April 30 was my last day at Helvetas in Switzerland. This moment was as important as my first day of joining Helvetas in September 2010 in Bangladesh.
So, did I need to complete any unfinished business? Save my contacts? Have a farewell party? Give back the keys and laptop? Say the last goodbyes to colleagues? Exit the door? Make a splash at my new job? And…
Nope! While I followed some of the steps above, which I’m administratively required to do, I hesitated to make a big deal out of the entire situation. Instead, I’d like to tell you about three things – my trinity – that I value most from my time with Helvetas.
Andrew Wilson, a good friend and a colleague, gave me a very apt nickname: “aggressively friendly”! That was some time ago in Bosnia & Herzegovina. I’ve traveled and worked in over 30 countries since joining Helvetas. If I tally up the countries I've traveled to for work and private purposes, I can count 107! I met thousands of people from all walks of life. I managed to strike up a conversation with everyone, often going beyond the default starter of “Hello, how are you?”
What I've learned over time is to value the "living library" – that is, people are my books. I heard a variety of stories – inspiring, heart-breaking, eye-opening, and others. A handful of these stories stayed with me. I wrote about and shared some of the stories. I intend to continue learning and sharing my experiences in order to link people and contribute to the creation of a more equitable and compassionate society.
I won't take for granted the opportunities I've been given, including those for education and employment. I've discovered in the different countries where I worked how access to opportunities is shaped by where people live, who they are, what kind of skills and information they have, and other factors.
Especially young people and women find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Inequalities and social deprivations have increased within countries. Being disadvantaged and excluded are caused by complex, multidimensional factors that need a systemic approach — a better understanding of key constraints, finding solutions together with partners, and knowing what works and what doesn’t and why.
I'm appreciative of the space that I’ve had at Helvetas to try out new things and the confidence that the management and colleagues have had in me. This has enabled me to have a very high level of motivation and commitment until this moment.
Resilience is a word that a few of my close friends claim to dislike. I sympathize with their annoyance at how we expect people to be resilient while it’s terribly difficult for millions to live in peace and dignity. There’s a risk that resilience is romanticized.
I’ve learned from my experience at Helvetas that we need a collective will to build resilience. We can also use the efforts of others as inspirations. For example, if Edison had given up after his initial setbacks with light bulbs, it's difficult to imagine what our world might have looked like now. His story makes us reflect on our own lives and ask ourselves if we have the fortitude to face our obstacles. Or let’s take Mandela – during his 27 years in prison, he also learned the art of self-leadership. He was inspired by William Ernest Henley's poem "Invictus," which ends with the lines "I’m the master of my fate, I’m the captain of my soul."
However, it’s easier to quote the nice words of great people and those who succeeded. I believe that many people require support systems to overcome challenges because not everyone has similar coping mechanisms and opportunities. Thus, I’ve learned as much as possible how to practice compassion toward others.
In his poem “Waiting”, Rabindranath Tagore wrote:
“The song I came to sing
remains unsung to this day.
I have spent my days in stringing
and in unstringing my instrument…
…. [Yet] I live in the hope….”.
It seems impossible to maintain any sense of optimism or hopefulness about the future when we see and hear what is going on around us. But I think we can improve things without distorting reality. I've learned from the thousands of people I've met and worked with that being hopeful is different from having wishful thinking. It’s important to remind ourselves that while accepting finite disappointment, we should try not to lose infinite hope (as MLK, Jr. put it nicely). This isn’t philosophical, but rather realistic and reasonable.
I’ve also come to terms with the reality that an inclusive and green world won’t emerge as if by magic; we must seize the moment of every effort to improve or build a system for shared prosperity. For an ambition to become a reality, organizations like Helvetas need to leverage existing practices and improve weaknesses in key priority areas. Among these, it’s fair to list:
- Walking the talk of a shared philosophy of doing development differently and in a better way (systems thinking)
- (Re)defining our roles, including modalities of partnerships (a.k.a. “localization”) as well as improving the culture of knowledge management, learning, and communication (“knowledge brokers”)
- Deepening the triple dividend of value addition in terms of environmental sustainability, economic development, and inclusion (just transition)
- Navigating complexity by effectively responding to risks and fragility through improved systems of adaptive management.
From here to where?
After 13 years at Helvetas, I’m thrilled to join the Bern University of Applied Sciences as a Professor of Economics and Head of the Hugo P. Cecchini Institute at HAFL. I hope to get inspired by young people, as well as to share my experience and stimulate critical thinking.
I want to thank everyone for the fantastic experience. Everyone has played a significant role in broadening my knowledge and skills. The good news is that my new professional direction will keep me in touch with development cooperation and organizations like Helvetas. I'll be involved in promoting inclusive, sustainable, and scalable impacts, but in a different capacity.
So, you know where you can reach the aggressively friendly guy… drop me a line and let us have a chat…. Until the next exchange, imagine me dropping the mic, hopefully, better than Obama!