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Lecture explores international development

| Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Notre Dame’s Kellog Institute for International Studies hosted Dr. Sara Sievers, a principal thought leader in international development from the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Her lecture, titled “Making a Difference in the World: Connecting the Personal and Professional in International Development,” highlighted key strategies and requirements needed to implement effective changes in developing countries.

During her lecture, Sievers highlighted how personal values and basic principles of international development frequently conflict when working within the developing country’s political context. Sievers said the main question at the core of the discussion is how good ideas and good intentions are sometimes sidelined when applied to a realistic scale.

“This is where the personal and the professional become important,” Sievers said. “We can sit around and talk about all these glorious principles of millennium development goals, but if we violate that in the compounds that we live in, what does that say about who we are and what we really believe?”

According to Sievers, Nigeria stands as a prime example of case studies in international development, due to its ecological complexity, relatively high economic disparity and maternal and infant mortality.

“[Nigeria is] a large country with a very complex federal system,” Sievers said. “There are relatively few places in the developing world that are more complex than Nigeria.”

Sievers said one of the greatest difficulties she faced during her work in Nigeria was living and working in a high-income household while witnessing the economic hardships faced by a local underprivileged family. Sievers was unable to help the lower-income family due to bureaucratic restrictions.

Sievers said the experience of not being able to take immediate action helping is one of the most painful dilemmas that workers in developing countries must face.

“Basically I was living in a violation of the things that I hold most profound,” Sievers said. “At some point you have to be able to take care of the people you can touch, the people that are closest to you. Don’t treat them like a statistic.”

While universities remain important developers in aid strategies for developing countries, their theoretical approaches have difficulty translating because of the intricacy of political and economic structures, she said.

“One of the things that happens a lot with universities is people come up with a lot of ideas that should happen, but they don’t take into account whether the country actually has the resources to make it happen,” Seivers said.

Sievers said different strategies for implementing programs in international development include trying to understand the country’s political scope. By understanding the politics, developers can learn when to make concessions and when to compromise goals in the face of corrupt governments. Sievers said compromising constituted the hardest challenge for the majority of people in international development.

“That [compromise] can be an especially frustrating step, because it feels like you’re compromising your principles and it can be a very unsatisfying stage,” she said. “If you’re able to make those compromises, then you have a chance at being able to achieve the real world results that are motivating you to be here.”

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