Finding inspiration from your office Emma Bell-Scollan, University of Central Asia

When people think about international development work, they generally think of daring field work, personal hardship, and projects that have a direct and immediately visible impact on beneficiaries.

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.

Working at a higher education institution as a Development and Donor Relations Officer, I spend a lot of time at my desk working on fundraising and project administration. I mean, a lot of time. Thus, a key takeaway of my Fellowship is learning to find inspiration from the office – to find gratification in the work I am doing as it fits into the bigger picture.

Yurt camp at Issyk-Kul.

One of the ways I did this was educating myself on the benefits of research for development (or R4D). Working in a development-oriented higher education institution, one of our primary functions is partnering with other organizations to undertake research related to a given development project. R4D is a method for increasing the effectiveness of international development. Using qualitative and quantitative methods, research can be used to develop products or technologies that benefit the poor, increases our knowledge of what projects work and why and develop our understanding of the context in which projects are taking place. R4D often plays the critical role of answering the “why” and “how” questions, whereas development alone may only answer the “if”.

One of the projects that got me most excited about research for development was a project working to mitigate conflict related to access to resources in cross-border communities in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This project was a great example of how research can complement and strengthen international development. For example, traditional development projects might answer the question: “If we teach people how to manage natural resources, will conflict about access to resources reduced?” Through the research we conducted for this project, we were able to explore the important questions of “Why does conflict about natural resources exist?” and “How does group identity and history impact conflict over resources?”

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.

While visiting Vorukh, my colleagues and I participated in a meeting with a jamoat (region-level) Water Users Association, to facilitate an institutional self-assessment workshop for the association. Administrators and members of the Water Users Association participated. They completed an interactive set of self-assessment exercises with the aim of building their capacity as an organization. For me, it was interesting to hear and see firsthand some of the issues associated with access to resources for communities like this one – communities with complex histories, relationships to their land and their neighbours. This experience clearly illustrated to me where research fits in development.

Meeting with Water Users Association in Khujand, Tajikistan.

The community of Vorukh is not unique in existing in an incredibly complex development context, where straight forward cause-and-effect explanations and approaches are not effective. The research we were doing served to provide an extra layer of depth to the project, answering probing questions of how and why resource management, inter-group conflict and government policies are linked through theoretical and field research. On a global scale, the context in which development interventions take place is not getting any less complex, and governments and other donors are putting increasing pressure on results and impact. Therefore, this kind of research will continue to be essential – both to fundraising and, more importantly, to ensuring that communities receive the intended benefits from projects. In the case of Vorukh, this means communities being able to access resources as basic as water and pastures for grazing cattle.

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.

Emma Bell-Scollan was part of the 2016-2017 cohort of the International Youth Fellowship Program. She was placed with the University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic.

Since 1989, Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) has been helping to develop young Canadian leaders in the field of international development through its International Youth Fellowship Program.


Emma Bell-Scollan

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.