The SIPA Workshop: Travel and Preparation for Two Weeks of Field Research

Over the first two weeks of January, right after the Christmas and New Year holidays, I traveled to Bangladesh to participate in field research pertaining to my SIPA EPD Workshop, the second year practicum that allows students in the Economic and Political Development concentration at SIPA to have a practical application of what they’ve studied so far. Projects can run the gamut between impact analysis, communications, quantitative research prompts, and strategy papers. My project was assisting an international NGO called Orbis International in evaluating their assessment framework for the organizations they partner with. Orbis International is an international health organization dedicated to eliminating avoidable blindness in the developing world through partnerships that build the capacity of local healthcare providers and training and services delivered wither through telemedicine or their Flying Eye Hospital — a retrofitted jetliner that is a state of the art flying eye hospital complete with waiting rooms, surgical theaters, and classrooms.

In the run-up to my travel on January 3rd, I had, alongside with my group, created a work plan draft or two to solidify our scope of work, presented our workplan to our professor and peers for feedback, presented it to our client, and negotiated our scope of work with them. This process allowed us to solidify what exactly we were meant to do in the project and gave us a workplan for how we’d like to approach our field trip to get the most relevant information needed for our trip. It was not all easy, though, is a group of seven, finding consensus in a workplan that would allow each of us to be able to tackle a part of the project we were interested in and find the roles in the project that allowed us to best show our strengths.

On January 3rd, I set off on my 9:45 for nearly a full day of flights that would result in me reaching Dhaka Bangladesh around 5:00 pm local time. For this trip, I was accompanied by my workshop teammate Yina who flew to Bangladesh from her home country of South Korea. After a night of rest and acclimating to the timezone, we were up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for our work with the Orbis Bangladesh team which commenced with breakfast and orientation on Orbis Bangladesh’s work and facts relevant to our project.

On January 4th and 5th we stayed in the city of Dhaka, working at the Orbis International country office and their staff. We learned a lot about impact evaluation and partner assessment processes, on the ground development practice in the health sector, and what it takes to organize programs across dozens of institutional and implementation partners. We had overviews of all of Orbis’ NGO partners such as BRAC and Save the Children before setting off to Mymensingh, around 4 hours North of Dhaka by Bus.

We stayed at the BRAC Learning Centre in Mymensingh, a collection of dorms for students and development workers managed by BRAC, the largest NGO in the country, and from there set off to visit the Dr. K Zaman BNSB Eye Hospital in Mymensingh. This eye hospital covers the Mymensingh Division of Bangladesh and surrounding areas by providing not only vision tests and eye screenings but cataract surgery, geriatric and pediatric eye surgery, and other concerns. It is supported by multiple vision centers it runs in more rural provinces that offer less invasive services such as refraction testing. There, we met record keeping, medical, ophthalmic, administration staff who gave us not only a warm welcome, but an overview of the eye hospital’s work, the people they serve, and the challenges they face in ensuring that everyone receives the right care for their needs in the over 100km radius that they serve.

 

After our day of meetings on the 6th at the eye hospital, we took a break for lunch and had an excursion to the Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU) campus where we toured the student farm and all of the tropical fruits and vegetables, flowers, and trees that were bring grown. We even had a photo shoot on this beautiful bridge overlooking a gazebo filled with water lillies before hopping on a small row boat on the Brahmaputra river before returning to the BLC dorms in Mymensingh.

On the 7th of January, we set off for a one hour drive to Netrokona District in the Mymensingh Division of Bangladesh. We were going to visit the Netrokona Diabetic Hospital where Orbis International is supporting their efforts in building capacity to treat and diagnose Diabetic Retinopathy — damage to the vessels in the eye due to complications due to diabetes. There, we met with the President of the hospital, its volunteer doctors, and other staff. Yina got to sample the retinal imaging machinery and we got to learn about the hospital’s expansion efforts. We also got to speak to the government representative — project manager from the ministry of social welfare — who told us about the government’s efforts to support rural health initiative. Because of the rural nature of the area, we were given a police escort and got to snap some photos with them too. They were extremely friendly and ensured our safety throughout.

On the 8th of January we headed back to Dhaka City. The drive took over five hours due to traffic and some pretty intense fog, but we made it back in one piece. After getting back to the city, we met with officials at BRAC and SightSavers — two large NGOs who collaborate with Orbis due to their shared mission and got an idea of the challenges they faced in their work — these conversations were not only amazing networking but crucial to the success of our project.

Finally, on the 9th we got to present our findings for the trip and how they will help our project move forward. We learned so much about how to evaluate impact on the ground — especially in the field of ophthalmic care — that will be useful for our project and are excited to continue. Over the next semester, we will create a report and a tool for our client, Orbis, and pilot it over Spring Break in Ethiopia.  It is a lot of work to balance with our courses, but it is such a key, tangible, application to our academic work that it is so worth it.