MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

Lauren grew up in Calgary, AB where she attended the University of Calgary. She moved to Baltimore for graduate school in 2008, concentrating in international development econometrics and program evaluation. She interned with development consultancy Humanitarian Outcomes in New York City in 2009 and graduated with her Master's in Public Policy from Johns Hopkins University in 2010. For the last two years, Lauren has worked in Washington, DC as a project associate and special assistant to the president at Devex, providing research and business services to the development industry.

Long Time Gone

I'm trying to look back and process the last six months, but it's hard right now to visualize everything together; it comes in bits and pieces, good and bad. I think it's going to take some time to figure out exactly how I've changed because of this experience.*We went to Oujda, one of the towns in northeast Morocco where our programming happens, earlier this month. I had the chance to sit in on youth trainings, which was an amazing, inspiring experience.These are kids who sign up for training to improve their job prospects - kids, I say, but really 14-25 year olds. Every week, they go to sessions on entrepreneurship, money management, and life skills at community centers, where they sit in unheated rooms (and I am here to tell you, it gets cold in Oujda!) and listen to our awesome training staff. They're focused, they're interested, they participate - and these are things I think most Westerners take for granted.How many of us complained about talking CALM 20 (for non-Albertans, this is "Career and Life Management") in high school? How many of us, at, say, age 17, would have sat politely through a presentation on stress management or time management without rolling our eyes, passing notes, or just zoning out? Obviously, there is some self-selection happening, but it was seriously impressive to see young people so engaged.We had staff from MEDA in Oujda help us out by showing us around and translating from Arabic into French. They were some of the absolute nicest people I have ever met in my life, incredibly welcoming, and I'm really grateful that I had the opportunity to hang out with them and see the awesome work they're doing.*I never did figure out how to love Morocco. Deeply respect, yes; the culture and tradition, the focus on family, the art, the amazing people I've met, the amazing things I've seen and done. I like a lot of things about Morocco, but not living here! I love to travel, but I want something to come home to, people to share what I've done with. I miss my family and friends so much that it almost feels physical, sometimes. Six months was enough, for me. I want a home base near the people I love.I've learned a lot about myself from this experience. I'm proud of some of it; other stuff I'd like to work on, like my instinct to retreat inward when I feel stressed or threatened. I never used to consider myself shy, but here I've been different - diffident - and it's definitely been a personal and professional obstacle.The thing is, though - I think I'm learning (slowly, painfully!) to take my personal challenges and view them as challenges, not failures. For everyone who knows me, this is huge! I'm a major perfectionist, super A-type, perhaps slightly OCD - so being able to sit and think, okay, I feel really timid today, but I'm going to do one thing that scares me and I'm going to keep doing it until it doesn't scare me anymore has been a real game-changer.This experience has taught me how to be a stranger, how to be the 'other', how to exist on the outside of a society. I think until you have that experience, you can't fully understand how hard it is to live someplace like Canada and not speak very good English, not understand the customs, not know how to get from place to place. I think of our 'nation of immigrants' and wonder how many people I encounter every day who feel like I often felt here - confused, homesick, out of rhythm, even judged. I only have to do it for another 9 days, but for some people it's just life.Anything that builds your capacity for empathy is a good experience. Even the bad parts of living here - by which I mean the constant street harassment - have taught me a lot about how women in most parts of the world (up to and including many parts of the developed world, absolutely) are adversely affected by outward displays of sexism.I have also had some great professional experience to add to my CV, for which I am super grateful, and I have loved working with the MEDA team and learning about the YouthInvest project. I feel really good about the career I've chosen in development and I think this internship has really solidified it as the right choice for me.I'll leave you with the poem that means the most to me, and the sentiment that has kept me going when the going got rough:    love is a place    & through this place of    love move    (with brightness of peace)    all places     yes is a world    & in this world of    yes live    (skillfully curled)    all worlds     (e.e. cummings)

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The beauty's in the breakdown

