By Jessi Hanson, M&E Manager
In the last decade of working in international development, I have learnt one golden truth: Trust your staff on the ground to know best! The international
development world is made up of usually two groups working together (hopefully in harmony) on a variety of projects in sectors that combat poverty, empower marginalized people, and aim to improve their quality of life. These two groups typically include: international consultants or international staff, and national staff. The first group consists of people from countries like the United States, Canada, England, or Japan, who often started out doing small volunteer stints abroad, maybe even worked in Peace Corps or the VSO. Most later got a degree in a sector like education or public health, or studied international development and international relations. They might have lived a few years abroad and authentically contributed to a few projects in the field, but a great majority work out of the main offices in cities like: Washington, D.C., London, or New York, and travel from time to time to advise or oversee projects in country. We (and I humbly include myself as one) often get endearingly referred to as the gringos, muzungus, the weepoos.
The second group of development workers, the national staff, typically are from the country or region in which they are working, spend long days each week in field, speak the local language, and have a better understanding of the people that organization labels its ‘beneficiaries.’ They are the knowledge on the ground, the insight to the cultural contextual reality, and more often than not, have double the experience level and management expertise than us international
It was a wonderful moment to see on one of my first trips to Benin, how much every international staff member recognized this ‘golden truth’ without ever specifically stating it. It was demonstrated in their actions, the way they collaborated on decisions, and the thoughtful manner they spoke about our Benin teammates. We, at VaxTrac, work hard on a variety of project initiatives to ensure our International Office and National Office have equitable inputs and decision making power. It is also something we are working to instill in our monitoring and evaluation practices.
One example was on our last trip to Benin, in June. We worked to develop a new monitoring tool, which we named the ‘VaxTrac Digital System Scorecard’, which assessed the use and capacity development of the health workers who we trained to use the VaxTrac digital system in clinics on a frequent basis. For most of our health workers, the VaxTrac system is the first time that they ever turned on a computer or entered data using a keyboard; so it is pretty important that we track their progress with using this system, and in a way, that we can give feedback to them and measure over all our clinics where trainees are succeeding or need more guidance.
Developing a good monitoring tool can take many months if done right, and this time was no different. As far back as January, we worked collaboratively with our Africa Regional Manager, Fidele, to draft the concept of a scorecard that would work in the local environment. Next, our team in the USA researched and drafted a first version of the Scorecard. It went back and forth several times via email to our different teams before we felt we almost had it. On the June trip, we got the entire Benin team together in a room, projected the Scorecard on the screen, and watched sat back as Fidele led his national team to dissect the tool to perfection. It took over two long hours, and then even more. They picked it apart, reshaped boxes, scraped bits we in the US thought made sense. And in the end, after several days of further pilot testing in the field and running the drafted tool by the health workers themselves to see their thoughts about the tool, we had a set product.
It takes a concerted level of humility, trust, and respect for your teammates to let a favorite pet product go for collaborative editing. But follow the ‘Gold Rule’. As an international staff member, I try to remind myself everyday to trust the expertise, vision and understanding that my national team members have for something we will apply in what is ‘their world’. In the end, when we work alongside the best national team, we can do that, and know in the end, the vision is even brighter and will yield just not a better product but promote a sense of community even across oceans.
I was very excited when I got my entry visa to the United States, though on the flight, I was greatly disillusioned. After being on the plane the whole evening, we finally landed in the country of Aile Selasie (Ethiopia), twice as far from America than Benin. The journey was long and very stressful for both my courage and patience. We even had a stopover in Rome, the land of the Pope. Finally, we reached the land of Uncle Sam which was impressive and had a natural greatness. After an interminable wait for customs, I was received by my colleagues Shawn and Meredith. We drove to the VaxTrac office and then had a welcome lunch at a nearby restaurant. Surprise surprise, I was staying next door to the US Benin Embassy. Without wasting time, I visited the Embassy in honor of the homeland, and as we say in our country, a « yi kan xwé bi o ».
