The biggest balancing act I feel you need to do when approaching issues like this, is to balance both empathy with objectivity, whilst not allowing the thought processes you go through (based on what you’re exposed to) get you down and make you give up. Persistence is paramount. I came close to giving up twice, most prominently in Israel.
Personally (and for transparency) it should be kept in mind that my motivation and accountability for this trip was myself and my own self-created purpose, which is fine on the face of things, obviously, but when your mind is exposed to these things and you’re hoping you are challenging the base logic and other layers of logic willingly and finding frustrating or off-putting points you do simply need to keep going.
Sometimes visiting a large amount of education projects for example may seem overly similar to one another, but it shouldn’t prevent you from visiting more, because that’s where experience is built; greater reasoning and rationale about the key elements, and also, the people you meet and their attitudes to what they do are important and may throw up unique insights. The same goes for issues focusing on human rights, although this is much more frustrating due to the psychological mindframe that surrounds the value systems here.
Exam conditions at a school in rural India (this was taken during the test).
There is a level of energy and enthusiasm needed – you have to remain intellectually inquisitive and try and get into as much depth as possible whilst getting the best oversight at the same time – immersing yourself and then being able to step back and see it strategically. Adapting to different environments/cultures (and their expectations/beliefs)/languages and issues influences on a day-to-day basis.
Transparency is key – being honest in your questioning, your motives and expressing yourself clearly to depict these – as some of what you see can be sensitive to those involved, and being well intentioned and honest in your pursuit of understanding (without judging) is imperative. I really understood and appreciated the value gained from being independent in this manner and not having invested interests that would come from working under someone else’s employ – I was allowed to maintain objectivity and good intentions, which once clarified eased the conversations candid nature.
In total 56 projects were visited in a 12 month period, not counting various more meetings, other experiences and taking some time to explore the cultures themselves.
To truly get into understanding the people and the psychology you have to be willing to emotionally open yourself up to the issues as much as you can – it’s hard, because you know that if you do so these issues will have an effect on you and will take time to manage – the deeper you get into it on a personal psychological level, the more you understand but the more you willingly have to accept it’s effect on you and what that could be. This at times is counteracted by mentally exposing self to the sheer volume of issues and emotional hardening that occurs. If you don’t understand what matters to people or what motivates them psychologically then you wont have half the impact you can when you aim to.
Daniel Day Lewis: Well known actors, to get into character, can be known to method act, a process where they try to immerse themselves into the psychology of the character they’re tasked with playing to accurately represent and understand the perspective of the character.
As referred to in the previous paragraph with ‘mental hardening’, the more exposure you get, the more your mind compartmentalizes and deals with things. Not caring isn’t the issue, it’s more about a mental numbness that comes with the volume of things you see/hear. Sometimes the hardening helps the objectivity, sometimes it can be stifling. You also have to manage your own ego – not because you become egotistical, if anything you become aware of how much you may not know, but when I say this I mean in regards to time management.. Are the projects you visit going to give you value, if not then can you justify visiting them. This also ties into part 3 of these articles I’m writing, the reintergration part, which will be published soon. All of these, coupled with past experiences before I took on this trip also make you try and make your decision making process as succinct as possible.
I feel the honest and transparent approach, which when embodied, coupled with patience provides fascinating insights.
Some issues seem insurmountable, unless you put yourself into environments where there is the potential to challenge your own personal safety, which is another psychological hurdle, let alone physical. Those in volatile environments (you may be in on purpose or not), you become quickly aware have succumbed to a much more severe mental hardening. Value of life from their experience is little to non-existent and scepticism is rife – trust is hard to come by and hard earned. It seems people fall on either the aggressors side or the peaceful side, which is what you can see in the middle east currently and the migration away from those who are perpetuating violence. There is a huge migration issue facing the EU and surrounding countries and this will continue to be the case moving forward.
Understanding attitudinal and cultural shifts though which lead to understanding personal threats can become evident more naturally then perhaps initially expected. These insights come with, bluntly put, being a white male and all the international stereotypes that come with that – the representation of wealth, or nationality (and with this supposed political beliefs), or education.
