Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Day 3: From Rags to Riches...Sort of

Ten Days ago, I had less than $10 in the bank. I was surviving on my part-time job and the generosity of the good relationships in my life. Last night, I was being picked up with my boss by drivers with a Mercedes SUV, blasting club music, and taken to where the G was hanging out with the MF at the Villa.

Beautiful marble, very nice champagne, and a fairly productive strategizing session. How fast the world turns and changes things around. I think I was more disoriented by the change in my fortunes (and how careful one needs to be around the powerful) than the champagne.

Despite my favorite World Cup Team (Portugal) losing during the meeting, the whole thing had me in hysterics inside.

I’m excited by my project, I am having a very nice time in Abuja with my extended friendship network, and even got in some daimoku with the local Buddhists.

I am also grateful for my mix of experience in witnessing abject poverty, experiencing relative poverty, experiencing great opportunity and being around great wealth. Diverse life experiences do help, sometimes.

I dated a millionaire once, for a year or so…which exposed me to prejudices I did not know I had at the time (I was so mean to him! Poor guy). BUT it also showed me the good and bad sides of the “Good Life” and the limits of it. I’ve also had a millionaire propose (same guy) to me and I’ve said no, so the Nigerians can’t buy me, or charm me with money.

The other thing I’m grateful for is my 2+ years in New York City and my BS meter. So, I’m not easily impressed and I am not blinded by the glitz. I’m not even tempted to try that life. I can sip my champagne, leave the second glass untouched, and just get my job done.

Either way, the G, ME, my boss and I were very productive. I think the project will get off the ground nicely.

Still, it’s been quite the whirlwind! Thank goodness for good friends! Also, thank goodness for the BS meter…keeps a girl grounded!


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Day 3: Social Chess

Dear readers,

I think I'm getting enough Vitamin D. Despite it being the rainy season, I've seen mostly sun. I'm getting darker by the minute.

Yesterday, I was a little dizzy and tingly from the first half of my mefloquin pill (I'm cutting them in half and taking them twice a week instead of one pill once a week to reduce the side effects). Today I'm doing alright.

I met me old ECOWAS coworkers--looks like ECOWARN has been expanding, and had a lovely dinner put together by my hostess and my old friend, Alice.

I'm working on half a dozen items for a meeting tonight with the boss of all my bosses, Governor Silva of Bayelsa. His influence is absolutely critical for the success of this project. So far, he's been very supportive and this project is his baby (and the brainchild of many people in the Ministry of Finance, World Bank, Columbia University and New America Foundation).

I've decided to call the diverse and convoluted social interactions of Nigeria as 'social chess.' Its an artform, a game, can be well-played or not. Its not all about money or influence, it is also about respect, charm and even a certain realpolitick.

Either way, I'm going to have to participate in all this, but NOT become one of the players of this game, OR become a piece with which to bargain, right?

Hope all of you are well,

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Adventure: Day 1 (in transit)

Dear Readers,

I write this from my seat on the first leg of my flight to Abuja. I can’t really tell what my feelings are so far…Mostly a tired calm seems to have enveloped me. I miss my boyfriend, cat and family. I wonder if I’ve taken on a job that is too risky.

I hope I’ve done enough preparing, although I doubt it. I am excited by the adventure. I am unaffected by the details of traveling, packing, lines, etc. I guess one advantage of a lifetime of travel (I took my first international flight at 3 months old to visit my grandparents in Japan—note, I’m not Japanese), is that travel itself seems familiar, and even soothing. I think I’m extremely productive when in transit.

Is leaving my loved ones for 6 months worth it? We’ll find out. If I’m even 50% successful, I’ll learn a lot about myself, the Niger Delta, development work, and how to create value out of any situation. I will pray and do my best to make sure nothing untoward happens.

The job and the timing make sense—if I’ve got a Masters in International Security Policy and want to focus on ways to prevent, transform, resolve, mediate and recover from conflicts, then I have to know first-hand what I’m talking about. One piece of that is finding out if I can handle doing something challenging, on my own, in a community with a certain amount of turmoil. Also, I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak—so the idea of consulting is something I’ve wanted to explore.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are signs of potential success. This type of project has succeeded with much more impoverished communities. The Bayelsa State Government (BSG) officials have been very helpful from a distance, and will hopefully be in person. The political timing could go either way—maybe it will cause problems, or it will be the backdrop for the Governor (who is backing the project) to prove his commitment to his people.

One very tangible piece of evidence that the BSG is serious about this project is…they’re paying for it! They’ve already paid for some of it. I think this represents an important commitment and buy-in. I also think that it is high time the Nigerians start to take care of themselves. Nigeria is often a tough country for me—because, unlike some places—it has so much wealth. It could do anything it wants, and be an oasis in the region…but its not. Sure, Nigerians are very hospitable (“You Are Welcome” is probably the most common phrase I’ve heard there), brilliant and creative. Anyone who survives or thrives in Nigeria is worthy of some admiration (even if I don’t always want to know how they got there!).

