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Marian Casey-Maslen (1997)

In March 2003, I joined many other aid workers in southern Sudan to provide assistance to people in what some called a ‘silent’ famine – the famine was spreading across places like Bor, Kongor, Yirol, and Rumbek and the media was silent, as all eyes were focused on the Somalia crisis – this despite evidence from needs assessments that the health and nutritional status of people was much worse in pockets of southern Sudan than in Somalia.

While I had undergone training for overseas personnel in Dublin prior to my departure, nothing had prepared me for working in a conflict zone. I also realized as the months went by that much of the activities were longer term development than “emergency” orientated and I really had no understanding of the basics of development. I knew that if I wanted to continue aid work, I needed to be better equipped if I was to save livelihoods as well as lives and to ensure that I did more good than harm on the ground.

Joining the first Masters course in Kimmage in 1996, and having only studied nursing and midwifery in the past, I was a bit intimidated at first by Economics, Sociology, and Politics but I was not alone. As “mature” students, our class of 1996 soon found that we already had so many life experiences that helped us engage with the theories and apply them to real-life situations in a development and humanitarian context. The knowledge gained through those subjects helped shape my development and humanitarian thinking over the next 17 years.

Four modules in Kimmage have stood the test of time and have I believe highly influenced and enhanced all my work since leaving Kimmage: leadership; human development; project planning and management; and, cultural anthropology. The leadership and human development modules forced me look at myself and I believe has left me with a much greater self-awareness which has really helped me over the years especially in my work as a manager and leader. Having the skills to lead has built my confidence and has also made me more aware of my weaknesses and how I can overcome them to improve performance. This has helped more recently in the co-facilitation and leadership of the development of the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability for the humanitarian sector together with two other organisations. Learning from human development point to the need to give time to people and to listen and enable people to find solutions to their own problems. This was particularly valuable when I managed a large People to People peace building project in south Sudan when it was all about community engagement and transitioning from conflict to peace at the community level. And as for logical frameworks, the learning I have gained on the project planning and management is something I have used nearly every day of my career so far. I worked as an advisor with a donor for four years based out of Ethiopia where there was a huge emphasis on results based frameworks so the LF tools and learning were invaluable.

One subject baffled me at first in Kimmage and that was Adult Education. It was only when I went to Khartoum in 1998 as the Country Director of GOAL, that I fully realised its benefits and I reflected on it true value and the skills that I had gained during that module. If I hadn’t that understanding I doubt I would have been so enthusiastic about a women’s adult literacy project that the outgoing director had put huge effort into setting up. The project sought to empower socially disadvantaged women in the displaced persons camps around Khartoum. The project was employing the REFLECT teaching-learning methods, an innovative approach to adult learning and social change which was made popular by the Brazilian radical educational theorist, Paulo Freire. The REFLECT – Regenerated Freirean Literacy through Empowering Community Techniques – approach allows learners to determine their own curriculum, to learn at their own pace, and to link the skills they want to develop to what’s relevant to their own everyday lives. There are no textbooks and no printed materials and the women develop their own learning materials and activities using tools and resources that are familiar to them and which reflect their socioeconomic and political circumstances.

When I visited the women learning circles they were often using ground mapping and calendar tools that I had also learned so much about through Kimmage when studying Participatory Rural Appraisal techniques, which was enhanced by a workshop with Robert Chambers and which I have used and promoted consistently in my work. I witnessed the true value of adult education when I saw the progression of the women’s knowledge over a three year period in Khartoum and what was most remarkable was the growing confidence and resilience of the women as their learning progressed – it was so extraordinary that one male European donor that I was accompanying one day was so overwhelmed by the change in the women – they were now powerful and engaging participants – that he was reduced to tears of happiness. What was most noteworthy about this project was that it was led and managed by two dynamic Sudanese staff, both women, who had great vision and who made sure that the project flowed at the women’s pace and was not externally driven.

I left Sudan in 2001 and since learned that the project later expanded significantly and received a UNESCO REFLECT award in 2005 for work conducted amongst displaced communities in Sudan. While I take absolutely no credit for the success of this project – that was completely down to its national team and subsequent management – an understanding of the value of this unconventional educational approach convinced me; give space and power to the project team to move the project in the direction the women circles believed most appropriate to their needs; and, not interfering in its day-to-day running; and, to support their decisions and ensure continued funding for the initiative to expand.

I took the “appropriate technology” elective in Kimmage and amazing enough from 2009-2012, I worked a lot on climate change and disaster risk reduction and found my learning from 1996 really helpful in understanding issues related to alternative energy, pros and cons, etc.

Overall, I believe that the learning and skills I took with me from Kimmage has made me a better leader, facilitator and manager – and for that I will be forever grateful.


Marian Casey-Maslen, currently Executive Director, Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International (HAP), based in Geneva.


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