The welcome at the Embassy was very warm. My team and I had the honor of being received by His Excellency Mr. Omar AROUNA, the Ambassador. The following day, I had to try walking from the hotel to the office, as there are no “Zémidjan” in Washington. Walking is a culture here, and the most amazing part is that it takes the same time on a taxi or bus as it does to walk most places, so we must adapt because it is good for our health; “What a trip, that allows us to prevent so many heart diseases!”
On the streets of Washington, the people I met were very hospitable and interested in my African outfits; I had to take advantage of the opportunity to brag about my culture. It’s summer and it is warmer here than at home; so I could put my “baubas” made in Africa. But beware, the bazins did not do me any favors in the heat, I almost suffocated!
I visited many parks and public gardens with trips for wine, jazz and to meet friends of my colleagues. I even had a football game organized by Meredith and her friend Robert which was wonderful. The greenery of Washington is impressive but I was shocked that it is illegal to urinate in public here, as that is not the case at home.
The meals are very close to what we consume at home so I certainly had no trouble feeding myself.
On Sunday, I searched online for the nearest Catholic Church which was supposedly an hour away from my hotel. This was a great contrast with Germany where the cathedrals abound in the streets of cities that I visited there. I had to travel far I the US to get close to God, but then I reconsidered; God is One, so participating in a Protestant worship will not do any harm. But I was too late, the service was very short. God here is so smart that his worshipers go straight to the essentials; God here does not use too much of people’s time, or at least people in Washington use God’s time wisely.
The following Monday, I was taken by my colleagues Shawn and Meredith to Baltimore Airport for my flight to Atlanta where I was expected by Mark Thomas, Executive Director of VaxTrac. Two hours later I arrived in Atlanta, lost in a crazy world of passengers without knowing where to pick up my luggage. Everything is electronic! Suddenly, a little boy smiled and stopped at my level. He asked his parents to greet me and they helped me to navigate the big airport to retrieve my luggage. At the exit, I saw Mark Thomas with a warm sign and together we went to pick up my suitcase, then he took me to the VaxTrac Atlanta office, where I was greeted by my colleagues Mary Michael McDuff and Anita Narayanan. After a Staff Meeting via Skype with the Washington team, I was taken to the hotel, where I was enveloped by sumptuous comfort. The next day, I experienced a work day at the Atlanta office. Here, under the deafening quiet of nature, each of the professionals are in constant contact with the task at hand and each remains productive beyond expectations. Not even cell phone sounds break the calm. The few phone calls which I did hear were around break times. Five major documents were produced in eight hours of work. Great performance and lesson in work time management! That same night I had the honor of being invited to dinner at Mark’s place with his parents. Mark himself prepared delicious food that we enjoyed in a very friendly atmosphere. The reunion was very warm between the three Marks (Fidele Marc, Mark Jr. and Mark Sr.), Mark’s mom Marti and Ashely, our wonderful hostess. I will keep very fond memories of this evening.
Then came the discovery of the city of Atlanta. Mark Thomas Sr., father of Mark, drove us everywhere, from the University of Emory to CDC, and the Georgia Aquarium with edifying availability as, according to him, “to teach by example.” Each place we visited hinted at one lesson, “Dream big and pursue quality in all that you do.”
The next day I returned to Washington, DC to reunite with my colleagues Shawn and Meredith who took a very good care of me. I stayed in a top quality hotel where I had a panoramic view of the city of Washington. For the first time, I attended a baseball game in a very friendly atmosphere with my colleagues and their partners to whom I express my deep gratitude. We are a team that respects the integrity of the human being.
I finished my mission in the United States while keeping in the bottom of my heart the beautiful life lessons that I have learned.
Je fus très excité quand je reçus mon visa d’entrée aux Etats Unis. Sur le vol, ma désillusion fut grande. Après avoir volé la soirée entière, nous atterrissames au pays d’AILE SELASIE encore deux fois plus loin des Amériques que le Bénin. Le voyage fut long, nous faisant passer par la terre papale, et très éprouvant pour le courage et la patience. Finalement, nous atteignîmes le pays de l’oncle THOM avec un génie grandeur nature impressionnant. Apes une interminable attente pour les formalités douanières, je fus accueilli par mes collègues Shawn SARWAR et Meredith BAKER. Je fus conduis au siège de VaxTrac, puis après un déjeuner de bienvenue, à l’hôtel. Surprise pour surprise, je serai logé à côté de l’Ambassade du Bénin près des Etats Unis à Washington. Sans perdre de temps, je rendis visite à l’Ambassade en hommage à la terre natale, comme nous le faisons au pays : « un yi kan xwé bi o ».
