For most people, especially for expatriate staff, the reality is much different. This is not to understate the impact or importance of the work that is done. Rather, it is to make note of some things that I have discovered during my AKFC Fellowship in Kyrgyzstan: that impact is often indirect and adding value to an organization does not necessarily translate into undertaking the riskiest or most exciting work.
While participating in a quarterly meeting for the project, I had the opportunity to visit Vorukh, Tajikistan – a Tajik enclave, surrounded on all sides by Kyrgyzstan due to the re-drawing of maps in the post-Soviet period. On the day we visited Vorukh, the Kyrgyz border guards relaxed on the dry earth in the shade of leafy trees, drinking tea and playing on their cellphones. However, when cross-border conflicts erupt, generally over resources, this porous border region can become tightly controlled.
Vorukh faces a myriad of issues related to access to resources. While the Central Asian Republics were part of the greater Soviet Union, resources flowed freely and borders were fluid. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the borders closed and there was an increasing focus on protecting natural resources for their own populations. This resulted in communities like Vorukh: ethically, culturally and legally Tajik existing within Kyrgyzstan.
Just as research is important to increasing the impact of development work, I have learned that sometimes the biggest impact someone can have is doing the ‘less-edgy’ but essential work. This is especially true when someone faces cultural and linguistic barriers, as I have. I speak limited Russian, and despite my best efforts to learn as much as I can, my knowledge and understanding of the local context will always be limited. As much as I try, I still get confused between kumis, a traditional Kyrgyz drink made from fermented mare’s milk, and komuz, the national instrument. Therefore, part of my journey as a Fellow has been learning where and how I bring value to my host organization. This realization was critical for me to find inspiration when “doing development” from my desk.