When the going gets tough
Following a mission to Sudan cut short by the pandemic, AWB volunteer Tag Elkhazin has some advice for AWB volunteers facing the unexpected.
March 2020. The World Health Organization had just declared the rapidly spreading coronavirus a global pandemic. As borders closed, scores of foreigners stranded abroad, on beaches or business trips, scrambled to get flights home. Having arrived in Sudan on March 2, Tag Elkhazin, an AWB volunteer at University of Bahri in Khartoum, was in a difficult position.
Sudan had only recently emerged from the brutal 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir, who was overthrown in a military coup in 2019. With Al-Bashir gone, the country was in the midst of a halting transition to democracy.
Tag’s AWB project at the university was progressing despite a rocky start. He was developing a manual for the university’s Centre for Peace and Development Studies to provide training, coaching and advisory support in community-based conflict resolution and political settlement.
The recent assassination attempt on Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was yet another reminder of the necessity of the project he had undertaken.
Tag is an internationally recognized expert on the Horn of Africa and a senior fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa. A scholar and a practitioner, he is equally comfortable working with battle-hardened fighters as Armani-suited officials. Decades of experience, contacts in diplomatic and government circles, and good-natured doggedness, helped Tag navigate what appeared to be a chaotic situation.
In the midst of a gasoline shortage that paralyzed the city, he secured enough fuel to get around. Provided with a dilapidated office, he hired workers to refurbish it. Meetings with elusive government officials were set up with a few phone calls. AWB took care of all the unforeseen expenses.
“Catherine (Catherine Cripps, AWB Volunteer Coordinator) would check on me two or three times a day,” says Tag, who was on his first mission for the organization.
When the Government of Canada called for all Canadians to return home, AWB moved quickly.
“I had two tickets, one in First Class just in case I didn’t get a seat in Economy Class,” said Tag, recalling the emergency evacuation.
A volunteer’s health and well-being are AWB’s top priority.
While Tag’s mission to the Republic of the Sudan was not a typical AWB assignment, his experience highlights the qualities AWB looks for in volunteers: he is passionate, has a high level of expertise and is committed to building the quality and capacity of higher education in the least developed countries.
“Number one is resilience,” Tag adds. When a volunteer steps outside their academic world to work in the global south they should expect a few surprises and setbacks, some of which will undermine a project, but he adds, “If there is a glimpse of hope we should follow it.”
Tag’s advice for AWB volunteers
Ground intelligence is crucial. It is important to understand the political, cultural and social environment ahead of time, but once you arrive, get comfortable with uncertainty. “I always use the iceberg model: Eighty percent of reality is hidden from you,” says Tag. “You need to be prepared for that.”
Be sensitive to cultural differences. Tag suggests taking the time to learn about the local culture and acceptable behaviour for foreign visitors. Knowing a few rules of etiquette can help a volunteer avoid awkward situations that could sour relations with colleagues.
Recognize when it is time to go home. “Think: Why am I here? Do the people I am with need what I am going to deliver? In most cases, the answer is ‘yes’”, says Tag. “But,” he adds, “an academic volunteer is not expected to tolerate the same level of risk as a humanitarian worker or a highly paid consultant.”
No effort is wasted. Doing the best you can under difficult circumstances is a reward in itself. “Despite the disappointment, I did manage to get quite a bit of work done. I came back with 30 to 35 percent of what I went for,” says Tag. “Had I been able to stay the additional three weeks, I would have completed the job.”
Dr. Tag Elkhazin is Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, Ottawa, assigned to the Institute of African Studies. He is a Senior Fellow with the Norman Pearson School of International Affairs, a member of the African Study Group of Ottawa, and member of the Board of Directors of the Archaeological Institute of America – Ottawa.
Tag trained and worked in Sudan, Sweden, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea, Nigeria, Chad, Canada and the United Kingdom. He is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London, UK.
Dr. Elkhazin has been a regular coach training and teaching Interest-Based Conflict Resolution with the ADR Chambers and Stitt Feld Handy Group of Toronto. He is the author of several articles and assessments on conflicts in Sudan, South Sudan, IGAD/CPA, water/Nile waters, civil society, peace and conflict resolution. Tag developed his own hands-on module of “political settlement” between rebel groups and incumbent governments.