So, how to get Nigeria to take care of itself? To provide for and encourage its own growth and humanity? I don’t have the answer, but I hope to learn something about this over the next 6 months.
Hope to hear your thoughts,

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Alena is headed to Nigeria!

Dear Readers,

As you may have read over the last month or two, I am headed to Nigeria to do a 6 month consultancy. I leave tomorrow.

It involves a challenging project, in a challenging environment, at a challenging period for Nigeria. It is a youth savings project, focused on the idea that the habit of savings and the development of assets can and will transform the life of poor youth. The habit of savings is correlated with improved health, better outlook on life, avoidance of risky behaviors, and the ability to make long-term life plans. The development of assets provides these young people with opportunities to pursue schooling and business opportunities, without the onus of paying it back (like in microcredit).

The Bayelsa State Government has taken on this project, and is committed to doubling everything the kids save (up to a cap), provide financial training to the youths and their families, and to test this approach to alleviating poverty in their community.

Its a tough project: it involves money, logistics, kids, education, etc.

It's a tough environment: Bayelsa is in the Niger Delta, which is where Nigeria's oil comes from. There are ongoing, low-lying militant conflicts, underserved populations, poor roads, pollution, heavy rainfall, extreme heat, etc.

It's a tough time: Elections are in April 2011, Nigeria just gained a new leader (President Goodluck Jonathan), who is from Bayelsa. There is plenty of local electoral strife and violence. Also, there is the question of what will the new President do about the amnesty proceedings with the militants?

What's in it for me? A life-changing experience. The opportunity to test some of the theories I learned in graduate school. If the project is even halfway successful, it's an important step forward for the region.

Wish me luck!

Stay tuned to find out more!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Terror and Trauma: What are the effects?

Dear Readers,

I highly recommend reading Why does terrorism fascinate me? Because of the terror in my past. by Jessica Stern in its entirety.

It's an extremely powerful piece, where this expert on terrorism examines the trauma effect of her rape as a child and how that lead to her being emotionally numb enough to examine terrorism. She has an important moment of self-realization, that her childhood experience is something she must examine and understand, otherwise she will suffer from numbness and disconnectedness to the terror part of terrorism.

She also begins to examine the relationship between childhood trauma and adult violence and terrorism. Her rapist had been abused by a priest as a boy, and his own trauma led to a lifetime of destroying the lives of others.

She links that to potential childhood trauma among extremists and wonders at what young experience terrorists or other violent people may have had that lead to their current existence.

I think it is extremely important to examine the human explanations, and to bravely examine our own lives, much like this author. I think we also greatly underestimate the fact that in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc, we're dealing with people who have led traumatized existences, and therefore they will behave in ways we don't expect. Iraqis have lived through 3 wars in their lifetimes. Afghanistan has lived under war and the Taliban. Poverty does not necessarily mean crime, but extreme poverty can lead to a difficulty in developing healthy emotional responses.

Some choice quotes:

"I wasn't aware that I was afraid. After a series of traumas, one can lose the capacity to feel fear appropriately."

"She (the psychologist) suggested that I might have post-traumatic stress disorder. I did not believe it."

"I felt compelled to answer questions I had spent my professional life asking about terrorists: What happened to the boy who grew up to become my rapist? Was there anything in his life story that might explain, at least in part, why he would want or need to hurt us? What happened to him afterward?"

"Is there a link between possible abuse and alienation and vulnerability to terrorist recruitment? Could terrorism sometimes reflect a kind of perverse post-traumatic evolution?"

A very interesting and powerful article. I recommend reading it. I would like to hear your thoughts.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

More advice on Security Clearances

Some links passed to me by readers:

Security Clearance Lawyers to help you through the process.

The Polygraph Examination: Forewarned is Forearmed

So far, being helpful and polite is important, too. My security clearance interviewer was pretty ticked off by the previous interviewee--who was rude and demanding. Also, dress nicely (you don't need a suit, but you should take it seriously).

Either way, best of luck!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

One Point for the Nigerians

Dear Readers,

I know I'm about to commit an international affairs faux pas. I'm going to generalize about two groups of people/institutions that are quite different from each other, and only have one point of commonality here: me.

Here it is:
I like Nigeria. I like Nigerians. I'm sure I'm going to run into tons of obstacles, problems, violence, insecurity, etc...BUT my Nigerian friends, coworkers and soon-to-be employers have been hands-down MUCH more helpful than my first-world American institutions.

I'm not going to name names, but in my job hunt, hiring process, contracting, etc, every time I've needed help (whether it is a job recommendation from a former colleague, help making new contacts in my upcoming consultancy, items for my visa application), that help has been generously given to me by Nigerians. People have gone out of their way to be responsive, communicative, and introduce me to their extended network. Nigerian friends and former colleagues have gone out of their way to help me, help me meet more helpful people and to get things done.

