This interview was conducted and written by Emily O'Hara (MAGen32) in March 2020.
Laila Barhoum (MAPov05) completed her Master's in Poverty & Development at IDS in 2012 and is currently working for Oxfam in Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) as a Policy & Campaign Officer. Laila is an IDS Alumni Ambassador and can also be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.
Laila discovered IDS when she saw an advertisement for the different Master’s programs, including the MA Poverty degree or “MA POV” as it is affectionately called within the Institute. She felt destined to study there especially after growing frustrated by the programs in Gaza and nearly settling for a Master’s [of] Business Administration. She was excited by the unique program offerings and breadth of diversity in the students and staff.
IDS was introduced to me in a way that I was never ever able to plan for.
When Laila arrived at IDS, she remembers feeling out of place. As students around her answered questions she asked herself one: why am I here? Then, she met people at IDS who changed her perspective. One person was IDS Researcher and tutor Evangelia Berdou. She mentored Laila and helped her to understand the experience that she brought to IDS. The first thing that Laila remembers from when she was a student was the diversity of people and backgrounds. There were students from every corner of the globe. The other thing that struck her was the education system in the UK. The model at IDS was very different than the traditional lecture style that she had grown accustomed to back in the OPT. Now, instead of simply listening and absorbing, she found that she could ask questions and share stories with others. The adjustment was challenging:
It may sound cliché. It literally made me think more. There was a box that I was ticked in, but I was asked to think out of it ... It was intimidating, but a good intimidating. I felt that I could speak without being judged. So, challenging, inspiring, intimidating in a good way.
The introductory essay was a challenge because it was not in the format that Laila was used to. On receipt of a low mark, which she had never experienced before, her self-doubt resurfaced. Then, her supervisor explained that she is supposed to be here because everyone has an experience to share and something that they have learned from their life that they can contribute. For Laila, that was when she made the connection between her lived experience and the concept of development.
I remember thinking that I come from a country that has lived through a conflict, through an occupation. I think that it was the sense of development, not just the theory of development. It’s about how to work with people, in this case, people like me, so I recognized that I have something to contribute.
A favourite book that she discovered while at IDS encompasses this ‘sense of development’. Reading Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom was, '...the first time that this whole development thing was put in one word about freedom. It was the one book that stimulated my way of thinking about writing these things as freedom: give people a voice an amplifier. It was IDS that introduced me to it'. Laila uses that principle to give people a voice in her work today. She believes in focusing on the notion that development is freedom. This extends to her work as a Policy and Campaign Officer for Oxfam
From the development perspective, now when we write proposals, in improving livelihoods for people … we need to focus on eliminating the root causes; this is what I think everyone should be focusing on in terms of addressing the deeper connections. I really feel my added value at Oxfam is that we have the voices of people always depicted: we make sure that we show how these people became dependent on aid. They are not just someone who receives a package of help and they will be improved. They are someone who is looking for their rights to be fulfilled.
Laila has lived in OPT since the beginning. She finds herself talking the same way [as] she did in 2011-12 at IDS. The idea of injustice is what she thinks of when it comes to development and her work around the occupation. She feels that policymakers come from a place of assumptions and policies always missed ‘us’:
With Oxfam, I feel I am there as part of the decision. We are actually talking with people not being talked about. The sense of injustice and need should be.
Following graduation from IDS, she shared the hopes that many master’s students hold: to be challenged by your work, but also to be excited by what you’re doing. The turning point for her career was when she went home. Her first professional break was when she got a job offer from an NGO in Gaza which focused on fundraising. It was the MA program at IDS and the people with whom she interacted while there that helped shape her new perspective. From there, for about six years she worked for a few nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) before joining Oxfam. It has been a successful journey.
