Interview with: Kieren Michael Ngalia McGovern – International Organization for Migration (IOM) – Papua New Guinea, Highlands Regional Coordinator (7 Provinces)
Introduction:Kieren McGovern is a UQ Alumnus: 2003, Master of International Studies – UQ; 2002, Bachelor of Arts (International Relations) UQ and has just completed a contract with the UN PNG El Nino response group. This involved a 6 months humanitarian mission to the worst El Nino drought affected communities in the PNG Highlands. He will be heading to Bangkok and Myanmar to also work on humanitarian and peacebuilding issues.
What can academics and researchers do to make sure that their work accurately represents what is currently happening in the field and ensure they are not going off of biased or incomplete information?
In my ideal world what would be helpful would be if academics could access hard data from assessments. With advances in technology as field workers we are collecting a lot more data and a lot faster. We are moving in this direction but if donors could open up reports this would also be ideal especially with most organizations now working within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is information that most academics want anyway, the quantitative information. It is easy and affordable for academics to go in and gather the qualitative information with interviews and write it up within their theoretical framework. It is a lot harder to get quantitative data. There will always be debate on what data to collect but the SDGs has gone a long way in setting a common agenda with goals that are measurable.
How do you get access to that information? I don’t feel like that is something that would be readily available.
It depends on your area of study. There has been a lot of work done in recent times in the humanitarian coordination space. The digital service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Reliefweb is a good example. The Cluster group modality has also helped with information flows between stakeholders to organize relief but allowing academics to analyse the response from different perspectives with hard data would be on a large scale would be an enormous step. The sustainable development goals have helped transcend the humanitarian-development divide. Increased transparency and accessibility are great ideals to uphold and demonstrate. Especially large organizations like EU, ECO, ICRC – opening information would be a good way that these organizations and the academic community could coalesce in a better way.
How can researchers and academics produce knowledge that will be useful/accessible for those who are currently working in the field?
I think that when working with UN agencies, generally practitioners have a wealth of academic work at their fingertips. It is sifting through the quality work that is time consuming for me. Maybe it is just the presentation of academics work that would help me review the material to find pertinent information. Sorry to say but a clear reduction of their work is what I needed in the field. Short clear 1 page overview with 5 or six points would be great. So then I could apply the academics knowledge while understanding clearly the theoretical underpinnings. That would be most useful in my latest experience in PNG.
Are there any issues would you like academics to focus on that you feel are being missed in current academic research? Things you wish you could find more information on that just isn’t available?
This humanitarian – development divide, nexus. Yes, there has always been a discussion on this but in my view it would be great for universities to work on raw data sets from this phase. Not just individual academics but academic institutions to work on more raw data from this development phase. As I said on the field we are collecting a lot more data and faster. If this could be analysed in real time that would be my dream but maybe a little idealistic given the many isolated parts of the response zone I was just in. When talking about practitioners presenting and understanding the situational context. A lot of new practitioners are coming up, smart phone use has increased the access and the range of information. Not all of this information is reliable or from accurate sources. It is difficult to gain access to high quality information behind academic pay walls, particularly background information. A lot of these quality academic writings are not accessible to field workers and non-academics.
For people interested in working in the field or practitioner based applications of academia, do you have any recommendations as to what skills they should cultivate and things they should learn?
Languages. The best officers could have backgrounds in fine arts or hard sciences rather than social sciences or humanities backgrounds but they are effective because they have language skills. I have come across academically trained musicians that are great field workers because they have an ear for tone. I am jealous that it generally takes them very little time to learn a new language or a local dialect because they can pick it up quickly. A lot of the work is so much about how you communicate and then what you know, no one has ever asked to see my academic transcript, few have asked to see my degrees, it is how you can do the work on the ground and communicate.
You also have to go to the places. I was fortunate and taken straight from UQ into the United Nations because an advisor came to the symposium where we presented our theses and he liked my research. He invited me for a conversation and in a few months I was an intern. I believe in my situation this only happened because I had gone to the country on my own time to conduct field research for my thesis
There is often a lot of stress for PhD around the idea of doing field research. Do you have any recommendations for researchers on how to be most effective, efficient, and sensitive during the field research process?
Again, language skills are a great asset. A good network is perhaps even better – perhaps a local person that can vouch for you. If you don’t have that it is hard to get good information. From my experience in the PNG Highlands for someone to vouch for you, you need to be respected and your research needs to have some usefulness to them. Provide people and their communities a reason to help you and be a partner.
If you are really not comfortable doing research then don’t do field research. There are enough aspects of political science and international relations where you don’t have to do field research.
From a personal perspective, particularly with the work you do where you travel to some challenging places and have to deal with a lot of hardship both for yourself and the people you are working with, how do you make sure that you take care of yourself?
My first rule is when I have a contract is I don’t drink alcohol. If someone had told me this at Graduate school I could have worked better in many situations early on. Depending on the location I will also do other things. In the Pacific and Christian countries I make a point of attending church regularly. In countries where there is a risk then no I don’t attend church services. It depends on what is considered respectable and what can put you in contact with socially important people. Good food, no alcohol, and then you find your own stress release – I played football with the local youth from the settlement out the front of my compound. That worked in that situation. In places with a high security threat level you won’t be getting outside a lot so you may read books, but carrying around a kindle also can isolate you away from the environment you are working in. Finding a balance is always hard. A lot of internationals, myself included, have to deal with depression and end up locking themselves away because they can’t deal with the environment, especially socially. This is a problem. I believe, you have to embrace the environment and that involves undertaking the social activities that locals do. For example, in Melanesia sit down with the locals and chew bettlenut and have a chat with them. In Fiji, have some kava. In Indonesia go for coffee. It’s very simple, don’t make yourself special, make yourself accessible. However they would have it, you have it.
Any other thoughts you would like to share for those who are keen to make sure their academic experience translates well into field experience and vice versa?
My suggestion to graduate students would be to make an effort or, if necessary, a sacrifice to go and visit the country where you want to work or study yourself. Practitioners like academics that come to them. I had some great conversations with academics in the field in the Highlands – mostly biologists and anthropologists. When I look back at my graduate years one of the reasons I believe my thesis got a high distinction and then my opportunity as a UN intern was my trip to the field. I saved up money from my part-time serving job here in Brisbane and I paid for my own trip to go and conduct interviews in the field. I asked for an interview with the Prime Minister, I asked for an interview with the Attorney General, and luckily I was given them. But if I was waiting for funding and had to do formal funding applications, this may not have happened. Looking back I now believe that sacrifice was a great experience and a good investment but I was very fortunate. To sacrifice some of your time and maybe some of your money; you will get better information and your research will be better because you have firsthand information.
Interviewed by: Shannon Zimmerman