Getting ready to work in the field of International Development (I)

Maricarmen Valdivieso 
Founder and CEO
Nexos Comunitarios

I might have met more than 700 young people who participated in our programs. Grosso modo, I would say that about 30 % of them are still somehow involved in the development field. I also know that some of them are feeling frustrated about profound problems in international development thinking that the foundations of it could be wrong and, hence, maybe, giving up after a realization of other challenges. With the permission of the person who wrote this post, let me share one post I found on social media of one of our most committed former interns:

Kibera Slum, Nairobi. I’ve been studying and working in development for seven years now, yet this was the first time I’ve spent an entire day in an urban slum. I felt disgusted, not for what I saw but for what I’ve become, i.e. a development practitioner. I felt ashamed for increasingly becoming part of this so-called “development community”, which in many ways continues to optimise Kipling’s theory.   

In a couple of weeks from now, I’ll be in (…) writing my thesis in libraries funded by those who have seeded this system of international oppression. I start believing that international development is nothing else than a monstrous sham, a self-perpetuating beast. “The White Man’s Burden” will continue to prevail unless international development is deinstitutionalised.

After reading it I had a mix of feelings. I was concerned about the possibility of him losing his motivation and perspective to do a great work in the development area, but, at the same time I was relieved to see that he still keeps his critical mind. Either I agree or not with his statement, I know it is not easy to be like this, after years of learning, training, working.   He is on his way to finish his second master degree from one of the top 5 universities in the world, his career is a list of accomplishments since his graduation of undergraduate school, also in a world-renowned university. Moreover, his achievements are not just in academia, but I witnessed first-hand his commitment to fieldwork and his success during his time with us.

During the last decade, international ‘volunteer’[1] programs have increased its number and from what I see, participants are being more honest whenever they join them. Nowadays, in our internship program, many of them tell us they participate in this type of programs to gain experience and learn so they can use this experience in their resume to find a job or to get into a graduate program.   I must admit that I used to struggle with the design of our initial programs years ago when we were offering ‘volunteering’

opportunities for young people.  I was not sure if our approach was the best one and was not sure about the real impact of them. By impact, I refer not just for our local community partners, but also for those ‘volunteers’ who came to participate with us. What did they learn? Do they remember what they learned when they go back to school? Do they believe what they learned in the field it is helpful in their future work or do they only want their participation to be on their resume?   We have received feedback and we were able to verify the participation of ‘volunteers’ was positive for our community partners. However, we haven’t been able to follow the 30% of participants currently plying their trade in the development arena. I’m happy to still receive emails from former participants with their news and sometimes with a request for a recommendation letter. I rest assured that they are still doing great work. But emails come from only about 5% of former participants, mostly from the people who knew what they were doing here and why they were doing it.   Since 2015, our approach changed and I’m more satisfied with the changes we are implementing little by little. Based on the idea that our programs are opportunities to learn, my perception has changed of what is most beneficial for our local community partners and for our programs’ participants. I once thought experience in travel and duration of program determined a successful program, but I realized this was not the case.   We have been able to develop programs with universities that share similar goals as we do as an organization. For example, our short-term programs of 1-2 weeks, we have received very positive feedback on the projects and on the strength of development ties between community partners and the participants’ experience. Where can we attribute the resounding success? Perhaps to a few factors:

–       Mutuality and transparency in the relationships: the university and NC are in charge of organizing short-term programs. Typically, programs are organized and confirm 6 – 9 months before the start. The organization of a program requires a great deal of logistics and discussions about the projects, including conversations on expectations, limitations, and the overall duration of each aspect of a given program. Built on mutual trust, we are able to communicate our concerns, and after the program, we provide feedback to each other, to improve the next experience. Working in this environment, is beneficial for all parties – the community, the participants, the university and us at NC. More people are supporting our projects like the Sustainable Homes in Cuncani, started by two wonderful groups of Alternative Spring Break last February in Cuncani.

       Focus on the needs of the community partner: the needs of the community take priority, built into the design and implementation of the program. This is the true indication of the success of a program, equal to, if not more than the satisfaction of the volunteer participants. After all, the primary component of a program done well is the impact on the beneficiaries, the target audience.

