World Learning Voices: Jennifer Whatley

World Learning Voices highlights the achievements of our staff to allow our World Learning community to get to know more about what makes them tick, and why they do what they do (and how they do it so well).

We recently spoke with Jennifer Whatley, divisional vice president of our Civil Society and Governance Programs, about how she got into international development and her current work.

Tell us about your career trajectory and how that led you to where you are today.

I think that the early trajectory of my career was starting off in different directions and not quite sure where I would like to go at times, or thinking I wanted to do one thing and realizing maybe I wanted to go in a different direction. What was common was international relations. I wanted to do things focused on international studies in the international field. Earlier on I thought I wanted to do something like the Foreign Service or work for a think tank or something like that — I think up until I went to graduate school. When I was in graduate school, I started learning about all these interesting things that NGO’s were doing and realized that I was actually much more interested in that kind of career, so when I came out of graduate school that’s when I started looking at: who was doing work specifically with Eastern Europe because that’s what I focused on in graduate school at the time.

What was it about NGOs that interested you, as opposed to something like the Foreign Service?

I think this is more hands-on. It was less talking to government officials and diplomats and more working at a more grassroots level.

What was the first experience that made you realize that you wanted to do this hands-on work?

I think what led me to wanting to work on the issues around the human rights and civil society, was when I was in my early teens, we lived in West Berlin. And it was the 1980’s and it was very much the cold war at the time. The wall was there. To go anywhere, you were going through checkpoints with Soviet soldiers. Then you went to this country that was just a few miles away, but it was a mystery. There were all these oppressed people you really didn’t know that much about — at least that’s how it seemed to an American in their early teens. And I remember the time wondering what would happen if you could just go in and pluck out those governments and put in a democratic government. How would people react, and what would they do? Just a few years later — senior year of college — essentially that happened. Those governments just started to fall. It was so quick, within a few weeks it was hard to keep track which governments still had a communist government and which didn’t. Everything changed.

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How does the political climate of other countries today differ from that of Eastern Europe post-Cold War and what do you see emerging in the post-USSR world?

In terms of what’s happened with the history in Africa or the Middle East or Asia, it’s a different narrative in terms of it’s not that Cold War, but there are these similarities of the idea of oppressive governments and what does that do to people and how do people react and still try to keep their voice and their humanity even under difficult circumstances and what happens when things do transition — whether it’s from a colonial system or whether it’s from an authoritarian system? I think there’s some differences in a lot of ways, but also some similarities, particularly I think when we’re looking at the issues around human rights and what are people’s basic rights as a human being? That’s a commonality.

One differences, quite frankly, with many of those countries is the way that they view the US. Because in the post-Soviet world, the US was welcomed, so there was a lot of fascination and interest with working with the US. As development professionals working in those countries, it was a very welcoming environment.

In the countries in the Middle East, certainly with Iran, I think there’s much more suspicion. And so for us, I think that that raises different questions, certainly about security. That’s a big issue, but also just in terms of what are our approaches and what’s appropriate?

I think that those are questions sometimes that probably weren’t raised enough in the early 90’s when Americans were flooding former communist countries or former socialist countries — and sometimes naively — with this idea that we’re going to bring in US systems. I think that the development world and the democracy world have learned a lot since then.

But it is a question of “How do we support processes that are very much grounded in their own countries, very much grounded in the realities and the culture and the expectations of Egypt or Algeria or Tunisia or Iran?” And I think it’s also more complicated because the US has different interests in those countries than we did with Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. I think in some ways in the 1990’s the aspirations of development professionals and people focused on democracy and human rights issues of course corresponded more directly to the issues of US government foreign policy, and now that’s not always the case.

What are you working on right now?

Right now, I’m the head of our Civil Society and Governance team. So, basically what our team focuses on are issues around human rights, citizen participation, civic education, pluralism and inclusion. So we’re very much looking at not just diversity, not just how can World Learning have programs where you have different people at the table, but also how do people come to the table in a way in which they respect each other and have enough understanding of each other that they can engage with each other. So, it’s not just about having someone from a different religious group sit next to you at a training; it’s being able to interact with that person, understand that you have difference but find ways that you can work together with your differences.

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What does that type of interaction look like in a program?

One of the things it looks like is actual training. So, the iPACE program that we run in Burma, for example. We run a number of different courses. The idea behind the program is that Burma is a country that has gone through a number of political changes in the past few years, and it’s moving away from a system of military rule. So, how can we design courses that will help civic activists and political party members and labor leaders and women’s group leaders and LGBT activists and all these different people… how can we help them develop the knowledge and skills they need in their work, coming from a country that has been very closed?

With a focus on pluralism and inclusion, we would look at thinking broader, so, not just at minority or gender issues but also people with disabilities and LGBT and other issues. Then what kinds of skills does our staff need in order to create a space where people can interact and work together well?

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?

I think I’ve learned a lot about Development 101 obviously, but I think one thing I’ve learned is just the humility that we need as an organization. I think the work that we do that is the best received is when we do it humbly and when we do it as a partner. I can think of a country right now where we’re working with some human rights activists and they’re in a very difficult situation and they’re always under the threat of their organizations being closed down or being arrested and you can’t approach that from a ‘here’s our work plan or here’s what we’re going to do’ place in Washington, DC and my middle class background. You have to do it from a perspective of them telling us what they need and having conversations around perhaps what we can offer and then working with them on how to achieve that together. You have to trust those organizations to take leadership about what’s feasible, what are priorities for them, when do they want to pull back because they’re at risk, when do they want to push things forward because they seen an opportunity?

What do you still want to accomplish?

I’ve had a lot of different jobs at World Learning and I think there’s a lot that World Learning can do to help open up more space for citizens and individuals in countries to speak their mind, to act openly, to exercise their religious beliefs, and I think that we can do that overtly sometimes — on a project that’s specifically focused on that. We are a broad organization. We work on educational issues. We do institutional strengthening, working with organizations. And I think in many places we can have an impact a more traditional human rights focused organization can’t. I think one thing that I hope to do working with my different colleagues here is how we as an organization do that more intentionally and more effectively.

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World Learning empowers people, communities, and institutions to create a more peaceful and just world.

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