by Alexander Bossakov

Over the past week, there has been a scarcity of opportunities to free my mind from the current administration’s actions and statements on immigration. Ceaseless news reports and public statements persistently highlighted the gravity of the situation, yet it took way too long – more than 2,000 children – for the zero tolerance policy to be amended to halt child and family separation. It would be underwhelming at this point to say that this is an issue that belongs on the moral plateau, rather than the political one. The pragmatics behind the rule of law arguments propagated by those who unconditionally support the administration’s actions should raise alarm bells in a civil society that purports to constructively look back at history and throw around “never again” castigations.

Working at an organization that engages in humanitarian work does not inevitably face me with human problems and moral qualms. Even though humans are at the receiving end of the work that I do, there is little mention and thought of that reality. Most days, we engage in questions of bureaucratic practicalities, quantitative and qualitative analysis, report writing and the like. Reflecting on what position I occupy every day in the office – not professionally, but internally, personally – becomes a necessity for me, if I want to continue being intentional about my values. In order to avoid growing numb and reduce tasks to mere administrative routine, I want and need to remind myself that the work that I do – the proposals I edit, the expert databases I analyze, the presentations I prepare – will ultimately, indirectly, potentially impact the lives of those fleeing or stuck in conflict, of the vulnerable, of the unwanted, of the subhuman.

Ultimately, indirectly, potentially. Arguably, this kind of lack of certainty and the inability to see the relationship between work and product or impact is present in every sector. When dealing with such human issues, however, I struggle with the appearance of any trace of numbness to the humanity that is so defining of the work. As I work on tasks related to the RRI, I find myself thinking too little about the individuals whose lives we aim to improve by working on the index. They should be at the center of the work that I do, and that is especially so considering what I have advocated for in the past, having worked on The Refugee Show and Tell Project. And yet, I find myself more than I’d like to thinking analytics, presentation, data, methodology, with no perception of humanity on any horizon.

What I am touching on can easily be laughed off as a messy bundle of naive and unworkable suggestions. It is not possible to humanize every single step of the process and one cannot possibly be completely in touch with the ultimate product of one’s work. When developing an analytical framework for a refugee response measurement tool, surely one cannot possibly mentally retain images of refugee families in movement at all times. Might be true, but I cannot advocate for such abstraction. Being intentional and forceful about reminding oneself and those around oneself about the human factor, t he human cost, the human impact of one’s work should be a given. Avoiding that responsibility removes the human recipients from ongoing procedures that are purportedly developed for them – a saying that has become trite in the humanitarian sector. So trite, that it can easily be dismissed as another unworkable, progress-hindering suggestion.

Many will insist that emotion should not occupy any position of relevance in intellectual or technical processes. One of the main objections to the gun violence movement is that it feeds off emotion and not pragmatic legislative considerations. Most astonishingly, that same argument is being made in the ever-so-pertinent debates on the current administration’s “zero tolerance” policy and the procedures of child separation it entails.

Bureaucracy should not entail the abstraction of humanity. Bureaucracy is about rational procedure, but rationality does not exclude humanity. Emotion does not contradict rational intellect. From the extreme to the mundane, I’d like to be an advocate for the omnipresence of humanity. For those with good intentions, like humanitarian organizations such as DARA, it would be at the very least irresponsible to reduce my work on a refugee response monitoring tool to desk administrative procedure. For those with ill intentions, action and thought that abstracts humanity as a way of approach, it would be at the very least dangerous.

Calle de Felipe IV, 9

by Alexander Bossakov

At DARA, office conversations are linguistically diverse in the best of ways. Mid-sentence, my colleagues will blend English, Spanish, and French – whether we’re gathered for Tuesday’s team meeting, someone’s reaching out over the phone to DARA staff members in another country, or one person is talking to another one across the room. This is just one aspect of the work environment on the fourth floor of Calle de Felipe IV, 9.

The DARA team does not exceed more than a handful of people at a time. Many more back up the work we do and a vast network of experts perform work on the field – in places ranging from Pakistan to Bolivia and from Haiti to the DRC –  that is at the heart of our humanitarian evaluations. Management and the board are close-knit, but extend across continents and partner organizations. All this makes for a distinct work culture fueled by generous levels of cooperation, simultaneous interdependence and self-reliance.

DARA occupies a very specific place in the humanitarian arena, that generally has little public exposure.  The vast majority of our work is directly commissioned by agencies like UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, DFID, ECHO and others, but we remain a small organization that does not parallel the prominence of the UN or government agencies. We have gained admission to a framework of similar non profit humanitarian organizations that conduct evaluations of the on-the-ground programs of the aforementioned agencies. At this very moment in time, we are finishing up our evaluation report of UNICEF’s response to Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, while drafting proposals for several new evaluations.