       Adequate orientation and supervision of the participants: this responsibility must be shared between the university and NC, and based on the results, the success of this step is the success and satisfaction of the two other actors: community partners and the program’s participants. While talking to a former colleague, we came to the conclusion that it is common to believe that for short-term groups like the Alternative Spring Breaks, participants require a more profound orientation whilst the participants of an internship program, do not need it because they are aware of what they are learning through books and lectures. This is not true. We have witnessed how orientation sessions for all participants to be more empathetic, build trusting and lasting relationships, maintain an open mind regarding culture and respect for customs deemed “weird” when they are just different.

–       Participants are genuinely interested in the program: Participants of our short-term programs are increasingly interested in participating in the program, learning about another culture, about their fellows, about themselves, about the world in general. Some of them might be interested in developing a career in international development in the future, but when they come for a shorter period, their main goal it is not to include the program in their resume or to gain more credits. There is nothing wrong in looking for experiences that would allow them to get better jobs or opportunities in masters programs but it is important to not lose the focus of the programs and to remember why the programs exist.

–       Genuine respect: much more than political correctness, there must exist a veritable respect towards all cultures and to each person involved.

There are other factors involved in the success of programs but I thought we could start our conversation with our short-term programs and the outlined factors, because short-term group programs are often criticized. For us, however, they have proven positive.   I believe these four factors can take us to profound discussions to what is needed to make this type of programs, an opportunity for all those young people who want to be more committed to a better world, those young people who want to use their opportunities and knowledge to do meaningful work and to have a positive impact on our society.

Thanks to the invitation of Dr. Neil Arya, last year I wrote a chapter for a book called: Global Health Experiential Education. From Theory to Practice that will be published soon. It was a tremendous opportunity for me to remember all the many experiences we have had throughout all these years, to analyse our mistakes and our successes and after them, been able to contribute to the improvement of our programs. As our ‘high-season’ for our programs has come to an end, I decided to share my thoughts with you because I know there are former participants and followers of our organization who are very talented and have the potential to be great assets in the development world.

Those very young people need to receive the best education they can from the universities they choose. If they are interested in becoming a development practitioner, they also require education and training in the field. The success of their time in the field is linked to their studies and the supervision they receive from their universities. Furthermore, universities need to recognize the importance of their learning from the field. Universities have the power to make their students, not just fine and efficient professionals but great ones, moreover, great committed citizens, with the potential to improve our world for everyone.

During the next weeks, we will be sharing posts written by our amazing program’s participants. We hope you enjoy them as much we have enjoyed their time in Peru.

Thanks for reading this long post and I hope this to be the start of an ongoing discussion of this subject. And perhaps lead to many more.


The eNCounter Program: Considering Your Future Every Step of the Way

By Justin Wood.

Entry level. They can be frustrating words for millennials these days.

When I finished university – part of the class of 2013 – I stepped into a job market that was full of opportunity, but not the kind I was expecting. More applications than I care to remember listed prior experience, sometimes years worth, as a requirement for full time, paid positions. I could never quite understand how graduates, fresh out of finals, were supposed to have experience under their belt – but so it was. In the meantime, employers eagerly filled unpaid internships and advertised volunteer placements. The internship seemed to constitute a new rite of passage that granted access to “entry level” career opportunities.

After completing my degree it quickly became clear that paid, full-time work was scarce in my particular sectors of interest. Having just finished four years of school, unpaid work wouldn’t be sustainable for long. So, as many graduates did, I too broadened my scope and took opportunities as they came, wherever they came from. I searched for paid work in related fields. I took unpaid work on the side. I tried to capitalize on every learning opportunity that presented itself. My goal was to build a resume of transferrable skills that, in time, would help me transition into the positions I was most interested in.

Sunny skies over Urubamba, Peru, home of the Nexos Comunitarios development office. December, 2015.
Sunny skies over Urubamba, Peru, home of the Nexos Comunitarios development office. December, 2015.