L’accueil fut très chaleureux. Mon Equipe et moi avions eu l’insigne honneur d’être reçus par son Excellence M. Omar AROUNA, l’Ambassadeur. Les jours suivants, il fallait expérimenter les marches matinales et vespérales de l’hôtel au bureau à Washington. Il n’y a pas de « Zémidjan » par ici. La marche est une culture. Et le plus étonnant, tu perdrais le même temps à bord d’un taxi ou d’un bus qu’à marcher. Alors il faut s’y adapter puisque c’est bon pour la santé. « Sacré voyage qui me contraignît à prévenir les Maladies Non Transmissibles ! ».
Les personnes rencontrées sont très hospitalières avec beaucoup d’intérêt pour mes tenues Africaines. Je devrais en profiter pour vanter ma culture. C’est l’Eté et il fait plus chaud ici qu’au pays ; alors, je pouvais mettre mes « baubas » made in Africa. Mais attention les bazins ne m’ont pas rendus service. J’avais failli suffoquer en dessous. J’ai visité beaucoup de Parks et de jardins publics sous l’accompagnement du vin, du Jazz et des amis de mes collègues. J’eu même droit à une partie de football organisée par Meredith et son ami Robert. Ce fut merveilleux. La verdure de Washington est impressionnante mais gare à vous si vous arrosez les herbes d’urine : C’est la Cour d’Assises qui tranche votre cas. Les repas sont très proches de ce que nous consommons au pays. C’est une mixture interculturelle parfaite. Je n’ai eu aucun mal à m’alimenter.
Le dimanche, je recherchai sur mon portable l’Eglise catholique la plus proche. Il faut y aller suite à 1h de voyage. Le grand contraste avec l’Allemagne. Pendant que les Cathédrales pullulent dans les toutes rues des villes Allemandes que j’avais visitées, il fallait voyager loin pour se rapprocher de Dieu. J’avais alors opté pour un plan B ; Dieu étant Unique, participer à un culte Protestant. Mais, trop tard. Dieu ici est si SMART que ses adorateurs vont à l’essentiel. Dieu ici n’use pas du temps des hommes, ou du moins les hommes à Washington utilisent judicieusement le temps de Dieu.
Le lundi suivant, je fus conduit par mes collègues Shawn et Meredith à l’Aéroport de Virginia pour mon vol sur Atlanta où m’attendait Mark THOMAS, le Directeur Exécutif de VaxTrac. Deux heures plus tard, j’arrivais à Atlanta, perdu dans un monde fou de passagers sans pour autant savoir par où aller chercher mes bagages. Tout est électronique. Soudain, un petit garçon qui accompagnait ses parents me sourit et s’arrêta à mon niveau, obligeant ses parents à me saluer et à négocier qu’il reprenne la route avec eux. J’en profitai pour m’orienter vers mes bagages. A la sortie, je vis Mark THOMAS avec une chaleureuse pancarte artistement conçue par Anita NARAYANAN notre Assistante de Programme. Ensemble, nous allâmes chercher ma valise, puis il me conduisit au bureau annexe de VaxTrac à Atlanta, où je fus accueilli par mes collègues Marie Michel MCDUFF, et Anita NARAYANAN. Après la réunion de service en ligne avec l’équipe de Washington, je fus conduit à l’Hôtel, où le somptueux confort m’étreignit.
Le jour suivant, j’expérimentai une journée de travail au siège annexe d’Atlanta. Ici, sous le calme assourdissant de la nature, chacun des professionnels dans un contact permanent avec sa source d’inspiration, reste productif au-delà des attentes. Pas de bruit de portable qui dérange. Les quelques rares coups de fils passés autour de moi, ne l’ont été qu’à la pause. Cinq grands documents conçus en huit heures de travail. Grande performance ! Et belle leçon de gestion du temps de travail. J’eu ce soir-là même l’honneur d’être convié au diner chez Mark Thomas Jr avec ses parents. Mark a lui-même préparé les délicieux mets qu’il nous a offerts dans une ambiance familiale. Les retrouvailles furent très chaleureuses entre les trois Mark, Maman Marti et la Reine des lieux. J’en ai gardé des souvenirs très filiaux.