In Egypt, I was asked if I was Mossad or CIA – both of which represent highly detestable entities for a lot of Egyptians who felt their country was being manipulated by ‘western powers’ for geopolitical reasons. Studying the language whilst there allowed me to explain myself enough. In Dadaab refugee camp too, despite my intentions, being white made me a target for Al Shabaab and almost saw me end up in Somalia due to an opportunist driver and a conveniently slow to the mark security convoy.
An Egyptian man and child posing with a poster depicting a red cross across an image of U.S. Ambassador to Egypt in 2013 Anne W. Patterson
The rationale and reason of those targeting you, if you’re entering these worlds from the bottom, where their intent is to politically justify their headspace or ideology (irregardless of what governs it at the very top) is a very vulnerable place to be in and hard to predict. You also wont be exposed to certain cultural attitudes, like differing attitudes to race or attitudes regarding gender, so you’ll have to make an effort to learn these – girls in Nepal upon birth are not naturalised citizens for example and to be so have to be acknowledged by the father or fathers family to be legitimised which can be suprisingly politicised.
Being white does have its less risky moments though, but can skew someone’s approach or attitude to you (country dependent), it also offers the opportunity for huge personal growth, you will be constantly reminded of the position you are in and the value or lack of value you represent to others and it will constantly make you question your logic/sense of self and purpose, not to mention understanding.
My chance meeting with a senior figure of the Armed police force in Nepal whilst visiting a school led to a three hour conversation about security and seeing his PHD questionairre, which he was circulating to senior security leaders.
It does open more doors than you’d get otherwise, there comes with it a certain element of (justified or unjustified) respect, credibility and can at times help make you push yourself. It keeps you humble when you’re put in a class full of 100-200 students asked to say who you are and what you’re doing and why you’re there or give your audience some ‘wisdom’ and there at the time was so little difference in age between you and those being taught – in these instances I try to do so in the countries native language and try to figure much more keenly insights of relatable value and field questions from kids as to ensure they’re mentally engaged. You also will come across the entire spectrum of what it means to think, the value of being able to reason, to be strategic or creative and acutely aware of where educations role is.
You develop a random sense of self, in the fact that with that respect given you can severely challenge cultural norms (sensitively) by doing the simplest of things. In India (amongst other countries) for example, speaking to women, asking to hear their opinions, making them think about their own economic empowerment or letting them order their own food is empowering; whilst being completely normal in your approach to stigmatised people and reacting to them in as natural a way as possible challenges perceptions in a suprisingly significant way to both the ‘general public’ and those stigmatised (and their internal self-perceptions) just because you’re a white male. My time with Albino children stuck out.
I always want to be honest and well intentioned in how I approach issues and people. Neutral. Understanding the needs and desires, influences and perspectives of each country or person – both socially and governmentally – I visit or meet. I understand change is a collaborative and well-intentioned process and all need to work heavily together to achieve the best results. I am by no means a threat to anyone.
So naturally, and this will be the last point, there are also levels of thinking that you need to bridge – someone who’s day to day environment is effected by the issue all the way to those who are at it’s strategic top who realistically most of the time may not have an emotional connection to those with most psychological or physical need or have managed to justify it as a necessary collateral either as a means to an end with peace or strategic relevance as an end game. You need to find ways to not be offensive in your rationale, but of relatable reason.
Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, UK went to Kurdistan to try and understand the threat of terrorist groups in the region – whilst his attitude should be applauded, and better insights are gained, his perspective, influence and strategic aims will still be hugely different to those who are there longer or effected by the situation on a day to day.
I did find though through the understanding that comes with a broad brush stroke (in terms of variety of issues focused on) and that comes with getting depth to an individuals and organisations needs that if you focus on a countries resource management, attitudes to human rights and governance, electrification and tech infrastructure and a more general infrastructure development (roads and ports – sea and air among other things etc) you can get quite an interesting insight into the health of a country not only currently but with regards to it’s future.
So that, for what it’s worth includes all the major thought processes that you get subjected to or go through.
I hope it’s given some interesting insights or perhaps even provided value to some of you and I look forward to sharing how these are re-enforced or developed upon as the next trip progresses.