Cold croissant-induced reflections

by Alexander Bossakov

My internship has been flying by. Two months in Madrid seemed like a lot of time on the day I arrived, suitcase in hand, trying to load directions to where I would be staying on my phone. I am currently on an early morning flight back to Madrid, after having spent a three-day weekend just south of Paris for a large family gathering, arriving just in time to get to the office for work at 10am. I just realized I have not much more than 2 weeks left [less at the time of posting] at Dara and got down to writing this blog post, only to be interrupted by a flight attendant waking up les mesdames et les messieurs with a charming basket of croissants. With all due respect, that is what I prioritized over this blog post, but now that I’ve finished my breakfast, here are some reflections from me from over the clouds.

My last internship was not the greatest of experiences. In fact, it was incredibly helpful in showing me what I did not want to do with my life. My internship at Dara has been far more positive on many levels, not excluding the great people I work with, the pleasant work environment I inhabit every day, the nature of the work that we do, and, last but not least, Madrid itself. Several weeks in, I feel part of the team in a way that leaves me committed to every step of the process of our proposals and evaluations, feeling the pressure of deadlines like those around me, and working to achieve what needs to be achieved in the best possible way. I work with everybody around me, get pulled in for meetings, lament our failures, and celebrate our achievements.

At the same time, I still have certain reservations. I question how removed I sometimes feel from the ultimate purpose of the evaluations. I question the evaluation sector within the larger sphere of humanitarian work and how it sometimes seems like a self-fulfilling cycle that keeps itself alive for the wrong reasons. We evaluate the programs of, primarily, UN agencies, and by doing that we become part of the UN structures, for better or for worse. What I need to find more about, however, is how much of an impact the 100-page reports have in promoting accountability, effectiveness, impact. Are these evaluations a check on a checklist for UN agencies or true accountability mechanisms that have an impact on the quality of the programs designed to help those most in need? This is not something I necessarily have the perspective to find out from here in Madrid and that is why all we can resort to is making sure our proposals, teams, and evaluations are the best that they can be. This, however, leads to an obliteration of our awareness of the human impact, cost, and consequence that is purportedly at the center of the work of the UN agencies we evaluate. I find myself focusing on format, presentation, wording, design, team structure; my direct goal is to have our proposal accepted by the UN and turned into a commissioned evaluation on long-term refugee camps in Algeria. My direct goal is not to improve the conditions of Sahrawis living in camps in Algeria. That is the UN’s works and it is another part of the process that I cannot afford to be part of.

This is not at all Dara-specific. In so many circumstances, one has to reconcile with the reality of being part of a complex process made up of multiple agencies, groups of people, sub procedures, and vast timelines. We are an essential component of the humanitarian aid process but there is no way I can attach myself its every single component. Nevertheless, I believe there is a lot of value in tightly grasping the ultimate aim of the work we do instead of blindly and intensely focusing on the technicalities of proposal- and evaluation-writing from the capital of Spain. I still struggle with the extent to which I lack this awareness as I discover my position at this step of the process.

I cannot skip mentioning that despite my own thought processes, which happen from my own very specific perspective, I deeply appreciate the work done by my coworkers. They work hard every day committed to produce high-quality evaluations of humanitarian programs. I help around with all that I can, but my knowledge and experience is shadowed by theirs and my thoughts and reservations are young and undeveloped.

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