American institutions (some of them involving friends and former bosses)...have been much slower. I'm on 1.5 years of waiting on one job's paperwork to move from desk to desk, and I'll consider myself lucky if I get an actual offer before 2 years has passed from the original application. I've been working for my other job for nearly 3 months and haven't get paid (should happen any day now...I'm not holding grudges, I just would like to buy the plane tickets (that I've delayed twice) necessary for me to actually get to the job)). Also, my American personal connections, despite agreeing to write recommendations, usually take weeks to do so, never communicate and I have to chase them down to make it happen. My Nigerian former colleague? Sent it in the first day, emailed me to confirm AND wished me good luck!

So, maybe I've just met the most charming Nigerians and the more bureaucratic American systems. Still, I think that is one point for the Nigerians.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Nigeria's Season of Uncertainty--Will it Continue?

Dear All,

I had the pleasure to attend a panel at USIP on The Nigerian Predicament: Strategies for Advancing Growth, Governance and Security.

One of the panelists, Dr. Richard Joseph, is co-author of a piece at the Brookings Institute called "Nigeria's Season of Uncertainty." I recommend reading it, it has some excellent points about the factors that lead to Nigeria in the present. The comments at are excellent, although I'd like to point out that Professor Joseph is a Nigerian, not a foreigner.

I think that he does a decent summary of the last year or so of Nigerian political history, and gives Nigeria proper kudos for surviving a tough period without a leader and with much uncertainty. Now, the question is, will President Jonathan move Nigeria forward? Or will he forsake his people by giving into temptation, corruption and egoism?

So, my question to those who pay attention to Nigeria--how is President Jonathan doing? What are you worried about? What are you hopeful about?

Thanks for your time!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Good Idea for the Middle East

Dear Readers,

Despite the sarcastic ending, How to end the blockade of Gaza by Stephen Walt brings up an interesting and plausible solution to the current crisis about the aid blockade put up by Israel against access to the Palestinian Territories.

Dr. Stephen Walt suggests that the US kills two birds with one stone--improve its reputation in the Middle East, ease suffering AND help the Israelis (okay, so that is three birds). The suggestion is that the US use the Navy to end the blockade by bringing aid...and therefore making sure that there are no weapons or possible threats in the aid ships (Israel has expressed concerned that weapons will be given to the Palestinians--which is their reason for having the blockade).

Nice quote:
"All it takes is an administration that is willing to take bold action to correct a situation that is both a humanitarian outrage and a simmering threat to regional peace."

I left out the sarcastic ending--but you're welcome to go see it yourself.


Thanks to for passing this article to me.

Progress for Domestic Workers!

Dear Readers,

Just wanted to point you towards this news article.

Domestic Workers’ Rights

Apparently New York State is about to pass a bill that provides domestic workers (i.e. nannies, cleaners, etc) with some basic regulation and rights. I think this is phenomenal--just like their efforts at regulating farm help.

One of the great challenges of managing this industry is that these workers are practically invisible--in people's homes, usually foreigners, often live-in, and usually subject to many very different kinds of treatment.

It's an industry also extremely vulnerable to human trafficking, exploitation and abuse.

I hope to see more movement on this--do you have any updates?


Sunday, June 6, 2010

Oil, oil, everywhere!

Dear Readers,

I just want to turn your attention to this great article by the UK Guardian about the ongoing problem of oil spills, oil leaks, oil bunkering and other oil challenges. This article examines the oil spills in the Niger delta, Nigeria.

Nigeria's agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill. The US and Europe ignore it. by John Vidal

There is enough oil 'spilled' in Nigeria to easily dwarf the Gulf of Mexico disaster. Activists and citizens of Nigeria are watching how the US handles this challenge--and wish that their governments and the oil companies that operate there would be anywhere near as proactive and responsive.

I will be headed there soon myself! Will keep you posted.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Will YOU get an All-Clear?

Dear all,

I'm waiting on a security clearance.

A friend sent me this article by Derrick Dorch. It outlines how the whole thing works--which is really helpful to know, even if you don't have a lot of control over things.

Word from the wise (in this case, I now feel somewhat well informed on the topic):

-Keep good records (of addresses, all former landlords, their contact information, all former employers, what happens to them after you leave, etc)

-Prepare: take a look a the SF-86 form in advance

-Be nice: Keep in good and friendly contact with many many people. I don't know how true introverts complete a security clearance. You'll have to list all former roommates, bosses, never leave a relationship in a bad state.

-Be nosy: You have to politely find out which of your friends are dual citizens or foreigners...lots of fun...since that's a pretty personal topic.

-Be honest! They want to know if you're BE trustworthy...its tough, and scary. Unfortunately I wasn't raised going to confession, so I'm out of practice listing all my sins to a total stranger.

-Be patient--and get another job while you're waiting. This will take awhile. You'll need to be able to eat while you're waiting.

-Be sympathetic--no one understands how painstaking and time-consuming this process is except those who have gone through it. I certainly didn't!

Any other advice? Feel free to share.