Understand, connect, speak up: my fellowship year

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Anjali Sarker

2018-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

Just one year ago I was on a plane, heading from Bangladesh to London to begin my journey as a residential Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity. My hope was that I would learn more about inequality in an academic context, but little did I imagine just how much my fellowship year would change my ideas and perceptions, and most importantly myself.

Looking back, I can see that there are three key elements of the fellowship that have truly transformed me personally and professionally.

 

#1 Understanding the causes of things

 While walking around the London School of Economics and Political Science, it’s hard to miss the banners bearing the words “Understanding the causes of things since 1895”. That’s a reference to the motto of the university since its inception – Rerum cognoscere causas, or “to Know the Causes of Things”.

This phrase perfectly summarises my learning journey over the past year as I shifted gears from implementing to understanding. In my previous role as a development practitioner, I had very little time for reflection. The majority of my fellow Fellows also came from environments in which they were busy challenging the status quo and fighting injustice. For us, this fellowship would provide much-needed breathing space where we could pause, reflect and understand inequality from different angles. We were exposed to a wide range of academic and non-academic literature, had opportunities for deep and searching conversations with other Fellows, and benefited from the insights shared by guest speakers during the fellowship modules – all of which gave us a holistic understanding of inequalities that no other exclusively academic or professional development programme could provide.

Before starting the fellowship, I was working in the space of digital financial services, trying to increase women’s access to and use of mobile money. The fellowship broadened my horizon and made me see the gaps in my own work. Rather than remaining content to see the promotion of digital services as a way to address inequalities, I was pushed to rethink digital inequalities altogether. One of the most impactful habits I have developed over the year is asking “Why so?”. Although it may seem far too simple a practice to be truly useful, I have found that asking simple questions in order to challenge the dominant narrative can be incredibly powerful. Thanks to the fellowship, I have learned how to ask counterintuitive questions in a world where everyone memorises the answers to Frequently Asked Questions, but doesn’t dare to ask the Never Asked Questions.

 

#2 Connecting the dots between inequality and other issues

There are many ways of defining, discussing and fighting inequalities. Personally, I found it useful to look at inequality as the outcome of much deeper structural failures and systemic problems. The fellowship truly helped me to develop my systems thinking ability and apply that in my work. For example, before coming to the programme, my vision was confined to “giving” the unbanked population access to financial services. However, as I was busy “giving”, it didn’t occur to me to think about how such inequalities are connected to deep-rooted socio-cultural issues, such as patriarchy. Once I started asking simple questions without buying into popular assumptions, it was much easier to connect the dots between financial exclusion, social norms and emerging technologies. In fact, this led me to explore the gender gap in financial inclusion from a different perspective, looking at all the socio-cultural barriers that prevent women from achieving meaningful financial inclusion.

For a long time, development practitioners working in resource-constrained environments have dealt in narratives such as “inequality is inevitable”, or “poverty has always been there”, or “women lack the ability to make financial decisions”. These assertions are a subtle way of pushing the burden of solving a macro-level problem onto individuals. Unsurprisingly, the daunting magnitude of the problem often leaves us overwhelmed, and we find we can barely scratch the surface of the real problem. As the saying goes, sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. Here is where we see the importance of systems thinking and developing the ability to connect the dots by going beyond one’s own experience and area of expertise.

 

#3 Speaking truth to power

Just like a fish never questions the origin of water, my lived experiences of inequality made me forget the most obvious questions that I should have asked long ago: Why is the world unequal? Who gains from inequality? At the end of a life-changing fellowship year, I admit that I do not yet have the answers, but the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme has given me the courage to ask the right questions without fearing the consequences. Rather than resorting to the pessimistic view that we are powerless, or less powerful, in the fight against inequality, I learned how to be bold in my thoughts, words and actions.

Interestingly, during the fellowship it has sometimes been difficult to feel the transformative change that is quietly taking place. In my case, the moment of realisation came when I went back to Bangladesh in the summer. One of my engagements there involved helping senior and mid-senior level professionals in the mainstream banking sector to develop user-centric financial products and services. I found myself engaging with them much better than I could have done before, even on topics where we did not necessarily agree. Engaging with powerful stakeholders on inequality issues is not easy by any means, but it’s the right thing to do, and now I have the courage to do it.

This is how I would describe my fellowship journey – attempting to understand what inequality is, connecting the dots scattered across the systems that I didn’t know existed, and gathering the courage to speak up strategically. If this is what you are looking for, I warmly encourage you to apply to be part of the 2020-21 cohort of AFSEE Fellows. At the end of the year, you will be surprised to discover a different version of yourself.

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Anjali Sarker is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics. @anjalisarker