Friday, 8 March 2013

Summing up 18 months with Cuso International


I have now been back in Canada for one week.  I have been enjoying developed world health and dental care, attentive customer service, and Toronto public transit.  I have been missing palm trees, plus thirty degree temperatures, and ortanique juice.  I now use the term "going home" to refer to about 3 different places.

But before I take off on my next set of adventures (don't you worry, there will be adventures and I will continue to post stories and pictures right here) I wanted to post the final case study of my placement with Cuso International. For those of you that still aren't sure exactly what I did in Jamaica, here is one version of the story.

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Case Study: Julia Magnuson-Ford, Cuso International Youth Program Development Advisor, 2011-2013




When Julia Magnuson-Ford found out that her placement with Cuso International was going to be in Montego Bay, Jamaica, it seemed more like a holiday destination than a development location. When she learned that she was going to be the only volunteer in Montego Bay and the program office would be four hours away by bus, it felt a little more daunting.

“I was excited about being close to the beach and in such a beautiful location, but I knew it was going to be more difficult than if I had the close support of other volunteers nearby. Because of the phone costs here, it is cheaper to call Canada then the other volunteers in Kingston” said Magnuson-Ford.  And it was difficult, right from the beginning.  The local Cuso staff were supportive, but they weren’t familiar with the area. Through a process of trial and error and support from her neighbors and colleagues, she found an apartment, learned the public transportation routes, bought her “box lunch” at a cook shop each day, and located the grocery store and other shops in town.

It wasn’t evident to her until two months into her first placement how much she enjoyed living in Montego Bay. This feeling became even more poignant when she realized her placement was not going to work out and she might have to leave.

Magnuson-Ford said, “The national program that I was there to support didn’t get the core operating funding it had hoped to receive.  By the time I arrived, it was clear that my skills were not needed as expected. I knew that in the volunteer training the mantra had been “expect the unexpected,” but this was very challenging.”

Through discussions with the Jamaican Cuso Program Office, the decision was made to keep Magnuson-Ford in Montego Bay in the role of a Cuso program office volunteer.  Tarik Perkins, the Jamaica Country Representative, had been trying for years to develop volunteer placements in parts of the country other than the capital, Kingston, and saw this as an opportunity. “We know that poverty exists all over the island and I really wanted to be able to address some of the needs in communities outside of Kingston. In addition, we were just beginning to develop a program focusing on the social and economic inclusion of youth, a new priority for Jamaica, and at the time, I thought we could really use her skills in networking and relationship development.”

Cuso International works through partnerships with local organizations, agencies, and communities that deliver development services. Partnerships with these organizations are carefully shaped, ensuring that the work of a volunteer will align with the strategic goals of the partner alongside those of Cuso. It is also important to ensure the volunteer will not take what could be a job for a local person and that there is a plan in place to sustain the work of the volunteer once their term is up, such as by training local counterparts to carry on their work.

The goal of Magnuson-Ford’s placement in Montego Bay was to explore the landscape – what was going on already in the community – and then to identify opportunities for partnerships that could lead to volunteer placements.  Jamaica has a high incidence of violence, and St. James Parish, where Montego Bay is located, includes some of the most violent communities on the island. In addition, in the south of the parish, there are remote rural areas that are high up in the hills and difficult to access, home to some of the country’s poorest citizens.

Magnuson-Ford used the contacts from her first placement as well as those from existing Cuso Jamaica partners, who had branch offices in “the country,” as Jamaicans refer to everything outside the Kingston metropolis.  She found that there was a lot going on in terms of organizations working to reach marginalized youth, but there were still challenges.  Youth in the community faced a lack of training and, most importantly, of viable jobs.  There was significant violence occurring in some communities.  In particular, Montego Bay is known as a hub for the online and telephone “scamming” networks, which has a get-rich-fast effect for the perpetrators, but the sudden influx of money brings destabilization to the community.  In addition, migration to Montego Bay from the surrounding rural areas is high based on the perception that there are jobs available in the tourist industry. But there are neither jobs nor housing to meet the demand.

The reality was, of the organizations that were working for change in Montego Bay, many of them were not suitable for a Cuso placement. They were often very small, with part-time volunteers and no permanent office space.  One difficulty was that there would not be enough work at one of these organizations for one full-time volunteer, but the coordination between organizations was not yet established to enable a volunteer to work with multiple organizations at once.

“I had met committed people who were doing good work in specific communities, but I was struggling to see who we could best partner with and how they could meet the requirements necessary to host a volunteer for a yearlong placement,” said Magnuson-Ford.  Most of the placements in Jamaica are with established non-profit organizations or government agencies located in Kingston, who have the capacity to host a volunteer working full-time and the space to provide simple things like a desk and a telephone. In Montego Bay, that was not the case.

Magnuson-Ford worked with the Cuso progamme office in Kingston, and through several discussions, and visits from program staff to Montego Bay, they created a strategy that they could use to develop partnerships in Montego Bay.

“We knew that for the Youth Social and Economic Inclusion Programme we wanted to include both organizations serving youth and youth–led organizations, like community youth clubs.  The youth-led organizations are essential for building leadership skills and for engaging youth fully in their communities. Therefore, one of the key questions for us became: How do we work directly with youth in vulnerable communities?”

Challenges remained. How would they get introductions to youth groups in communities?  How would they ensure that a volunteer here for a year would make a sustainable contribution? After several meetings with potential partners, Magnuson-Ford and Perkins came up with a model to use a “host” organization, the Social Development Commission of Jamaica (SDC), to place a volunteer that would work directly with community youth clubs to develop leadership and life skills, along with promoting entrepreneurial activities.
“The SDC is an ideal partner for Cuso International in Jamaica.  It is a government agency who is mandated to strengthen community governance structures. Their field officers have relationships with youth groups in the communities in which they serve, but they do not have the capacity to focus on empowering youth specifically” said Magnuson-Ford.

And, one year after starting her role as the Cuso program development advisor, Magnuson-Ford welcomed Nataleah Hunter-Young as the community mobilization officer at the SDC in their St James Office.  Her volunteer placement involved working alongside the field officers directly with the youth groups in specific communities.  A few months later, a second volunteer, Laura Evans, arrived to focus on strengthening the organizational capacity of the SDC. The second placement will ensure that the tools developed in the field by Hunter-Young can be disseminated to all of the field officers, and even to offices in other parishes.

Magnuson-Ford said, “I am so glad to have other volunteers working in Montego Bay. It took a long time, but now the ball has started rolling and there will be volunteers here for a while”

By the end of Magnuson-Ford’s time in Jamaica, there were two volunteers working in Montego Bay and plans for as many as four more to arrive in the next year. Of all the partnerships she worked on, Magnuson-Ford says that she is most proud of the first one.  “It really represents Cuso’s ability to be creative and flexible.  We knew that we wanted to work directly in community with youth-led groups, and this placement allows us to do that without comprising the volunteer’s experience.”

In her role as a pioneering volunteer, Magnuson-Ford had laid down tracks for Cuso International to play an active role in Montego Bay, working to end poverty throughout the island of Jamaica.

Julia Magnuson-Ford was a Program Development Advisor in Jamaica for Cuso International from October 2011 to February 2013. She has a background working in and for non-profit organizations in North America, with a focus on project management and fundraising.  At the end of her placement she plans to crew on a sailboat touring the Caribbean, through contacts she made while a Cuso volunteer.

Tarik Perkins, back left, white shirt, me, middle, peach shirt, Nataleah Hunter-Young, to my right, taupe shirt, with SDC and Cuso staff

1 comment:

  1. Job well done! Thank you for the closing remarks.

    ReplyDelete