By Meghan Audette-Nikolic
The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by the United Nations or by UNRWA.
The most important thing that I learned at SIT was the importance of community engagement. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of letting time pressures take precedence over hearing about community needs and opinions, and it can be tough to devote enough time for really hearing our beneficiaries and taking their views into consideration. This can be a challenge in an organization like the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) since we provide services to many people across such a wide geographic area. We are not perfect, but we continually look at the opportunities to improve this area of our work, and ensure that we are responding to the feedback that we receive from the refugees we serve.
UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 that is mandated to provide assistance and protection to a current population of some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees and their descendants who were displaced in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 to locations in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip to achieve their full potential in human development. UNRWA’s services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions. UNRWA is the largest UN operation in the Middle East with more than 30,000 staff. In the West Bank, UNRWA serves the more than 800,000 Palestine refugees living in the 19 refugee camps and other communities. In addition to working in the core sectors referenced above, where I work in the West Bank, UNRWA also provides humanitarian assistance to alleviate the immediate needs of the Palestine refugee community. The West Bank office where I work has approximately 5,000 national staff and 28 international staff.
I have been working for UNRWA since May 2012 as the Field Programme Support Officer. The purpose of my role is to coordinate joint planning and monitoring efforts across all of our core programs (Education, Health, Relief and Social Services, Microfinance, and Camp Improvement). Since UNRWA’s mandate is very broad (there are over 800,000 refugees in the West Bank alone), a lot of the planning is done within our individual programs, but our team is designed to make sure that there is strategic and operational coordination across programs, too
At SIT, I loved the courses I attended on program planning and project design, and monitoring and evaluation. When I left SIT, I decided to specialize in monitoring and evaluation (M&E) because it followed the whole project cycle and would give me an opportunity to regularly interact with beneficiaries, and hear their views on how well organizations had done implementing programs that they found useful.
Monitoring and evaluation is the business of being a professional listener: when planning a project, M&E staff can go out and talk to communities about their needs and what’s important to them, to make sure that the final project design reflects this. If a project is funded, M&E staff can visit the communities again to learn about how the project has been implemented. That is the core of M&E work, and I have always found it to be a humbling and uplifting experience to listen to the people served by projects this way. In addition, monitoring and evaluation functions make sure that agencies have the statistics they need to demonstrate the number of people served and the ways in which those people have benefited from a project.
I selected SIT because I wanted some practical experience in the field of development, and it more than exceeded my expectations. I remember two weeks into my practicum after finishing my on-campus phase, I had to work on a proposal for a donor that required a logical framework, or “logframe.” A logical framework is a matrix used in project planning that shows how the activities implemented by different projects lead to certain impacts. My supervisor assumed I’d been doing them for years. That is the power of the praxis-based learning that you get at SIT.
Meghan is an alumna of SIT’s Master of Arts in Sustainable Development program.