2010 PFIG Recipient Ned Burns
College of Arts & Sciences
2011 Graduation Year
Internship: Counterpart International
Notes on the first week
This summer, I’m interning for Counterpart International. Counterpart International is an American NGO that currently operates in 25 countries all over the world in order to improve "the lives of those in need by empowering people and local institutions to develop innovative, holistic and lasting solutions that address social, economic and environmental challenges." One of the countries in which it operates is Niger, a landlocked country in West Africa, where I’ll be interning. Some of Counterpart’s projects in Niger include building and maintaining cereal banks to avoid widespread food crises and reduce malnutrition in children, training household caretakers on health, hygiene, and nutrition, and finally preserving wetlands and stabilizing sand dunes to avoid soil erosion.
For the beginning of my internship, I’ll be working in Niamey which is the capital of Niger. In my first week, I learned a considerable amount about Counterpart and specifically all the activities they are carrying out here in Niger by reading the monthly reports on the projects going on in the field. The monthly reports have really given me a good feel for what Counterpart is doing since they go into detail about the successes as well as the difficulties involved in all the activities. In July, I will actually be going out in the field and seeing the projects firsthand so the reports have been very useful in preparing for that.
In addition to reading up on Counterpart, I’ve also had the chance to attend two meetings this past week. One was with USAID and the other with UNICEF. Both were very interesting, especially the meeting with UNICEF since it included many different NGOs discussing issues and brainstorming possible solutions. It really gave me a great overview of some of the work that’s going on in Niger with NGOs outside of Counterpart and showed how important collaboration is for NGOs in order to be effective.
Overall, it was a great first week. Everyone in the office has been extraordinarily friendly and helpful and I am learning a great deal already. I’m really looking forward to continuing to learn more about Counterpart International and what working for an NGO entails before eventually heading out into the field.
After having spent the last couple weeks in the capital city of Niamey learning about Counterpart International’s activities, I was finally headed out into the field to see them firsthand. I boarded a tiny, propeller-driven UN World Food Program plane to head out to Gouré, a small town in eastern Niger where Counterpart heads its Multi-Year Assistance Program (MYAP). The trip was a bit of an adventure as I was unsure if the pilots had perhaps missed the airport or were making some sort of emergency landing since we were headed for a dirt field with literally no buildings in sight. Thankfully, I was quickly reassured by my supervisor that the pilots were in fact not mistaken and that this field was indeed the Gouré "airport".
In Gouré, I met the head of the MYAP program and we headed out to a nearby village called Sissia to see some of the activities. One of my tasks was to photograph some of Counterpart’s projects as well as to talk to some of the recipients to see how the activities were impacting them and if there were any improvements to be made. An activity that clearly was a huge success was the water pumps which Counterpart provided to irrigate fields as well as provide clean drinking water. Instead of having to spend their time hauling water from wells, villagers were able to focus on planting and harvesting crops. The leader of Sissia told me about how men are now able to feed their families and how some villagers who had left to find work elsewhere were coming back especially since farming was now much easier. It really was quite impressive how big an impact the pumps were having and I was also blown away with how welcoming and generous the people were.
Another challenge facing villages around Gouré is sand dunes. Each year the sand dunes shift and often times threaten to engulf villages and fields. In order to combat this, Counterpart is working with threatened villages to stabilize the surrounding sand dunes. I was able to see one such sand dune fixation project near a village and learn how they use plants to halt the progress of the dunes.
The last project I saw in Gouré was the cereal banks (cereal meaning grains not the breakfast food) where I helped to verify that the logs were being well kept. From May until September, food stocks are often very low. To help, Counterpart works to create these cereal banks and give villages a start- up supply. The idea is that villages will sell the cereal at reasonable prices during the difficult times and then resupply the bank after the harvest when grains are cheap. In this way, the cereal banks will remain sustainable while helping people during the lean season.
After leaving Gouré, I went to the town of Diffa which is right on the border with Nigeria, not far from Lake Chad. I’ll be there for 11 days doing various activities. One such activity is going out into the field to determine which villages would be suitable for cereal banks since Counterpart wants to expand its program in the region. Just simply reaching the villages was often challenging as there are no roads and it’s very easy to get lost. Part of my job was to mark the villages using a handheld GPS device so that in the future, the villages would be easier to find. I also had to help gather information about the villages like the population size. Finally, we had to look at the buildings for the future cereal banks and make sure they are acceptable such as verifying that they had no termites and that they could be properly secured. It was really an amazing experience and I’ll be continuing to go out into the villages in the upcoming days.
I already feel like being out in the field has changed my perspective on development issues. I am beginning to understand some of the difficulties involved in this line of work and how much effort has to be put into projects. Yet, I’m also seeing the rewards of a successful activity. And so I’m looking forward to learning more and continuing to experience life "sur le terrain" in my last few weeks.
My summer in Niger was truly an amazing experience. I was able to discover and participate in the many of the different areas that NGO work involves. And I was blown away by the dedication and hard work of all the Counterpart International employees who could not have been nicer or more helpful. This internship really has opened my eyes and allowed me to see the struggles and hardship for many people that are difficult to even imagine back in the States. Yet, I've also been inspired by the great work that NGOs are doing to help these people and am hopeful for the future.
For the last half of my internship, I continued learning many useful skills while carrying out projects in the field. One of my main focuses was helping to prepare the various health centers scattered around the region for the upcoming screenings for children. In order to determine the rate of malnutrition among children in the region, these health centers periodically measure and weigh as many children as possible to calculate their z-scores. These z-scores help determine if a child needs to be treated for malnutrition and allow NGOs to ascertain the response needed in the area. Counterpart was also carrying out this screening to inform the population of Counterpart's food distribution taking place the following week since screenings draw people from remote villages who would otherwise not hear about the food distribution. In order to prepare for the screenings, I went around to the health centers delivering supplies such as equipment for taking measurements, office supplies, and gas money for motorcycles which health agents use to reach remote villages. Additionally, I helped to hand out information and to verify that the health agents knew what to do during the screenings.
My time out in the field was really an invaluable experience. I was able to see firsthand all the activities that Counterpart carries out on a regular basis and learn what it takes to see a project through; and believe me, carrying out a large-scale project is not at all easy in Niger. There are certain difficulties there that simply do not exist back in the United States. For example, in order to reach certain villages, you have to know where you are going as there are no roads or signs indicating the direction to a village. Even if you know where you are going, you still have to be able to navigate around massive sand dunes which cannot be driven over without having your car sink deep into the sand. Out in the field, I was able to meet villagers and learn from them how Counterpart's projects help improve their lives which was really inspiring. The most valuable experience, however, may have been talking with the Counterpart employees in the regions who explained to me Nigerien culture and traditions while telling me about what life is like working for an NGO. Everyone could not have been nicer and really made me feel welcome.
I am thankful for all that I have learned this summer. I certainly now have a much better understanding of NGOs and I am very much interested in working for one after finishing up college. Working for an NGO like Counterpart really is rewarding work and an incredible way of helping those in need. I would like to thank the Parents Committee again for helping to make this internship possible.