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 Burma 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?
What would helpful would be if academics could access monitoring and evaluation information. If donors could open up monitoring and evaluation reports, interim reports, this is information that most academics want anyway, especially the quantitative information. It is easy for academics to go in and gather the qualitative information and write it up within their theoretical framework. It is a lot harder to get valuable quantitative data.
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 contacts, it is also something that the humanitarian industry has to look at itself, and follow the ideals that they say they follow – like transparency. Especially organizations like EU, ECO, ICRC – sharing that 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. So it would be applied knowledge with very clear basic theoretical underpinnings that would be most useful. Academia’s preoccupation with not taking a stand or feeling the need to justify a theoretical perspective takes up too much space in an article. Choose your theoretical basis, you don’t need to justify it that much, just say ‘this is the theoretical basis I am taking’ and that takes out half of the article right there. Everyone knows the different theoretical perspectives, trying to find some little niche that can be developed, as a practitioner, is not useful to me. I know the different theoretical perspectives, so if you are coming it from an angle, don’t try to confuse it for six paragraphs.
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?
Not just academics but academic institutions need to work on more open source information. A lot of new practitioners are coming up, those who use smart phones, you can see they are taking information from less reliable sources. It is difficult to gain access to high quality information, particularly background information. A lot of the quality academic writings are not accessible to non-academics.
Another problem that you now have, especially in Australia with the commercialization of the universities, the corporate arms of different schools will undertake development tenders so you have a professor who will become a development trainer or does an analysis of a certain situation. It’s a different mindset, they will waffle, that will talk a lot, they are academics but once again how does that apply to the workers position? Often academics are not the best ones to undertake those sort of training or tenders because of their skill set. It’s a different skill set.
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, if you can’t speak three or four languages you are not good to anyone. The best officers have backgrounds in fine arts or hard sciences rather than social sciences or humanities backgrounds mostly because they have language skills. Musicians are great field workers because they have an ear for tone. Good musicians, it generally takes them very little time to learn a new language or to learn a local dialect because they can pick it up. A lot of the work is so much about what you know, no one has ever asked to see my transcript, no one has ever asked to see my degrees, it is how you can do the work on the ground and that means communication.
You also have to go places. I never got a job applying for a job. I was taken straight into the United Nations because an advisor came to the symposium where we present your thesis and he liked me. He invited me up to his office, I was an intern for 8 days before I got a job. It’s all about networking. I don’t know anyone who has gotten a job at UN agencies by putting in an application.
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, you need language skills. You need a good network – you need a local person to vouch for you. If you don’t have that you won’t get any information. And for someone to vouch for you, you need to be respectable and your research needs to have some usefulness to them. People don’t help you for no reason.
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?
I have been doing this a long time and when I have a contract I don’t drink. Depending on the location I will also do other things. In the pacific I will go to church, it depends on what is considered respectable or will put you in contact with politically important people. Good food, no drinking alcohol, and then you find your own stress release. In places with a high security threat level you won’t be getting outside so you may read books, but carrying around a kindle also locks you away from the environment you are working in. A lot of internationals will just lock themselves away because they can’t deal with the environment, especially socially. You have to embrace it and that involves undertaking the social activities that locals do. For example, in the pacific sit down with the locals and chew bettlenut and have a chat with them. The Dutch, they drink coffee, black coffee. You don’t ask for soy milk, you drink it the way they drink it. It’s very simple, you don’t make yourself special, make yourself just like them. 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 would be make an effort or, if necessary, a sacrifice to go out into the area yourself. Practitioners like academics that come to them. That is the way my thesis got a high distinction. Because I paid for my own trip to go and talk to people. I asked for an interview with the Prime Minister, I asked for an interview with the Attorney General, and through my network I was given them. But if I was waiting for funding and had to do formal applications, this may not have happened. You will have to sacrifice some of your time and some of your money and you will get better information and your research will be better because you have firsthand information.
Interviewed by: Shannon Zimmerman