Oftentimes, I find group projects tedious and overwhelming. Many classes at MIIS involve ample time spent in groups deliberating over a deliverable or working on a presentation, when I’d much prefer to simply write the paper or facilitate he presentation myself. However, the development world thrives on collaboration and inputs from multiple stakeholders. I realize this, yet group work remains tedious.

Fast-forward to Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The process of designing a social marketing campaign during the DPMI Rwanda course forced me to reevaluate my stance on lengthy group projects. Thanks to numerous aspects associated with DPMI Rwanda’s client project conducted with Partners in Health, I now see the value of collaboration and brainstorming during the process of identifying problems, designing programs and presenting findings.

In my ideal world, these frameworks and designs would be done with as little discussion as possible. Our group’s collective work would follow a logical flow that would not require ample nitpicking. However, our HIV care working group consisted of members hailing from organizations like PEPFAR and Pact and/or experience working with Peace Corps or in the private section. Ideas would emerge from rich dialogue and robust discussions. Group work would be lengthy. While I  typically see these conversations as inefficient, I would have to deal with it.

As stated, “dealing with it” is my preferred way of completing wearying group assignments. Yet, over the course of our breakout sessions, I found myself becoming more engaged in our group’s project design process, in part because I felt confident in providing my unique insight into the issues surrounding care and support for people living with HIV (PLHIV). Some of my group members work for public health organizations at their organization’s country and international levels. <y most recent work with people living with HIV in Cameroon was completed in rural villages, not unlike Rwinkwavu, Rwanda (our host site). Terms like psychosocial support, micronutrient deficiencies, and antiretroviral treatment adherence get thrown around a lot when discussing the overarching global needs of PLHIV. While these are certainly valid concerns when looking at the HIV epidemic from a top-down perspective, when designing projects that meet the needs of individual PLHIV, it is essential to seek out their specific personal problems. This is where I felt my expertise added to the rich discussion process.

Group Intore discusses qualitative interview questions.

While conducting our field interviews, I deemed it necessary to shift our questions from ones including too much public health jargon to those that truly allowed our client to tell her story. Our client expressed that her biggest desire was to see her children fall asleep with food in their stomachs. She reiterated this point several times in the interview, and informed us that she wished she could be more involved in local community groups that provide financial assistance. By tweaking our interview, our group became more informed on the underlying issues facing the local PLHIV community, than had we based our assumptions on our knowledge of the psychosocial care services provided by Partners in Health community health workers.

As a result of our interactions with this mother, our group’s social marketing project shifted from focusing on how Partners in Health medical staff could provide HIV care to how Partners in Health could facilitate HIV care within the Rwinkwavu community.

Our final social marketing campaigned drew on the knowledge that emerged from our interactions, while also from each group member’s personal experiences. The once tedious interactions with my group evolved into insightful discussions and arguments that built our strategic objective of social cohesion between community groups and PLHIV. Our presentation expanded on this on this goal of social cohesion by including marketing ideas that encourage the use of events normally found in Rwanda society. Our group’s one Rwandan member provided us with essential information on the cultural context for these events, and how that context could fit in with a public health outreach program.

Presenting our social marketing mix “Twese Hamwe”

Overcoming my apprehension to group work aside, DPMI Rwanda provided me with an opportunity to reflect on my current perceptions of development. The Middlebury Institute Development Practice and Policy curriculum encourages learners to think critically about our roles as practitioners in the global development context. This often involved reading depressing articles about the failure of development initiatives, or the struggles of people living in conflict areas. Suffice to say the least; I hold a certain level of cynicism about my future career in humanitarian assistance. However, after witnessing the progress made by Rwanda 24 years since the 1994 genocide, I feel inspired by the work done to overcome such a grave human tragedy. Rwandans’ efforts in culturally significant restorative justice represent a hallmark case in how to cope with the effects of an unimaginably painful experience. The strides Rwanda has taken in the public health sector in combatting epidemics like HIV/AIDS and infant and maternal mortality showcase the power of cooperation between local stakeholders and international organizations (including our host organization Partners in Health). Upon returning to complete the last semester in my Masters in Public Administration course, I can take solace in remembering that, despite the pessimistic outlook some of my course readings, each day “development” is happening. Everyday progress is being made to improve the human condition.