In the fall of 2015, after a brief stint with a research institute and a season in government, I took a position with a small development organization in Peru. Nexos Comunitarios provided me with my first exposure to development work and the day-to-day operations of a not-for-profit. As a development student, this was an opportunity I had been patiently waiting for.

Nexos Comunitarios (NC) is a Peruvian non-profit organization working in the High-Andean communities of South-Eastern Peru. NC, as an organization, focuses its efforts on fostering human capital in some of the most remote indigenous communities in the Andes. Currently, NC is working on community projects related to nutrition, food security and elementary education. To fund their work, NC provides foreign post-secondary students with opportunities to travel and learn with the organization on short-term exposure trips.

I arrived for my three-month placement with NC in October 2015. One of my tasks was to help develop a new program for foreign students; one that was longer in duration and offered a more comprehensive learning experience. Having studied development and public policy, I seized the opportunity to design a program that responded to a very specific need. It started with a couple basic questions: what experiences would be most helpful to students seeking careers in development, policy or non-profit work? What skills could NC equip students with to better position them for entry-level positions?

With these questions in mind, the eNCounter Program was formed. The eNCounter Program revolves around four components of active learning: 1) practical skill building in development and non-profit management 2) academic learning 3) language training, and 4) cultural exposure and engagement. Each component of the program is designed to be an asset; to appeal to future employers.

We wanted to ensure the fundamentals of non-profit management were covered; the importance of budgetary, financial, and contingency planning, for example, and the steps in a typical grant application. We wanted to open participants up to new perspectives in academia through study in South America, and simultaneously enhance students’ resumes by offering formal certificates for completed courses taught by the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Peru. We recognized the importance of language as an asset in the workplace, and have coordinated with local, Peruvian instructors to offer intensive language training, and we have provided opportunity for both structured cultural engagement and leisure exploration to round out students’ experience in Peru. Together, we tried to ensure that every experience in the eNCounter Program would be helpful to students in launching their careers.

Interview photo in Cuncani during the exploration work with Carleton University students in June, 2015.
Interview photo in Cuncani during the exploration work with Carleton University students in June, 2015.

After nearly 10 years of work, both in student programs and development, Nexos Comunitarios is excited to continue building on the efforts and experience of its predecessor, Nexos Voluntarios, with the launch of the eNCounter Program. Through the sharing of knowledge and experience, NC hopes to provide future development workers, policy experts and non-profit leaders with the skills and experiences essential for success. Our mission was to create a program that would be an asset to participants launching their careers, and their futures. We hope your encounter with Nexos Comunitarios will be just that!

For more information please visit our website.

My ASB Peru Experience – Alec Popa


My name is Alec Popa. I’m a third year Medical Sciences student from Western University and I participated on ASB Peru in May of 2018.


MIGUEL ANGEL ARREATEGUI RODRIGUEZ            From the beginning it became very clear that the overall theme of this trip was community. On our first day we met the amazing team at Nexos Comunitarios, who immediately made us feel part of their family. They also became our teachers, providing workshops throughout the trip and turning this ASB into an excellent cultural learning experience as well. Our adventure took place in the small town of Cuncani. Cuncani is a very isolated and underprivileged town. Their survival is dependent on the strong community they’ve created. And we were welcomed into this community the moment we arrived. When we arrived at the school where we would be staying for the week all of the children were lined up waiting to welcome us. They ASB May 2018-11introduced themselves and we made a high-five tunnel. It was a very fun way to break the ice and introduce us to the community. What I believe sets this ASB experience apart from the rest is how close we grew to the community. In a typical day I would wake up early, and the first thing I would do is hike one of the many incredible mountain peaks surrounding the village. Then we would start our day in the kindergarten class playing games and making art with the young children. Next, we ate a lunch that was prepared for us by the mothers of the community, made using ingredients pooled together by all the families in Cuncani. Many of these mothers had to walk an hour or more to make lunch for their children and for us, and they do it every day. I was very moved by the difficult lengths these mothers go through to ensure their child has a healthy lunch and I was very touched to be included in their lunch time preparations. This experience was ASB May 2018-4an excellent lesson in humanity. These people who have so little still work so hard and spend every last resource they have to improve the lives of their children. After lunch we moved to either a grade 3/4 or grade 5/6 classroom where we worked with the children on a science project. Funding for these schools is relatively low and as such science is a difficult subject to teach. We were able to bring with us inexpensive paper microscopes called “foldscopes.” With our foldscopes we taught the children about germs and they were even able to visualize them for the first time in their lives.