I was just listening to the call to prayer, and I thought: That's probably something a lot of people at home have never experienced. The call to prayer occurs - well, a bunch of times a day. There's an official schedule, but basically: Dawn, sometime around midday, sometime around the end of work, and dusk. (I'm sure I'm missing a few.) It comes over loudspeakers designed to cut through the city noise - which means, yes, it will wake you up until your body stops responding - and you hear a man singing, sort of. It's not exactly like Moroccan Idol; his voice wavers and drops and rises. Sometimes it goes for a long time, but often it stops just as you're getting used to it. I think it's something I initially had a hard time relating to. Religion, here, is public; it's not that you see mosques everywhere - they are everywhere, but they are private, where churches and temples and mosques in Canada are visible. The expression of religion, on the other hand, is open. Everyone worships the same God, so maybe it's less fraught with the difficulties we'd have back home. We pray in private, but our places of worship are more public. (The exception, of course, is the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, which is enormous, big enough that it eclipses almost every other structure in the city. It is - unlike most of the buildings in Casablanca - new and gleaming, meant to be seen and admired. The contrast between the mosque and the crumbling apartment buildings and shantytowns and ruined sidewalks is incredibly stark; they don't look like they belong in proximity to one another. I'm not trying to say that they should have spent the money on infrastructure instead - just that it's funny, how there always seems to be money for huge monuments, and none for everyday necessities.) * Me, well; my hair is longer, and my bangs are slowly growing out, which is a super irritating process when you don't have a flat-iron or any styling products. I'm sleeping better, although some days I still feel more tired than I should be, and I've more or less figured out what to cook and what to eat, which is awesome. I have moments where I wonder what I've done to my life, and moments where I am genuinely grateful that I did it. I don't love it here yet. I'm not sure I'm going to. Is it okay to say that? I feel like I'm contravening some unspoken etiquette here, but I'm not sure that I've really found my place in Casablanca, and maybe I won't. I have another 3 months left, and I have done a lot and learned a lot and I wouldn't trade it back for anything - but I don't love the city. I love the work - the work is amazing - but I don't really have a place in the city, and I miss having the sense that I have a place. I've come to terms with the harassment - the cat-calling, the men who try to whisper in my ear, the kissing noises when I walk by, the men who slow and literally bend backwards to stare at my chest for another few seconds - but it's tiring, too. I feel like I can't go anywhere without being stared at; whereas at home I can be invisible, unnoticed. Mostly, I miss my friends and family. I'm not constantly homesick anymore, but I miss being able to go out with my friends, or call my dad, or just be there for important things. My best friend from high school is getting married in June, and I find myself wishing I could be there to go dress shopping with her, or to try on the maid of honour dress she ordered for me. There are things like birthday parties and illnesses and funerals that I regret missing. Funnily enough, I miss Canadian weather. I've been away from Canada for (now) nearly five years, and now I daydream about those cold days when it's just snowed and everything is absolutely silent. I think I'm thinking about that now because it's never silent here; you can hear traffic and people and the call to prayer and animals and everything almost all the time. It's not bad, but for me it's not ideal. I love to travel, but I wonder if I'm just too far away for too long to be really happy here in the long-term. Not to worry - I have another 3 months and 1.5 weeks before I'm done, and I'm looking forward to it - but part of my reason for coming here was to see if I wanted to work in the field fulltime, and I'm not sure now that I would be happy doing so. I think a position where I could travel to the field a lot but come back to a home base in Canada or the US would be ideal for me right now.

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What's the Attitude

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We went to Rabat on Saturday; what amazed me, after Casablanca, was how clean it seemed. There were still some parts that were less than beautiful, but the streets, the buildings, and the tourist sites were all really well-kept. Casablanca has grown on me a little, in the way that familiarity grows on you, but it's definitely a city in progress, trying to bridge that gap between community and progress, trying to find its character. The city itself is almost bipolar; shantytowns aside clothing stores, major fast-fashion chains on palm-lined boulevards only minutes from boarded-up storefronts, Africa's biggest "destination mall" in a city with crumbling infrastructure. I'm sure all of this is present in Rabat, but it seemed less stark, at least. We saw workers maintaining palm trees, the site of a new café on the waterfront. The royal mausoleum, where guards in full formal dress sat on horses. An art gallery, in the old casbah. * Work has been really great so far this week. We have a contingent of people here from MEDA Waterloo, and one of our staff from MEDA Egypt, and we are doing a clinic on a training that MEDA is developing for creating youth financial products with MFIs and other financial institutions. The idea is to teach staff how to effectively go through the product development cycle in order to offer targeted youth products, which benefits both the youth in question as well as the institution. I don't know much about training, so this has been really interesting to me. There are materials available from places like CGAP, but MEDA adds value to these kinds of trainings by having in-country networks, experts, and the focus on youth that many microfinance organizations lack. Going through all the presentations, both from the perspective of staff and the perspective of trainers and trainees, has been really helpful for me in learning more about MEDA's actual programs – which I know is going to help me do my job in impact assessment! I've really liked getting to know the team better. Also, it's been really nice to work in an English-speaking environment for a few days. * Left:The Royal MausoleumCenter: French protectorate=era achitectureRight: The main boulevard I feel myself changing as I'm here. Parts of me keep chipping away; I'm not sure if it's a good thing, yet, because I don't know what will replace them, but it's an intellectually interesting process. I think it comes from being continually challenged, by losing the context through which I had always defined myself. In Canada and the States, everything visible about me meant something to others, defined my role: My glasses, my hair, my gender, my name, my clothes all spoke to where I belonged – to whom I belonged, my friends and family, my country, my company. Here, those things are true too, but in a completely different way; here, they mean outsider. It's not a loss of internal identity so much as an absence of an external one, which in turn is challenging my internal identity. It's making me question how much of how I act was performative in North America, done because that's how I thought it should be done, and how much is integral to me as a person. It's not that I think of myself as a fake sort of person (actually, I am hilariously transparent most of the time), but I do think that knowing where your 'place' is in a society affects how you behave. In this case, I don't have any idea of where my place is – still – so I'm often at a loss.
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Jet-lag and culture shock

