One Woman’s Journey as a Professional in International Development
As we celebrate Women’s History Month and prepare to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, I am musing on my experience as a woman working in international development a nd starting her own company. The firm I founded in 1996, IBI, has become a successful woman-owned small business. We chose Global Insights, Local Solutions as our tag line because our work quality relied on insights from both international and local experts. In my 66 plus years working in international development, gender relations have evolved. Women are now active at all levels. So, keep in mind that this is history.
My first work in Africa was in 1967-69 while I was in graduate school and active in the civil rights movement. International consulting was an almost entirely male field in the 1960s and 70s when I entered it from academia. Women were not expected to travel alone anywhere then, much less to developing countries.
My parents were highly educated, adventurous and supportive of their children in every endeavor growing up, which was an enormous advantage. I was an oddity to both Americans and Africans as I worked on a Ph.D. in the 1960s and 70s but did not recognize it at the time. I just tried to focus on doing work that was meaningful for the people I worked with. In Africa I did research with people in their homes, in villages, city-centers, working-class urban areas, forests, and deserts – usually using participatory rapid appraisal methods. Everywhere I introduced my purpose to local officials first and then to the gathered population. There was always a gathering to start. People were generally interested in the research, the discussion was lively, and families throughout the area received me. Before I left, we gathered again to discuss what I had learned and let them correct or complete the ideas. That often also stimulated them into action on problems they had known about but not yet confronted. And I was treated with a level of courteous hospitality and respect that astounded me. There were rarely hotels nearby, so, if there was not a Peace Corps volunteer, local families housed and fed me and my interpreter. My parents would worry about me travelling alone through a river valley or into mining camps. I had to tell them, “If you want to worry about my safety, worry about me back home in New York or Baltimore. My safety has never been more carefully guarded than by Africans in rural Africa.”
1976: The only woman in the room. It is a cliché now, but it was shockingly real then. I had completed two years of field work and prepared my dissertation in Senegal and Ghana in 1968-69, then become an Assistant Professor of African Studies. When the terrible impact of a six-year Sahelian drought dominated the news in the 1960s and 70s I realized that knowing the people and customs, French and Wolof languages, I could contribute to mitigating the impact of drought and related migration. I submitted a research proposal to USAID. They appeared interested but sent my proposal to a university to see whether an African or African American would want to either submit a rival proposal or partner with me. No one emerged who had the language fluency or field experience needed, so eventually I got the go ahead.
I went to USAID headquarters in Washington, DC for orientation on that research grant. A huge pan-African conference on improving food production was in session nearby and the USAID official suggested we listen in. Walking over there I had a flashback: When I had first done field work in Senegal the rural diet was rice/millet/sorghum/sour milk. Meat or fish were luxuries that most rural families tasted only once a year for Tabaski (Edi al-Adha, Feast of the Lamb). Vegetables were for Europeans. I remembered what I had observed: men clearing land, men and women sowing, women weeding and weeding and weeding, everyone harvesting, including school kids. Since then, women’s kitchen gardens had gradually added carrots, tomatoes, and greens, bringing vitamins and minerals—a healthier diet. So, as we entered the room, I was hoping I would hear how that change came about.
We stood listening to the vast circle of over two hundred experts, mostly from African countries with a sprinkling of international experts. Fifteen minutes in it dawned on me: I was the only woman in the room! Discussing a topic where women’s roles were central. Not a single woman’s voice. I did not mention that thought. But I could not forget it.
I was awarded the grant in 1977 and moved with my family to Senegal. My husband was initially offered a job at the USAID mission, but then the Mission Director determined that this project was funded by USAID/Washington, not the Dakar Mission, so we had no standing; no job for a spouse, no access to the health office for the family, etc.
Professor Boubacar Barry and I, who had worked side by side in the Senegalese National Archives on our dissertations, put together a research team knowledgeable about every area of the Western Sahel. We based the choice on technical and geographic expertise without conscious gender balancing. The gender and ethnic balance that resulted: three African men and three women, one African, one African American and one White American.
The book that we six produced from that research, The Uprooted of the Western Sahel, contributed to my being promoted to a tenured Associate Professorship. I believe this was the first time any woman had earned tenure through the ranks there.
I was happy with the promotion, but my Department Head was not. He had proposed partnering with me on the research proposal to USAID. I had declined politely, having already committed to work with faculty in Senegal and Guinea. Just as I finished the project and was promoted, a new policy was instituted: raises were given only as a reward for excellence in teaching. If you had been on research leave, no raise.
Balancing career and family. Another challenge was balancing home life and work. For my husband the experience with the USAID project was too much. Being sidelined got tedious after a year and he began travelling back to the US. Then he eventually ended our marriage. Wrestling with the loss of a joyful marriage and my sons’ loss of a full-time father was the most painful experience of my life. Like many working women, I had hoped to do it all, a successful career and a happy marriage and family. I thought I would celebrate my fiftieth wedding anniversary, as my grandparents had. More than two years after the break I remember sitting alone in the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center and realizing that my mind was still racing, I was unable to hear the music.
After my marriage broke up, I began consulting in Africa during summer and winter breaks from the university. Eventually I met and then married a diplomat. We moved with the family to Morocco where he served as Consul General in Casablanca. Two years later he was offered a position as Ambassador in Burundi. At that point I had either to return to the university or resign my tenure. I took a deep breath, resigned, and moved to Burundi with him. He served there four years and four more as Ambassador in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville).
When we returned from two decades of field consulting in Africa, I was hired as a VP in a small development consulting firm. The Executive VP offered me a 10% share of fees for any work I could bring in, i.e., identify, write the proposal, win, and implement. I did that with a sub-Agreement for a multi-year research program. The next week the boss dropped by my office to say, “Sorry,” we decided we can’t do that sharing.” Me: “Why?” No answer. I realized I had no written contract. Option 1, suck it up. Option 2, move on.
I resigned and started IBI from scratch. I was the only person from my former firm with a role in the sub-Agreement, so despite my former employer’s protest, I was able to take my share of that five-year research project with me. Several years later we won our first umbrella contract, then won several task orders and began growing. We were named USAID Small Business of the Year for 2015 in recognition of having successfully implemented several large prime contracts, including a multi-year $50 million governance reform project in Liberia.
During my career I have sought gender balance in teams and tried to arrange that local team members frame the project and present the results. Research on teamwork has shown what my personal experience suggested: mixed teams of men and women produce better results in almost any area than either all male or all female teams. Women and men tend to observe and approach tasks slightly differently; their combined insights make for more complete solutions. The same is true for local and international experts.
Most men in our field have accepted the change gracefully. Men willing to see gender role changes made it possible for me and other women world-wide to venture into and succeed in this work. Women also had to have the courage to be different, to step into unknown areas with courage, flexibility, something to contribute and an openness to learn. A few men unwilling to concede created obstacles, and, in one case, broke up my family. Most men, like most women colleagues, just went by the quality of the work and supported whoever was delivering.
Let’s celebrate International Women’s Day! The most recent wave of interest in opportunities and equity for women was spurred on by the UN declaration of 1995 as the International Year of the Woman, with a massive conference in Beijing. The next year was quieter; we were back to the Month of the Woman (March). Now we honor the innovation of the early American suffragettes with the Day of the Woman, March 8. The theme this year is embracing equity. To me that means recognizing some of the privileges we may have as well as the constraints we face. Let us work for equity in all its dimensions. I offer this contribution of my journey.
I salute you, Women of the World, and celebrate your talents and successes in whatever area matters in your life! Men, I salute you too, especially those who gracefully share the ride with us.
Lucie Colvin Phillips Seward
Founder and Chair