Our trip was defined by a sense of community unlike any I had ever experienced before and an unrelenting work ethic in the face of adversity. A week in isolation and seeing how much these parents do for their children put so much in perspective. Throughout the trip we had excellent group reflections on technology, privilege, wealth, education, health and so many other topics that we take for granted living in Canada. Overall, the trip was incredibly rewarding and we felt part of a larger project that makes a real difference in the lives of these children. If you wish to learn about another part of the world and volunteer for a truly community-driven organization then this is the trip for you.

Alternative Spring Break with Nexos Comunitarios – Colleen Martin

ASB May 2018-2


My name is Colleen from Western University and I was a participant of Western University’s Alternate Spring Break (ASB) in May 2018. During that time, we travelled to Peru and had the privilege of working with Nexos Comunitarios! Alternate Spring Break is a program that travels worldwide and aims to teach participants about the community’s’ ways of life, common challenges, understanding their long-term goals and engaging with community members. This means each experience is different and uniquely rewarding.



During my time in Peru, we spent a week in Cuncani working with children as young as 2 up to age 12 to teach the importance of washing your hands. We did this by teaching the kids about germs through a play, asking them to draw what they thought germs looked like and using foldscopes (paper microscopes) to show what germs actually look like for them to compare results. Once we had samples under the foldscopes the kids were eagerly looking over each other’s shoulders to get a turn and see the germs. It was a relief to see the project go over well because this was the first time it had been done in the community. After this project, our ASB group went to community members homes to see how they live. Both projects had reports written to communicate our findings that Nexos will use as they continue with their initiatives. Our community partner, Nexos also provided us with cultural workshops to understand Peruvian culture and society better. This really amplified the cultural significance of the trip.

ASB May 2018-7This trip allows participants to gain invaluable learning opportunities from beingoutside the classroom and in a new community, being immersed in a different culture and working with a community partner to be a helping hand in the initiatives. Each initiative is based on current community needs which makes this trip so beneficial to the community.


Cuncani 2018 – Suhaima Tunio

peru - 1 (19).jpg

I want to sincerely thank Nexos Comunitarios for allowing me to participate in life-changing service-learning opportunity in Peru. This experience was a challenging one, but it was extremely rewarding. Thanks to the enduring partnership that Nexos has with the community and the community-driven nature of the organization, we were able to assist this community in promoting health among their school-aged children.

Students from Western University, including me, volunteered at a school in Cuncani. Cuncani is an extremely impoverished, isolated, and rural area without hot-water access and the nearest town being a 2-hour trek away. Through working with the children living in this region, I got the chance to apply my learning about global health, health promotion, and the social determinants of health from my lectures at Western University. I watched all of my textbook learning come to life and I understood the importance of so many different health concepts.

peru - 1 (58)This program was developed using certain facets of the health promotion framework including process documentation and effective program development. I was thrilled to have taken part in promoting health education and teaching the children about germs, health, and hygiene. Without the long-standing partnerships between Western University and Nexos Comunitarios, I would have never realized that such a beautiful community like Cuncani existed and that I could play a role, albeit small, in the health promotion of this community.

When we were there, we improved certain hygienic practices such as hand-washing and introduced low-cost microscopes, called Foldscopes, to allow children to explore the microscopic mechanisms of germ-spread. We were also involved in the pedagogical documentation of these children in order to track their development and learning. Finally, we developed marketing materials (such as photographs and testimonials) to promote tourism in Cuncani so that hikers and other adventurers who are exploring the Andes can stay in the houses of these families to help generate income within the families.

