Launch into it

Three months ago, when I started my fellowship, I was surprised that the main language spoken at the IDB is Spanish. It’s as if a little piece of Latin America has been transplanted right into the middle of DC. This was a welcome surprise, since I hadn’t worked in a Spanish-speaking setting since high school and I had forgotten how comfortable it felt. It struck me that sharing a language can sometimes be enough to feel at home.

As the weeks passed, I steadily began learning the Bank’s lingo. There were all sorts of abbreviations and terms to know, and processes to understand. I found myself asking questions right and left just so that I didn’t fall behind, even when the words themselves made sense to me. I was learning to communicate in a new language, and the only way to do it was to dive in.

Sometime in mid-September, my co-fellow, Vincent, and I received an assignment to go to Chiapas, Mexico. At that point we had both finally started gaining fluency in the “language” of the Bank, and we were excited to go on our first mission. We would be going to Chiapas to work with the Secretary of Health, and lead a supply chain study that would identify any persistent shortages of medicine and supplies at the clinics there. The results of the study could then serve as a guide to address these shortages.

From the day we found out we were going, Vincent and I worked diligently to plan out the study and create strong instruments to measure the gap. Then on the day before our trip, we had a conversation with the Bank’s Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) team, who cautioned us that we were making a lot of assumptions that may not prove to be true on the ground.

They were right.

When we got to Chiapas, we realized that we had been planning our project in a vacuum. Even if our ideas were on target, they hadn’t taken into account how supply chains were managed in Chiapas.

For the week that we were there, we immersed ourselves in the work and let our surroundings teach us. We got to visit two health clinics, where we talked to health care providers on the ground, who depended on a functioning supply chain to treat patients. These conversations helped me refocus my approach to the study. Its results would ensure that people who are sick have access to the medicine they need, when they need it.

The time I spent in Chiapas reminded me that our work can suffer if we stay too far from the people we serve. I needed to immerse myself in the clinics in Chiapas in order to really understand the system.

On the car ride back to the hotel from the clinics, I made mental notes of our next steps as I admired Chiapas’ landscape. When you drive through the mountains there, it almost looks like you’re flying – a sensation that reminds me of driving through the mountains at home in Guatemala.

We will always find ways to connect with our environments, our colleagues, and our work, if we look for similarities, instead of differences. The thought is totally liberating, and it helped us make sure the Chiapas project would soar.