On a sticky, 92 degree morning this week, I climbed on my bicycle with my computer strapped to my back and set off for work. Navigating the rush hour traffic, I peddled across the city and arrived at the office soaked in sweat. After a few minutes of confusion at security trying to explain that I was a new intern and that’s why I wasn’t on their list, I was greeted by my supervisor, and we sat down to talk about the organization, the project I would be working on, and what we hoped I would get out of my ten-week internship. Namely, I’ll be doing research. Although there is a distance of a few thousand miles, a couple of years, and many more gray hairs on my head, the events of my first day in Washington, D.C. were nearly identical my first day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. My current summer internship at the US Institute of Peace through CLS-PCPB began much like my first CLS-PCPB internship where, two years ago, I interned for Open Development Cambodia in Phnom Penh, researching Cambodian land law and writing content for an open data platform. However, despite all of the similarities, my internship this summer is worlds apart from the last.
Aside from the obvious cultural, infrastructure, and geographic differences between D.C. and Phnom Penh (and the fact that I am once again plunging into the chaos of a legal system written in a language I do not know), the content of my work this summer is quite different. While at USIP, I will be providing research support to the Justice and Security Dialogue (JSD) project in francophone western Africa. The project, which operates in a single community in each of six countries, seeks to create a dialogue between the various actors in the communities to identify and address security problems. These six countries face significant internal security issues at the national level, from terrorism in Nigeria to recovery from political instability in Tunisia. Although there are macro-level forces at play, JSD functions at the grassroots level. Partnering with local organizations to facilitate conversations and implement solutions, the JSD approach leads from behind, providing necessary support to these dialogues while enabling local actors with intimate knowledge of the issues to create the solutions.
This approach is rare in the world of international development. Projects funded, led, and staffed primarily by international experts are ubiquitous, and results are often lacking. Putting local actors with a deep, contextual understanding of a problem at core of the decision-making and process is necessary to create change, but it is not often implemented. I am thrilled to be working with an organization that recognizes the importance of tailoring development tools and practices to local circumstances, and I look forward to the rest of the summer.