ASB May 2018-46

Furthermore, I realized how difficult it was for me to live in the mountains, yet how accustomed such young children were to this area. It was truly inspiring to see their resilience towards the altitude and the lack of hot water. This experience taught me that so many different factors can play such a huge role in the health of a community such as the living environment, community social support, isolation, food-availability, and education. All these components must come together and be considered when aiming for health promotion.
Another notable feature of this community was that these families were almost entirely self-sufficient. Living in such an isolated and rural area, they had adapted to their environment by making their own clothes and farming their own food, in which many traditions were passed on since the spectacular culture of the Incan empire. Most of them had even made their own houses! They all owned animals including alpacas, chicken, and sheep and they utilized their resources in any way that they could. Manure was repurposed as fuel for the fire and also fertilizer for farming. The community in Cuncani taught me that the human-spirit is incredibly strong, and that people can tame the mountains to make it their home.


After returning to Lima and going to a memorial regarding Peru’s recent political history, we learned about the horrific genocides from terrorist groups against Peruvian aboriginal communities. Coming out, I felt that this paralleled some of the aboriginal issues that Canada deals with. This experience further highlighted the importance to support Cuncani due to its aboriginal roots and the systematic isolation. In this way, I feel that I learned more about Canadian history and realized that human history is extremely similar worldwide.
This service-learning opportunity was truly remarkable and has allowed me to grow both academically and personally. Not only was I able to use what I had learned in class to assist in a community-driven project, ASB Peru helped me to learn valuable lessons about gratitude, resilience, and cultural competence.


¿Han visto el mar? Sí, en el mapa

Por María Bravo Ortega (Nexos Comunitarios)

Yo tenía un sueño, vivir con una comunidad alto-andina. Este sueño me trajo hasta Perú, en concreto, hasta Cuncani, una comunidad alejada en medio de un paisaje paradisiaco, altísimas montañas de un verde especial, mezcla del pasto con flores y musgos de tonalidades verdes, amarillas y ocres. Los nevados parecen tocar la neblina que se desplaza como jugando al escondite, aparece y desaparece entre los picos; las cascadas de agua se precipitan por las laderas con devoción, su juego acaba en el rio estrellándose por las rocas, cantando la canción que solo el agua, al precipitarse, sabe cantar.

Ahí, en ese lugar están los niños y niñas en la escuela, desconocedores de las tecnologías y de la vida que transcurre más allá de su Cuncani, como mucho llegaron hasta Lares, la población más cercana a ellos a la cual llegan, principalmente, tras dos horas de caminata ya que no disponen de transporte público.

Ahí, en ese lugar me encontré con la esencia más pura, niñas y niños inocentes, limpios de alma, desconocedores de la vida que hay más allá de su mundo, un mundo que mostrado a través de fotografías les abre los ojos; hace poco les pregunté: ¿han visto el mar? Si, en el mapa, contestaron alegres, con una inmensa sonrisa.

Cuando les mostré fotos del mar y les dije que se podían bañar, no daban crédito a lo que oían, ¿bañarse en el mar? Noooo…. decían con caritas de asombro y esa mezcla de incredulidad que solo da la inocencia.

Llevar a estos niños a ver el mar pues no saben lo que es una ola, es un sueño para Nexos Comunitarios, un sueño quizá para esta Navidad 2018. ¿Qué te parece la idea?

Quizá juntos podemos cambiar la respuesta a esta pregunta.









El reto Chasqui: aceptado y cumplido

Por Nicholas Bruce (Periodista, Miembro del Consejo Consultivo de Nexos Comunitarios)

Andrew, Kenji y Sr. Nico, socio de la comunidad de Cuncani quien muy amablemente los acompañó durante la caminata.

Un reto pretende ser simplemente eso, un reto. Algo extra ordinario. Algo que demanda extra esfuerzo. Al final, algo que puede otorgar extra satisfacción. Hacer una caminata por 13 horas seguidas a más de 4,000 metros no es  una tarea fácil. Manejar bicicleta por 11 horas consecutivas es una hazaña a cualquier altura. Los esfuerzos de Kenji y Andrew son fenomenales y los aplaudimos. No solo por estos números, sino también por su persistencia para continuar a pesar de haber hecho una visita al centro de salud durante el camino. Incluso después de tener un problema con la rodilla.  Incluso después de manejar con una bicicleta que solo permitía avanzar en un cambio.  Aun después de algunas demoras y de más horas de las planificadas. Aun este duo, persistió y supo sudarla.