Ensuit vinrent la découverte de la ville d’Atlanta et du diner d’au revoir. Mark THOMAS, père de Mark, nous a conduits partout, de l’Université d’EMORY à CDC en passant par la GEOGIA AQUARIUM avec une disponibilité édifiante comme pour à ses dires : « Nous instruire par l’Exemple ». Chacun de ces lieux visité ne laissait entrevoir qu’une seule leçon : « Rêver grand et rechercher la qualité dans toutes ses interventions. »
Le lendemain, je fis mon retour sur Washington avec mes Collègues Shawn et Meredith aux petits soins, logé dans un Hôtel à Cinq Etoiles où j’avais une vue panoramique sur la ville de Washington. Pour la première fois, j’assistai à une compétition de Baseball dans une ambiance de famille très conviviale avec mes collègues et leurs conjoints à qui j’exprime ma profonde reconnaissance. Nous sommes une équipe respectueuse de l’intégrité de la personne humaine.
J’achevai ma mission aux USA en gardant au plus profond de mon cœur les belles leçons de vie que j’en ai tirées.
Ten weeks ago, when I arrived for onboarding week in D.C. to begin orientation as a VaxTrac Program Associate, I remember one of the members of the D.C. team telling me upon my arrival that everyone was happy to have me on “the VaxTrac team” for the summer. It wasn’t until the early days in the Atlanta office as Anita and I carved out our Scopes of Work for the summer that I realized the full meaning of being a part of the VaxTrac team – it meant that I was valued. Throughout the completion of my three major projects and numerous minor projects, from a trip to Benin to many days spent in our co-working space, I felt not only enthusiasm from my co-workers about my presence in the organization, but also that the work I was doing was valuable to VaxTrac’s overall mission and future.
The first project I undertook as a member of the VaxTrac team, information mapping, spanned the entirety of the summer and two continents. For this project, I traveled to Benin to collect copies of the paper health records that are used in the health system to track vaccination and stock data. I asked health workers questions about the records and began to piece together the flow of vaccine data through the health system in Benin, from the clinic level to the national Ministry of Health. After Anita’s trip to Benin a few weeks later, we worked in the Atlanta office to complete the process map of vaccine data and were able to conclude that replacing the current paper record system in Benin would potentially improve timeliness of data delivery by at least eight weeks in addition to eliminating transcription errors that currently occur.
The information mapping project was only the first project I was able to work on that would hopefully inform the future work of the organization; the next project was a health worker observation guide. VaxTrac’s desire to measure health worker efficiency was the catalyst for this project, as I reviewed existing literature on how to measure workplace efficiency, particularly in a healthcare setting with multiple workers completing various tasks. Finally, Anita and I completed two observation guides with a focus on direct one-on-one observation, one of which Anita tested in clinics in Benin, the other will continue to be tested by VaxTrac field supervisors in the future.
During my short time at VaxTrac, I was able to witness the unconstrained growth taking place in the organization as two new projects were finalized and scheduled to begin this autumn—one in Nepal and one in Indonesia. As a part of the team, I created needs assessment materials to be used in these upcoming projects and any other new projects that the organization might take on in the future. These materials included interview guides for clinic supervisors, health workers, and mothers/guardians of children receiving vaccinations that will be taken to clinics during the team’s first trip into each country. Additionally, Anita and I researched background information such as national vaccination schedules, national coverage rates, health system structures, etc., for both Indonesia and Nepal and created country briefs for the team to read prior to embarking on their first needs assessment trips.
Overall, I am immensely grateful for my time as a part of the VaxTrac team. It was rewarding to be a part of a small non-profit in which the work of Anita and I was important and contributed to the continuing success of the organization and in which I was exposed firsthand to the potential power of using technology to improve a country’s vaccine delivery system.
