Six degrees

You know the game. Name a movie and within six degrees of connection, in some way it ends with Kevin Bacon. Perhaps the game requires some updating for today’s context, but the principle remains the same, that the world grows smaller every day. I’ve found the Six Degrees principle can even be applied to international development.

There are many things that you can learn as an intern during an IEDP internship, but what their sources are make a huge difference in that education. What I mean is that I could read all documents related to AAC (or AA in general) and speak to only its employees and get a pretty good understanding of its work, but there’s a flaw in this logic. It’s far too narrow. Despite its good intentions and perspective on human rights, AAC and its work interact with and are influenced by too many other actors for me to have such a limited perspective.

Knowing this, I decided before I left for Cambodia to reach out to as many people as I could to learn about the field of the right to education. (And also because during IEDP I focused more on literacy and M&E; I needed to better familiarize myself with the work I was to do at AAC.) Even though IEDPers have to do a pre-departure report before we leave for our respective internships, my process started with meeting a professor at Penn who had spent some time in Cambodia and coincidentally knew the country director of AAC. I also consider my opportunity working at UNESCO Paris for a month before my internship as a critical component of my learning process, as it was there that I tried to take advantage of the knowledge and expertise of the people working there to further my own understanding before starting the work at AAC.

What happened next was my own version of a Six Degrees, though I don’t know who the Kevin Bacon in this situation was. While I was working at UNESCO, I reached out to people working both directly and indirectly in its Right to Education program, which then led me to people working at UNESCO Bangkok, who put me in touch with people working with various NGOs in Cambodia, who then put me in touch with academics working specifically on education and governance. Concurrently, I managed to talk often with people who have worked or still work with AA and its PRS framework. I even benefited from having a roommate who knew people connected with organizations that I’m incredibly interested in, so I even got to talk with them as well. Actually, now that I think of it, one of the scholars I spoke with actually mentioned IEDP and its professors, so perhaps I could call the game Six Degrees of IEDP 🙂

But this post is not meant to show off all the people I’ve spoken to; rather, I hope it shows an important lesson about networking. It’s one Dr. GK and others have emphasized in regards to our cohort, but it this case, it was not so much about job seeking (though who knows!), but seeking information. With each conversation, I gathered valuable information that has not only helped me learn and prepare for my internship, but also gain some firsthand accounts of the type of work people do in international development. And people have been remarkably forthcoming when it comes to talking about their work and its impact on education. I think everyone enjoys an opportunity to mentor, so that could have been an influencing factor as well. But I benefited from that too, so I don’t mind too much.

Happily, some of these conversations also revived the culture of being critical that I missed since being out of the classroom. For example, I’ve been working a lot on policy in AAC, as I mentioned, but it wasn’t until I spoke with a professor working on education governance that made me question whether the suggestions or analysis I was making would actually be successful if taken up by AAC by highlighting the political nature of policy work. Further realistic considerations on policy impact were also discussed with someone working at an international organization with significant influence in policy dialogue who knew how the Cambodian context operated. Without these conversations, I don’t know how my three months of experience in the country would have brought these conclusions to my attention.

Frankly, and I think this is probably similar to the other interns who work for only three months, right now is the time that I feel I can be the most useful. Because of both these conversations and simply working at AAC, I am finally more comfortable and familiar with both the organization and its work. Ironically, it’s also the time I have to leave. In my final week, I am trying to wrap up all the outstanding reports and say my goodbyes, but it will be tinged with the regret that another three months here could have been even better than the past three. Such is the reality of IEDP interns, except, of course, those who have the chance to do six-month internships. But they’re the lucky ones, in my eyes. There is still so much that I can learn here.

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