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I think I'm finally recovering from my jet-lag! (Knock on wood.) Now that I've discovered white noise tracks that I can play on my iPod when I go to sleep (to drown out the street noise below!), I'm sleeping a lot better. Today was a holiday, so I slept in and took a nap. I'll have to relate my laundry adventure another time; suffice to say that the little portable washing machine here was not as intuitive as I initially assumed! I'm headed for another early night, which will be nice, since tomorrow at work should be a lot more intense than Monday! (Fortunately, it's a four-day weekend thanks to Eid and the King's birthday. Lots of time to look around Casa and catch up on sleep!) The culture shock is a little bit harder to deal with. I feel quite timid a lot of the time, which is not how I normally am; it's like I've suddenly become extremely shy. Partially, I think I don't want to offend anyone; I'm the newcomer, but it's hard to know what's acceptable. The other part is probably that being a foreigner attracts a lot of attention, and it can be super jarring to have someone yell after you on the street. One guy yelled, "Ça va?" (equivalent to "How are you?", or, in this context, "How you doin'?") after me for a full minute. It's definitely something I've encountered elsewhere, but because here it seems discriminate (that is, because I'm a foreigner, rather than just someone walking by a construction site in NYC), I think I'm finding it more jarring.

It's not just that everything is different; it's that, in this context, I'm different. What I thought was pretty decent French is appallingly insufficient, which has made me - even with English speakers - almost a mute. (My accent is bad, and theirs is indecipherable to me - not a good combination!) I don't know how to be polite; I don't know how to do anything, almost. Sometimes I've even felt nervous about leaving the house, which is so not me, and not reflective of the place I'm in, either - Casablanca is not a dangerous city. But between the language barrier, the stress of moving, jet lag, and adjusting to a new culture, I've felt like everything is out of control. So here's the truth: My French will improve, and my culture shock will get better. Everyone's does. From reading that MEDA sent me to my own research, it's just a necessary phase. I remember going through parts of it when I moved to Baltimore from Calgary, so it's no surprise that I'm feeling it moving from the East Coast to North Africa! The intensity has surprised me, but after a few weeks I'm slowly starting to get my bearings. (Hopefully they'll forgive me at work for doing my best impression of a silent data analyst... I'll stop stuttering eventually.) Here's what I've found the most helpful for combating culture shock: 1. Reach out. Reach out to your family, reach out to your friends. Write letters, Skype, send texts, Facebook - whatever. Some of the websites caution against relying too much on your 'old life' for support, but when I really need to feel grounded, my friends are the ones who provide that. (Love you guys!) 2. Don't hole up. It might be enticing to hide under the covers, but it only delays the inevitable. You will need food, water, diet Coke (if you're an addict like me), etc. Even if it's just for ten minutes, get out of your own space. Say hello to the shopkeepers. Keep your eyes up (unless you are on an uneven sidewalk - in which case, do not do what I did and sprain your ankle!). 3. Don't force it. You will have good days, like I had today, where you get into your project at work and talk to someone you love from home and feel great about the next six months. And you will also have bad days, like I had yesterday, where everything seems impossible. (The things you admit to on the internet... in my defense, I totally felt better afterward!) It's normal. From what I can tell, everyone experiences different levels of this, and nobody is immune from culture shock. It manifests differently for different people - I am prone to worrying, so obviously mine is manifesting in anxiety right now - but it's something that most people experience in different ways. 4. One day at a time. Instead of thinking about how bad you're going to feel for the next six months, focus on getting to the end of one single day. Not only does it prevent self-fulfilling prophecies - I'm miserable because I knew I was going to be miserable! - but it narrows your focus, which makes everything that seems huge and impossible seem smaller. 5. Perspective is important. Six months is nothing. I spent six months transitioning out of my last job! It's not that I want to dismiss this as being 'all in your head', but to some extent, if you're physically safe and your basic needs are provided for, then that knowledge can help to get you out of feeling insecure. 6. Read, read, read. Read everything you can about the culture you're in. A lot of websites suggest doing this before you leave - and that's a great idea - but doing so when you're there can also be really helpful. 7. Go easy on yourself. This is one I struggle with - I really felt like I was "failing" to adjust here, rather than going through the process of adjusting. Give yourself some room to make mistakes or just plain feel homesick, instead of viewing that as some kind of zero-sum loss. Let every day be as clean a slate as possible

