and its aftermath have dictated the fate of Mali and decimated the opportunity Mali had to make a change from within. Captain Sanogo and the coup leaders refused to step down from power, denouncing the international community and claiming to want to preside over a transition to civil rule. When the interim president did arrive, he was forced to medical exile after being attacked by pro-Sanogo’s mobs.
Amidst the political chaos, rebel groups, Islamic extremists, and AQIM joined forces and took over 2/3 of the northern country; imposing strict Shria Law and brutally punishing even children, women and elderly people who do not abide to their rules. They are destroying world cultural heritage monuments and documents in the sacred site of Timbuktu.
The war in the north is not over; the international community will not allow the north of Mali to become a safe haven for Islamist extremist groups. As the anticipated food security crisis looms, the fate of the people remains in the air. One thing is for certain, while diplomacy and democracy try to claim their rightful place, the people continue to suffer.
To Mali, my friends, my host family, and the wonderful community members I say this: Ala ka here d’aw ma, Ala ka aw dugaw mine, Ala ka keneya d’aw ma, Ala ka ban pew- May God give you peace, May God hear your prayers, May God give you health, May God put an end to your sorrows.
To the USC community, keep Mali, its people and national treasures in your thoughts, give support if you can, and go visit whenever possible. It is truly a remarkable place.
Cynthia has returned to Peace Corps as a volunteer in Cameroon, for more information about Mali and Cameroon you can read her blog at masmalimas.wordpress.com.
Hard Truths, Insider Secrets: SIR Students Report
New SIR Roundtables Help Students Plan Career Next Steps
Daria Sarraf (MA Environmental Studies, BM Harp Performance, Minor in Environmental Studies)
With a looming graduation date in May of 2014, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I plan to actually do with the degrees that I have pursued here at USC. I have taken an interesting academic path since I’ve been here—I’m in the process of earning a Bachelor of Music in Harp Performance, a minor in Environmental Studies, and a Masters of Arts in Environmental Studies. Needless to say, I’m still trying to figure out how my compilation of degrees is actually going to make sense to anyone other than me. Will I be able to get a job? Do I want to go to graduate school before (or after) having a job? If so, what kind? I was so confused. After a lot of thinking, I have recently entertained the idea of pursuing Environmental Law. But honestly speaking, I didn’t know the first thing about law school. I was intimidated and disgruntled by the prospective LSATs, application processes, and law school itself, and I really just wanted to talk to someone who understood my worries and could answer my novice questions. You don’t just run into lawyers on campus who will give you the “DL” about everything related to law during your lunch break! So imagine my excitement when I found out that the School of International Relations was hosting a small roundtable discussion led by a professor who earned a Ph.D. and a law degree!
Professor Laura Sjoberg led a discussion about different academic paths that students could take, and her personal experience as both a law graduate and Ph.D. graduate. I really enjoyed the roundtable discussion. It was extremely informative in a relaxed, nonjudgmental environment, where I felt comfortable enough to ask the questions that I always felt were too "basic" to ask in a more formal academic setting. I appreciated Professor Sjoberg's honesty about her personal experience with pursuing a Ph.D. and going to law school, and she openly gave us the insider "secrets". For example, she stated that in law school, punctuality was key, and that if being prepared for class promptly at 8 AM seems impossible, law school will really catch you off guard.
It was so refreshing to hear someone speak honestly about the harder and less glamorous facets of different post-graduate paths. Often times, I think professors refrain from asking their students blunt questions such as, "is that degree worth your money?" and may not want to confront students with hard truths, like: "you're going to be in serious debt after graduate school, so be prepared." Maybe this is because they're afraid of scaring us off. Personally, I'd much rather hear those hard truths when I have time to change my life path. Even if I am shocked or scared of my future, I can plan accordingly instead of possibly making a life-changing, poor decision when I didn’t have enough information.
Professor Sjoberg gave us information about how to apply to jobs in a marketable way. She also gave us personal examples of how she strategically dealt with applications to law school, graduate school, and various jobs. Professor Sjoberg was open, funny, and down-to-earth. I feel as if I realized more about post-graduate degrees in that hour than I had throughout my entire undergraduate career! I'm really happy I attended this roundtable discussion and I can't wait to attend future discussions!
*The School of International Relations has recently launched a new series of Career Roundtables, with the goal of providing a space for informal career mentoring focused on the needs of IR undergrads. In small groups, students learn about career choices and different workplaces from an established scholar or professional, ask questions and get advice. Recently, roundtables were given by a professor who got a Fulbright and then went on to launch a solar-powered computer-lab-in-a-box development project on a Micronesian island; by an established journalist and think tank analyst who has established himself as a leading expert in the Caucasus region, and by an accomplished IR professor who also has a law degree. To hear about upcomming events, check us out of Facebook.
Internship Opportunities: SIR Students Report
Interested in IR-related work? Seek an opportunity to get involved!
Nicole Grunwald, (School of International Relations Senior)
Are you interested in or studying International Relations and eager to practice what you have learned? Would you like more experience in an organization or field that deals with international issues such as international development, peacekeeping, or human rights? If yes, I strongly encourage you to be proactive and seek out opportunities in any field you are interested.
I am currently a senior studying International Relations and minoring in Organizational Development and Management. My interest in human rights, and more specifically, human trafficking, was cultivated in my first upper-division IR course. During the spring semester of my freshman year, I enrolled in IR316: Gender and Global Issues with Professor Tickner. One day in class, our Teaching Assistant, Christina Gray, played a Frontline documentary titled “Sex Slaves.” The cruel and unjust stories depicted shocked me and, further, compelled me to do something about it.
This past summer I took the initiative to research various NGO’s in Los Angeles and applied to several of them. I finally found the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), whose mission resonated well with me. Volunteering with CAST has exposed me to the daily operations of an NGO and has given me a sense of fulfillment. I am learning and making a difference; my contributions positively affect the lives of victims of modern day slavery. More so, I am inspired by survivor’s stories and their rehabilitation. Working with CAST has encouraged me to pursue opportunities to work with human rights and philanthropy upon graduation.
Current undergraduates, you are fortunate to have Professor Nina Rathbun as the new Fellowship Advisor. If I were you, I would certainly take advantage of her guidance and support in your search for a fellowship or internship.
- School of International Relations
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