The skills and training Hunger Fellows receive during their service provide a strong foundation for their future work as effective leaders against hunger and poverty. In this first installment of a new blog series highlighting the endeavors of Hunger Fellow alumni, we talked with Julie Savane, alumna of the 6th class of Leland International Hunger Fellows. Read on to hear about her field placement in Senegal, the work that she’s doing today, and her concerns and hopes for the future of global food security.
“…they’re giving a presentation about cow breeding and vaccinations and things…”
Q: What made you want to apply to the Leland International Hunger Fellows program?
A: For me one of the big factors in deciding to apply for the fellowship was the opportunity to have both the field and policy experience—in some cases it’s more like a project management versus policy experience—because a lot of times you have a career path, you get started down a certain road, either working primarily abroad or primarily in the U.S., even if it’s in international development. Coming right out of grad school, this is such an amazing opportunity to get to try out both of those things to see what you liked about each one. And to get the perspective of each one, because you might be a desk officer in Washington, but you’re supporting your country team; or you might be in a country office and you’re trying to work with your HQ team.
Q: Could you tell us more about your work with the Grow campaign?
A: My work was focused around supporting the growth of advocacy in-country and within the region, as well as helping to gather information that would support the advocacy that Oxfam was carrying out in the U.S., primarily in Washington. What I thought was exciting was getting to work across the region with colleagues in Mali, or colleagues in Burkina Faso, or colleagues in Niger, to see how they were bringing up the issue of food security, talking with their government officials, working to find solutions internally in addition to working in international spaces or working in the donor community. I found that really inspiring, because coming from the United States or working in international development, things are often starting from the perspective of “how can we influence the donor country?” But actually the countries’ own governments are so essential, and central to any kind of response or lack thereof for food crises, as there were in 2011 and 2012. So it was really cool to see what the different political barriers were, and how the different teams and the local partners were able to work through those barriers.
Q: What was one of the most memorable parts of your Fellowship work, either at your field site or during your policy work?
A: During my field placement I got to do a food security assessment that was organized by the World Food Program, in collaboration with all the different NGOs that were working in Senegal. That was totally eye opening for me, to see: “OK, so that’s how the data gets collected, this is where we’re able to get the analysis that this area is stressed, how are we going to classify the severity of food security in these different regions of a country and know where to target a humanitarian response to a food crisis…” We were out on the road for eleven days, we went to fourteen different communities. We met with government stakeholders as well as going into homes and interviewing people. That kind of experience, of being out there trying to get the data and seeing what people’s lives were like, was really powerful for me.
Q: What part of your experience with the Leland program really sticks out for you?
A: To me the week of training before the first year and another week before the second year was just fantastic. I know there are graduate programs that focus more on food security, but within my international development program that hadn’t been a focus. So much of the food security knowledge was totally new to me.
It was so exciting to have the range of experience, too; when we all came back from our field year, to sit down with all the other Fellows and hear about what they’d been working on and have them give presentations. Some people were really deep on the nutrition side, and they’re explaining to us “this is how we went out and did the mid-upper arm circumference measurement,” and someone else is doing a dairy project and they’re giving a presentation about cow breeding and vaccinations and these things, and somebody else might have worked on a market share project, and they’re able to give a multimedia presentation about how these farmers were able to market their spices. So getting to see that range, and having that network too, so now I know people who work in all these different aspects of food security, that was really exciting.
“When we can reach out and share we’ll learn so much and go farther.”
Q: What are you working on right now with Rise Against Hunger?
A: Right now I’m working with a partner in Vietnam to start a small enterprise program. I’ll be going out this month to help them get started with a baseline survey, and they’ll be recruiting their first cohort. The women in the program have already been served by this nonprofit and they’ll be building on what they’ve done so far. All the women in the program are single mothers and have been identified as being more vulnerable, but they have small businesses and this project will be able to help them scale up their businesses, develop new business plans and provide them with small grants to implement their business plans. It’s a really exciting new opportunity. For the partner organization, it’s a good opportunity for them to scale up and bring more rigor to their measurements. For us at Rise Against Hunger, we’ve traditionally been known more for our provision of food assistance and for having a volunteer food packaging program, so this is one of the opportunities where we’ve been branching out, adding different technical expertise and working with our partners on more of a livelihood program.
Q: What are the trends you notice in the anti-hunger space today?
A: In the last year or so the focus is turning more toward the first 1,000 days and early childhood. I was at the RESULTS advocacy conference in June, and Lawrence Haddad (IFPRI, formerly with the World Bank), gave a presentation about the importance of early childhood nutrition. During the World Food Prize in Iowa the current president of the World Bank also gave a presentation about the importance of the first 1,000 days; he calls it the “grey matter infrastructure.” The World Bank is traditionally focused more on physical infrastructure, but saying that, especially with the economy changing so much around the world, and with intellectual capacity more so than other skills that workers are going to need to have, this becomes ever more important. So supporting children and their early brain development is going to be the big focus.
Q: If you could gather up everyone in the global anti-hunger community and tell them one thing, what would it be?
A: I think I would love to take that as an opportunity for cooperation, and to recognize all the ways that we’re approaching the problem, because there are so many folks working in different ways in different areas. It gives hope and it helps us along the journey if we know that we’re making progress in our area as well as someone else making progress in their area.
