Feb 25, 2019
by Ed Laurance, PhD

Measuring Our Success

In the fall of 2006, I was the newly-appointed Dean of the Graduate School of International Policy Studies (GSIPS-predecessor of the current Graduate School of International Policy and Management) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. I came to the job with many ideas regarding moving GSIPS forward, especially in the area of immersive learning utilizing skills in actual development projects.

The Concept

My dream, long held, was to locate a place in the developing world where MIIS students could practice what they had learned in the classroom over an extended period of time, while contributing to achieving goals set by the community they would work in.

A graduate student, Yuniya Kahn, knocked on my door and told me that she had spent the summer with a community in El Salvador, Ciudad Romero. She said that this community was structured to receive outsiders to visit and work there. Indeed, there was a community center with dormitories for such visits, and my goal of having a place for MIIS students to work in the field and contribute to the community at the same time became a reality.

Like many of my ideas I put forth in my 26 years at MIIS, there was no way I could fit the development and operationalization of such a project into my responsibilities as Dean. I needed someone who passionately believed in the concept to develop and manage it. I found such a person in Adele Negro, who was already knowledgeable of the El Salvadoran context and was a Translation and Interpretation professor at MIIS.

In Practice

She jumped in with both feet. We founded Team El Salvador in the fall of 2006 and in January 2007, we took the first team of MIIS students to work in the small Bajo Lempa communities of San Hilario and Ciudad Romero. It continued for ten years, ending as the 2016 program, already hampered by insufficient funding, was canceled due to the growing gang violence in El Salvador.

What was accomplished in those ten years?

  • Students who opted for this experience learned many valuable lessons regarding working in a different culture. It prepared them for international development work while they were still enrolled at MIIS.
  • Every team prepared a lessons-learned document as a result of their experience, ensuring that immersive learning, which is now a hallmark of the new MIIS, became a reality.
  • Everyone’s language skills improved as all work was done in Spanish.
  • Despite the current violence that threatens the social cohesion of communities of that region, community spirit is still strong thanks to the various projects that brought these communities together.
  • The work of each team was geared to achieving realistic development goals.
  • The work of the teams became more and more related to climate change and other environmental problems.
  • The projects became more and more evaluative. Program design and evaluation are critical professional skills in development work. The targeted work in El Salvador created an unparalleled opportunity to increase competency in these skills. All participants became competent in conducting surveys and interviews as part of their evaluation work.
  • Some students either stayed on through the spring or came back in the summer, ensuring a continuity that many development projects lack.

How innovative was this program?

  • While there were previous “travel trips,” Team El Salvador was a first for MIIS. These were not to be “observation” or “study” trips. As a matter of fact, Team El Salvador substantially changed the expectations of people on the ground. Communities and their leaders came to expect actual work toward achieving development goals from the team participants, who came to be considered “junior consultants.”
  • As the years went on, Adele developed pre-J-Term training to increase the potential for positive outcomes while in El Salvador. It worked as each year the team was able to accomplish more than the previous year. In 2014, MIIS finally adopted courses called Field Work, designed to prepare students for the now many J-Term programs. This is another example of an innovative approach pioneered by Adele and her students.
  • Firm collaborative relationships were strengthened in preparation for the next phase of work with the Salvadoran community-based organization, La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa, along with its non-profit Asociación Mangle (Mangrove Association), with whom a formal partnership has existed since 2009.
  • Several T and I students accompanied the team over the ten-year period. They unanimously agreed that it was the most valuable experience of their studies here at MIIS. This was a first for the T and I program.

Scaling Up

The El Salvador program has become the major success that I had hoped for back in the fall of 2006. Many students have gone on to successful careers and point to this experience as critical to their preparation. While I was disappointed that security concerns and the lack of funding have brought this program to a temporary halt on campus, I am very pleased that Adele has put together ECOPA, utilizing the experience and lessons learned from the TES program.

What are the new features of ECOPA as it has evolved from Team El Salvador?

  • First, ECOPA is an independent nonprofit organization no longer managed by MIIS. It will certainly involve collaboration with MIIS in several ways. For example, ECOPA will utilize students who have mastered the skills required for development work such as project development, management and evaluation to participate in its programmatic work.
  • Participants will now include professional experts qualified to expand the possibilities of major social change in the target areas of ECOPA. Skills include agriculture, fisheries, spatial/urban design, environmental planning, business development, and strategic planning.
  • ECOPA will not be starting from scratch. Firm relationships have developed with partners over the ten years of the MIIS program. We know the social and economic terrain. Trust has been built up over these years.
  • Several multi-year projects, described in detail on our website, have been developed for the initial work of ECOPA. They all address real needs that are at the center of international development work and very relevant to the development of El Salvador.

ECOPA's Focus

I previously noted the problem of violence in El Salvador. Global experts now tell us that the key to combatting the violence that creates obstacles to development projects can best be addressed at the local or neighborhood level. ECOPA will be doing just that, as the dominant form of social organization in the target area is the small village. Further, what needs to be addressed to reduce violence is the development of safe and available public spaces, educational and economic opportunities, and the development of social capital. This is in fact the ECOPA approach to development.

We all have been watching the flow of migrants toward the United States, fleeing the violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. It is exciting to think that ECOPA will be in the thick of what most see as a solution to this exodus: developing safe, vibrant and productive societies that will prevent migration in the first place.

Future Considerations

Since the type of work that will be conducted by ECOPA is in the mainstream of development work in general, project staff and consultants must keep up to date with the field of development. For example, the private sector has become a major funding source for projects. Also, priority must be given to collaborating with partners in such a way that the work results in projects managed by the Salvadoran people. And every project that needs to be funded requires competent project development, management and, especially, evaluation, along with all the skills that go with that.

I would like to close by telling you that bringing Team El Salvador into being was one of the most rewarding achievements of my professional career. It completed a journey from warrior to peacemaker, from a perpetrator of organized violence as a soldier to helping to bring a better life to the poor and marginalized who had been victims of war.

All of this was made possible by the director of Team El Salvador, Adele Negro. To think that this effort will now continue in the more powerful form of ECOPA is much more than I ever imagined. Thank you, Adele, for your passionate belief that life can be better in El Salvador.

I wish Adele and all who will work with her the very best. Peace be with us all.