Además de esto, el propósito del reto, no fue el enfocarse en los valientes extranjeros. Nada para vanagloriarse. El propósito fue traer algo de luz y atraer la atención porque a pesar del esfuerzo, éste fue por días, un fin de semana. Esfuerzos extra ordinarios son hechos a diario por la gente que vive en Cuncani.  Residentes de Cuncani. Los descendientes de los chasquis. Muchas generaciones, por muchos años,  han hechos caminatas en las aisladas comunidades de los Andes, en y alrededor de Cuncani.  Así como aplaudimos a Kenji y Andrew por la no pequeña hazaña, esperamos atraer la atención y reconocimiento sobre aquellos que hacen este esfuerzo cada día. De todas maneras, muy bien hecho.

Chasqui challenge: accepted and applauded

By Nicholas Bruce (Journalist, Nexos Comunitarios Advisory Board)
In this picture: Andrew, Nico & Kenji. Nico is one of our partners from Cuncani, who kindly joined the challenge on the first day.

A challenge is meant to be just that. Extra ordinary. Extra demanding. In the end, extra rewarding. Hiking 13 straight hours at over 10,000 feet above sea level is no easy task. Cycling 11 consecutive hours is a feat at any altitude. The efforts of Kenji and Andrew were phenomenal and we applaud them. Not just because of these numbers, but the persistence to continue even after a trip to the health center. Even after a nagging knee injury. Even after a bicycle with a single working gear. Even after a long delay and hours past the projected finish. Still the duo continued, persisted, sweated it out.

Beyond that, and the whole purpose of this challenge, was not to focus on the foolhardy foreigner. Not to show off and showcase. The purpose was to bring some light, shed some awareness that when all is said and done, this was two days, one weekend. Extra ordinary efforts of energy are being made and consumed and created and challenged and met every day by very ordinary people. Residents of Cuncani. Their chasqui descendants. Their enthusiastic offspring. Generations have made treks high in the isolated communities of the Andes, in and around Cuncani, for ages. As we applaud Kenji and Andrew for no small feat of their own, we aim to bring attention and praise on those who do this most every day in slightly different manners. Well done all around.


It has been a month since I’ve moved to Peru and started working with Nexos Comunitarios and I can confidently say that I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.


A year ago, I was struggling with an existential crisis during my final year of university until I came upon one word. ‘Agape’. ‘Agape’ means unconditional love in Greek and the word has become a foundation to who I am. Friends who know me are aware that I have a tattoo of the word to symbolize a lifestyle I strive to base my life upon. To show love to those unloved and neglected.

In this past month, I have been repeatedly challenged on how hard unconditional love really is. I have been constantly exposed to the extent of brokenness, division, and injustice that exists in this world. At times it seems that all our efforts are hopeless; that no matter how hard we try these ugly things will continue to persist. In my time here, I was struggling with the question of how dire a situation needs to be to be considered hopeless; and that if I knew it was hopeless, would I still try. I realized that the fact I even tried to rationalize this meant I’ve already failed at unconditional love. Loving others shouldn’t be dependent upon whether others will receive or appreciate it, rather you love regardless of the results.

By no means is this an easy task. I’ll admit that I am nowhere close to perfecting it, nor do I think I ever fully will. So why am I trying so hard?

Because among all that ugliness lies so much hope. I’ve seen people with self-sacrificial compassion go to boundless lengths to reach the unloved. I’ve seen people come together, in spite of their differences, to fight for what’s right. I’ve seen the worst of people make 180- degree transformations once someone took the time to show them their true worth and potential. I believe that everyone deserves to be loved and has the capacity to love. I try because I believe that a better world is possible, and I want to do whatever I can to get a little closer to it. Yes, sometimes it can be tough and our efforts may seem useless, but sometimes a single smile can make it all worth it.