On that same note, we’d also want to make sure that we’re all as coordinated as possible: getting folks together, talking to each other, sharing ideas, taking advantage of that to advance the work. I think in anything in life it’s easy to get siloed, it’s easy to focus on what’s right in front of you, but when we can reach out and share we’ll learn so much and go farther.
Q: What is valuable to you about your relationship with the Hunger Center as an alumna of the Leland Hunger Fellows program?
A: For me it’s valuable for maintaining networks and having new opportunities. Knowing that I can reach out to the Hunger Center and say, “hey I’m working on this” or “do you know someone whose expertise is XYZ?” is a huge benefit. Even within my current job there have been times when I’ve reached out to people from my fellowship to ask them, “hey do you have this tool?” or “would you be interested in this position?” and that stuff has materialized or people have come back to me. It’s great to know you have that network of people with skills and expertise to draw from, that’s really important.
Also, on the advocacy side, in my current work we’re getting more into the realm of engaging our volunteers in advocacy. Knowing that CHC has a finger on the pulse of what’s going on in Washington, what the current bills under debate are, the mood around food security: that’s helpful, too.
Q: Do you have any advice for someone considering applying for the Leland International Hunger Fellows Program?
A: I think I would tell them not to feel limited by their job description, and to really reach out for official or unofficial mentors within their organization. Look for opportunities to take on additional responsibilities so that they could learn other areas. And also, rely on the other Fellows for support and learning. In my class, for professional development* one of the Fellows went and visited a different Fellow and learned about her project. After the fact I was like, “man! I wish I had thought of that!” I would recommend for a potential Leland fellow to think outside the box, and bring whatever you can, even if you feel like you don’t know everything or you don’t have that expertise yet. Just having the time and the energy to focus on something, you can bring a lot to it.
*During their placements Leland Fellows have the opportunity to seek out additional professional development activities outside of their work for their host sites
“That puts you in a different mind frame: thinking ‘what could we accomplish in five years’ instead of ‘OK, I need to knock out this project in the next year.'”
Q: What do you see coming up next for you in your work?
A: I could say: every step in your career, [when] you achieve something, you think, “this is really what I want to learn, this is what I want to achieve!” And then you get to that point and you look out on the horizon and you’re like, “oh wow, there’s another whole world out here!” And then you start working toward the next thing. I feel very much like I continue to be in those kind of moments, where you accomplish something that was a goal, and that serves to put you in a new place and have a new vantage point where you see all these other things you didn’t even know existed—or now you don’t know those things!
For me, looking ahead, I’m working on deepening my understanding of evaluation. I’m a monitoring and evaluation manager, so not only designing food security programs, but also learning more about the evaluation side, that’s definitely something I’m enjoying sinking my teeth into. Also, at my organization there’s been a lot of organizational growth. So it’s interesting—maybe it falls under the category of “boring but important”—nourishing those relationships across departments so the whole organization can be more effective. I think that’s something I’m starting to make progress on. In our field we don’t always have a chance to stay in one organization very long; this is one of the first times where I’m a permanent employee, where I could stay with this organization for a long time. That puts you in a different mind frame: thinking “what could we accomplish in five years” instead of “OK, I need to knock out this project in the next year.” It’s a different mindset.
Q: What are the major challenges for global food security in the next five years?
A: One of the things I see, and it’s been affecting my work lately, is a lot of the food insecurity is happening in countries where there is conflict, and a lot of those countries also have the presence of identified terrorist groups. When you’re a U.S.-based organization and there are different anti-terrorism clauses and sanctions around providing support, even inadvertently, to terrorist groups, that makes it very, very difficult for humanitarian groups to operate. You see the places where food security is the worst, the reports are looking so dire, and yet it’s a really hard space to operate within.
That, combined with a new philosophy among the current administration in the U.S. There’s a lot of uncertainty when I talk to partners these days. What’s the funding level going to be for foreign assistance? What is going to happen with USAID or other programs that folks rely on to implement all the projects they’re doing? How much of that funding is going to be available? That’s such a large portion of the international development budget. Will corporations step up to take more leadership if they see that the government isn’t? Will the private citizens? I think we’ve seen a lot of outpouring of support for certain organizations in response to certain executive orders and policies that have come out recently; will that happen as well for international development? I think that remains to be seen.
Q: What makes you hopeful for the future?
A: One of the things that really makes me hopeful is the people that I get to meet, and the things that people are able to implement. Unfortunately things are a little U.S.-centric in the development space: there’s still this assumption that other places don’t have or other people don’t have. But coming back to my Fellowship, when I was working in West Africa, I met all sorts of people from that region. Except for one, all of my colleagues were from West Africa. They have huge amounts of knowledge and expertise they’re bringing to bear on these issues. We see all kinds of people taking initiative to become self-sufficient in their own food production, to start businesses, to support vulnerable children, all kinds of things. I see that in my work now as well. With the different in-country partners we have, a lot of these are fairly ordinary citizens who just tried to make something happen. That makes me really hopeful, when I see that, as well as the number of people in the U.S. who care about this issue, who are willing to do something about it, who get passionate about the issue and want to move it forward.