Welcome to my first blog post! My name is Duncan and I’m VaxTrac’s newest software engineer. I came onto the project in late May coincidentally at the same time as our Summer Associates, Anita and Mary Michael. I am now living in Washington, DC permanently and am enjoying it immensely. Previously, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching computer science courses in the Gambia, West Africa. There I learned to speak a humble amount of Wolof, hold hands with platonic friends, and inhale copious amounts of rice. I’m originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and had to leave my good friends at Carnegie Mellon when I left for Africa 3 years ago.
With Benin being our largest project, I knew I would get the chance to eventually return to the sublime region (and reuse all those wild outfits). Benin is now the 8th country I’ve visited in Africa. After leaving the Peace Corps, my friend Kim and I travelled for 2 months through South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, Tanzania & Zanzibar, Ethiopia, Turkey, Czech Republic, and Germany before finally reaching the states. I’m relieved to be stationed in one place again and stop living out of a suitcase. VaxTrac presented such a unique opportunity to marry technology, health, and international development at the grassroots level. I hope I can build upon and compliment the hard work that Mark, Shawn, Meredith, Jessi and the team have invested already.
Our adventure first started when Fidele Marc brought us some of our field units on his trip to America. Remarkably, most of the netbooks from the health clinics were in phenomenal condition considering the harsh environments they have to endure. One laptop had a dying fan making a crunchy wheezing sound but still functioned. Another had tiny brownish ants scurrying out of its internals looking for a meal. Once you’ve seen lizards scurry out of a PC, nothing can really spook you anymore. Shawn and I had been preparing for weeks a number of new features and fixes our Benin staff and health workers have requested. This appears to be the final tune up before we rollout our new tablet platform in early 2015.
Despite arriving late on a Saturday night, the entire Benin staff showed up at the airport to warmly welcome us and take us to our residence. It’s easy to impress a former volunteer with things like running water, air conditioning, and reliable electricity. It’s a dramatic change being chauffeured most places with the VaxTrac Benin staff on official business. Most of my transit memories revolve around walking and biking long distances, taxi breakdowns and mishaps, killing hours in car parks and sleeping at border posts. Not that I could survive one day driving a motorbike in Cotonou without sparking an international incident.
Our time in country was limited so we definitely put in some long 10 and 12 hour days and asked a lot of our Benin counterparts. I may have broken my pact to never drink another cup of Nescafe but it was all for the good of the mission. I can’t thank Judicael, Thibaut, Pascal, and Landry enough for their tireless work in the field and on the front lines day in and day out. Their rigorous traveling, training, and troubleshooting at the health centers are a huge part of our success. While we couldn’t push our changes to every clinic machine during our abbreviated stay, it shouldn’t take our team long to blanket every site.
Maybe the highlight of our trip, to echo Anita, we were shown the famous West African hospitality when Fidele and his wife Carole invited us over for a fabulous home cooked meal. The children were buzzing and full of smiles and laughter, playing with some of their new toys from Target. I’ll know next time to skip breakfast and lunch and also make Fidele sing and play the guitar. Can you believe you had to read this long to hear all about food? All week we ate arguably some of the freshest fish imaginable. I got to indulge likewise in some of my favorite Baobab and Hibiscus juices and the heavenly taste of a cold Youki Grapefruit again.
My homework assignment for our next trip is to probably double my French vocabulary from 10 words to 20, mostly so I can converse with children.
Location: VaxTrac, 641 S St NW, Washington DC 20001
Job type: Full-time
Job Description: The position reports to the Executive Director but will be an integral member of a small but ambitious team with plenty of opportunity to participate in various aspects of an exciting start-up nonprofit.
Primary roles and responsibilities:
Finance and accounting
Skills and Requirements:
Applicants must be authorized to work lawfully in the United States. We will not sponsor applicants for work visas.
VaxTrac is committed to creating a diverse environment and is proud to be an equal opportunity employer. All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, national origin, genetics, disability, age, or veteran status.
To apply for this position, please email your updated resume and cover letter as attachments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Selected candidates will be contacted for an initial interview. Thank you for your interest!