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Carb overload



Last night I had dinner with E., the other intern currently here (C. will be joining us in September!). It was iftar, the traditional meal breaking the fast at the end of each day of Ramadan. The food was delicious, but one thing that was different was the number of bread-based food items served to us in this enormous meal! Here's a picture of courses 3 and 4:

Pictured left: Course 3: Savory bread; course 4: dessert bread

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What is it that you do, exactly?


I think everyone in international development has been asked that question, and almost everyone dreads it! People have an idea of aid work as handing out rations to starving children (usually the ones in those old school Sally Struthers commercials) while wearing khaki. The truth is, though, that there are a ton of different paths you can take in development. The one I've chosen is monitoring and evaluation, and the internship I'm currently doing is in impact assessment.Impact assessment is exactly what it sounds like: A way to evaluate whether a program is working as intended. It's part of the "Monitoring & Evaluation" (M&E) (and sometimes "Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning") umbrella. Though some development firms only include M&E as required by the terms of reference in their government contracts, many are moving toward more rigorous in-house methods in order to track and improve program effects. (Since the 2008 recession, government agencies like CIDA, DFID, and USAID are also requiring better M&E from bidders on grants and contracts, since M&E can improve program efficiency.)How can you tell if something's working? Well, in my case, data analysis is an essential part of impact assessment. The project I'm working on right now is an evaluation study of MEDA Maroc's training programs. These programs - most notably the 100 Hours to Success training course - are meant to improve youth access to financial services. In September last year, about a year into the program, they gave surveys to clients who had participated in training programs, asking about a range of topics the programs had covered, such as savings, loans, and employment. They also asked about how the clients and their families had changed in the last year; for example, had they bought a refrigerator? A car? Had their monthly household income increased? This kind of data, can tell us a lot about possible program effects.A lot of it is descriptive statistics - anyone who's ever taken a research method course knows the drill on that one! But you have to be smart about what you run; you can't just describe a couple of variables and get useful information. One of MEDA's particular focuses, for example, is gender; when you ask, "What did people think about this program?", you also want to know, "What did girls think about this program?" and, "Compared to boys, how did girls perceive this factor?" You want to know what girls in urban areas thought versus girls in rural areas; you want to disaggregate the data as much as possible so that you know as much as possible. Part of data analysis is turning over rocks in the data set, looking for results that are unexpected or interesting.(If you're super nerdy, like me, that's the fun part. Other than making beautiful graphs in Excel.)Numbers can tell you a lot, but you also need the other side of the coin - qualitative data in the form of open-ended questions, focus groups, and case studies. It's really important to get as much depth as possible; although I believe in the power of quantitative data for giving a big-picture overview of a population, I also think that letting clients speak for themselves, and offer suggestions and solutions that work for their lives, is an integral part of delivering sustainable development solutions. Mistakes aren't always as clean-cut as delivering spoiled food to a refugee population; sometimes, experience shows us that minor tweaks or additions can have a lasting impact on program effectiveness.Anyway, that's a little bit about my job! When we talk about statistics, just remember that they're only as good as the person doing them.Until next time...

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