Recently on a trip to Washington, DC. Working out of Oxfam’s U.S. offices, Laila was able to share her stories at large multilateral aid agencies and government branches:
It was for me telling the story of OPT in a way because you know when you’re in DC, you are in the place where power and decisions really take place. I went there and people were really speaking their story about injustice and what took place. It was really memorable to share the stories at NGO donors, the Senate, and the House. People were eager to understand; we came with a delegation. It was a moment of momentum because of the amount of injustice in the Trump Peace Plan.
The momentum and energy that Laila exudes is merely the beginning. She is connecting with others in her home region and met an IDS alum who worked at Oxfam in Gaza before it became a large umbrella organization. Another two IDS alumni who are friends of hers are working on their PhDs in the UK, and in fact, England was where Laila first met someone from Jerusalem. This in person exchange sparked many more during school and after. For example ,she worked on a piece of research with a research fellow in the Gender and Development program which was a popular piece of writing about the 2014 escalation of the Gaza incident.
Photo of Laila's Room by Laila Barhoum
Home, place and narrative are important themes in Laila’s work, especially as they pertain to the occupation. She’s been directly involved in contributions that have made a positive impact for development. For example, her blog ‘I Am Not From Gaza’ was the pinnacle for her as a practitioner because she put into words what she has been trying to understand. The title itself was a challenge for everyone who knew her, but because she’s from an Occupied Territory, what is now a city in Israel, she is a refugee:
I was born a refugee, you know? [The] piece was for everyone from Gaza and the occupied conflict. It’s also for people to come to Gaza and have a lot of questions; they try to do their work in making Israeli and Palestinian voices heard, but most of the people who come to Gaza already have a predetermined agenda or preconceived which is justifiable because they have a job to do, but I found that having a set of preformed judgements makes you come with one part of the story and leaving the rest behind which is an injustice in itself because if you want to understand the people’s lives in Gaza, you have to understand that the conflict doesn’t affect only one area of someone’s life, it affects all of the parts of someone’s life.
Laila challenges us all to think about working with, not working for, a certain population or group of people. Otherwise, development workers have an upper hand in the relationship when it comes to plans for the OPT. Prior to joining Oxfam, Laila was at UNICEF and it was IDS that really helped her achieve that: IDS helped her think big and gave her the confidence to achieve her dreams to amplify people’s voices who are closest to the issue.
Her hope for future students is that they continue to listen to learn instead of entering a community with assumptions:
When you come from Global South countries and you listen to all of these students and people from the North: my hope for people from either part of the globe is to never carry an assumption. Everyone is bringing an experience. They will have to reopen their knowledge system. I think what will be helpful for them is to listen to people from other countries. Development is more beyond applying a theory or a framework: you will be involved in people’s lives and to make a change in people’s lives, you will have to listen to them.
Sharing new experiences with other students who became friends is why she holds her room in what used to be East Slope ‘near and dear’ to her heart. ‘Sharing food, spur of the moment conversations, sharing thoughts’ in a small compound with students from all over the world. Whether witnessing snow for the first time (or witnessing others witnessing snow for the first time), the idea of the heart of the university was there in her residence. Today, too, her favourite place to relax and regroup is in her room surrounded by books and souvenirs from every country she has visited. Brighton is one of those places that she called home and for her, the beach was a place in town that made her feel at home.
For no particular reason I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going. When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going.
Laila is multifaceted. She does ‘normal and different things because different can be good’. Like the protagonist of one of her favourite movies, Forrest Gump, asks, ‘What’s normal anyways?’ Laila’s approach to development should be the new normal. She is a development heroine to me for the theoretical approach that she puts into practice. She doesn’t just talk the talk; she walks the walk. If you’re writing about or conducting research on Gaza, whether an alum of IDS or not, you may do well to reach out to her and connect one day, in one place—soon.
Tanjila Mazumder Drishti (MAGlob10) tells us about the challenges facing Bangladesh in preventing the spread of Covid-19… More...
Andre Flores (MAFOOD04) tells us about government provision of ayuda to Philippine citizens and discusses its benefits and pitfalls during the Covid-1… More...