I work with colleagues who are stationed in Madrid and others who either travel regularly or are stationed elsewhere – like in our office in Washington, D.C. During the past two weeks and a half, I have worked heavily on preparing various presentation material for DARA’s Refugee Response Index. This has required collaborating with numerous people in trying to understand their vision for the RRI. On occasion, these visions do not overlap entirely and concessions must be made or discussions must be had to determine the best way to present a certain element of the project to a specific audience. I position myself as somewhat of an external weigh-in during such discussions, as a civil society member, as opposed to someone from within the NGO or humanitarian sector.

On our agenda for the next month are a UNHCR-convened NGO forum in Geneva, during which the RRI will be showcased, as well as a tentative meeting with experts in Thessaloniki. These events, and the sub-programming they will consist of, require a variety of approaches and methods of articulation, in a lot of which I happen to play a central role. At this time, I have reviewed proposals, drafts, correspondence, and have sat on meetings related to the RRI so as to be able to understand what the most comprehensive, precise, and concise presentation of the RRI could look like.

Primeros días

by Alexander Bossakov

I sit down to write this first post as my first half-week in Madrid comes to a close. I am devoting this summer to some serious exploration of my interests, following their uncontrollable flourishing during the past academic year. To put things into perspective, without digressing too much: I am a student of international studies at Dickinson, but I’ve always felt like I have just one foot in the sphere of international relations. The other part of me wanders (not entirely cluelessly, I can assure you) on cross-disciplinary paths which are the reason for my coming to the U.S. to pursue a liberal-arts college experience. More precisely, I find myself not wholly satisfied with the intellectual approach most prevalent in the field of international relations, which explains my complementary academic background in the humanities and my other pursuits at this point in my college career.

Before delving into the specifics of my internship at DARA in Madrid, it would be helpful to put it into context, as it falls between two experiences which complement it very nicely. I began my summer with a one-week institute on a curation of issues within the topic of human rights, based at an international law firm in New York City and led by Penn Law faculty. I was part of an inspiring group of graduate and undergraduate students with an extraordinarily genuine commitment to the human rights doctrine as it is and as we aspire it to become. It was also an opportunity to meet with human rights activists and leaders from organizations, such as Human Rights First, or UN agencies, such as UN Women, UNHCR, and more. Admittedly, most were from the human rights establishment, but the presence of Penn faculty and other students counterbalanced that in helpful ways.

Following DARA, I will spend three weeks in China doing fieldwork with Dickinson’s own Community Studies Center, related to internal labor migration and its impact on family structures, cultural dynamics, agricultural practices and more. Along with my internship, these three experiences offer me a rich and multifaceted look at the issues I care about. I am eternally grateful to have been able to receive grants and scholarships for all three of them, without which I would most probably have had to stay at home in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Without further ado, my internship at DARA.

DARA is a non profit that, as per the subtitle of my blog, “supports principled humanitarian action through impact evaluation.” There are myriad ways, in which I could describe all the work that DARA engages in with varying degrees of specificity, especially as I get more used to the vernacular used in the sector of humanitarian evaluation. On the one hand, DARA conducts evaluations and policy studies centered around conflicts or natural disasters that necessitate or have necessitated humanitarian action. These are evaluations commissioned by humanitarian organizations, such as UN or EU agencies, whose purpose is to ensure effective and quality aid and action. WFP, UNHCR, OCHA are among the many names one often hears around the office or sees labeled on folders laid on the shelves that encompass the offices of DARA.

On the other hand, DARA also has its very own independent projects, such as the Humanitarian Response Index, the Disaster Risk Reduction Index, or the Refugee Response Index (RRI). The latter is the project I will be working on heavily throughout my two months. These comprise research and policy studies that independently analyze and measure policies related to conflict, human rights issues, or natural disasters. The results help state governments and relevant institutions understand a particular humanitarian landscape, identify best practices, and collaborate in improving their approach to the issues in question.

During my first few days, I dove into the proposal documents and reports that served as the foundation for the Refugee Response Index. The RRI analyzes states’ response to refugee influx in a multi-dimensional manner: To avoid creating a disaggregated set of results, an analytical framework has been developed and is being fine-tuned by a team of experts, academics, and researchers. The framework comprises six pillars according to which a country’s response will be analyzed and will result in a baseline of country performance in line with goals set forth by international agreements on refugees. Over the next few stages of the RRI, data will be collected through a network of local experts, regional coordinators, and refugees themselves. The data will undergo a specialized process of review, calibration, and validation, to ensure it can be compared adequately across countries. Ultimately, the RRI will serve as a systematized, accessible, and real-time database on all dimensions of national, regional, and global refugee response.