Tag Archives: international development

Overcoming an initial language barrier 

Originally from Italy, Martina Innocenti chose to study an MSc in Childhood, Youth and International Development at Birkbeck because of the in-depth course content and the flexibility evening study afforded. From being incredibly worried that her language skills might hold her back academically, to winning multiple prizes for her dissertation, this is Martina’s story.  

pic of Martina Innocenti

Martina Innocenti

I kept saying to my tutor, ‘I’m not good enough to do a Master’s 

I moved to the UK one year before starting my Master’s. At the time, I couldn’t speak English well.  was taking language classes and working with early years children as Montessori early years educator. When I got accepted into Birkbeck, I was happy but I was also very worried about the language barrier, like I wasn’t good enough to do well in my studies because of it. I kept saying to my tutor, ‘I’m not good enough to do a Master’s – maybe mentally I’m ready to do it, but practically, I have this limitation.’ She encouraged me every step of the way, eventually suggesting that I convert to studying part-time rather than full-time, which made such a difference.  

Being a part-time student was amazing 

Being a part time student was amazing! It allowed me to continue working and gave me the vital time and space I needed to gain confidence in my English. I had time to really explore and deeply understand the specialist subjects I was learning about. It meant that I could actually enjoy the process of studying. 

My language proficiency did not represent my intellectual capability 

Now, when I consider that I was conducting evening interviews with youth in Peru, reviewing 50-page transcripts in Spanish then translating them to English and analysing data, all whilst working, it makes me feel quite proud. I was able to speak, work and think critically across two languages, neither of which were my native tongue, to gain very insightful data about something I’m passionate about. When I found out I won the Children, Youth and International Development prize for my dissertation, I couldn’t believe it! Then when I also won the Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality prize, I saw it as proof that my language proficiency did not represent my intellectual capability. 

I felt like a proper researcher! 

I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to do my master’s over two years, and Birkbeck’s approach to structuring my course options was brilliant. I had room to grow at the pace I needed to become fully knowledgeable about my area of study and approach my dissertation with the attention, intensity and critical thinking it deserved. I felt like a proper researcher! Having a part-time structure to do all my literature reviews, data collection and analysis, and write the dissertation was empowering; I felt like I was able to give my best. 

It was all just a matter of confidence 

I realised through my Birkbeck journey that I’m a competent and multi-skilled professional, it was all just a matter of confidence. It took a while, and multiple strategies, to build this confidence. For instance, I made an effort to see my classmates in non-academic settings, so I could get more comfortable with listening to and speaking English. I also reached out for help whenever I could, asking my friends, housemates and tutors to review my writing style and feedback wherever possible. And I shared my thoughts and frustrations with my dissertation supervisor, who was a source of great inspiration and support. In the end, my determination combined with the support I got, meant that my dissertation was a uniquely valuable intersectional contribution to literature and research about Latin American working children.  

Further Information:

Find out more about studying MSc Children, Youth and International Development 

Find out more about being an International Student at Birkbeck  


Bloomsbury Humanitarian Debates

This post was contributed by Anna Marry, Communications Manager, LIDC. It originally appeared on the LIDC blog.

Inter-collegiate, interdisciplinary events are always a pleasure to go to, and not only because of LIDC’s focus on interdisciplinary research in international development working with five Bloomsbury Colleges. That particular approach often unearths issues that would not have been unearthed otherwise, and bringing together academics with the NGO community and policy-makers makes such events even more stimulating.

The Bloomsbury Humanitarian Debate in June was no different. Organised for the fifth time by two LIDC member colleges: Birkbeck and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and their partner Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), this series of events explores various issues in the humanitarian sector using a debate format with academic and non-academic experts.

The June event was on resilience in the humanitarian sector. The panel included speakers from MSF, Humanitarian Outcomes, University of Bristol and University of Cambridge. The audience was mostly composed of humanitarian experts themselves, including policy-makers and donors.

Sandrine Tiller from MSF argued that focusing on resilience undermines necessary short-term responses to humanitarian crises. She pointed out that merely surviving is not the same as coping – we often think that people in crisis, for example in Somalia, are resilient, while in fact they are just staying alive.

Paul Harvey from Humanitarian Outcomes disagreed with that view, claiming that resilience was in fact just a new repackaging of an old concept. Resilience is not necessarily anti-relief and can be very helpful. Instead of criticising resilience as a concept and hair-splitting over semantics, one should focus on specific things that work or do not work in short- and long-term responses to humanitarian crises.

akers at humanitarian debateProfessor Mark Duffield from Bristol University reiterated the view that resilience was not a new concept. According to the expert, the aid industry reinvents itself every few years and now the Holy Grail seems to be resilience. The speaker pointed out a dangerous trend in disaster relief, which he called ‘digital humanitarianism’ – private sector companies boiling down disaster responses to technical fixes. After all, buying an app that tells you how to avoid flooding or pollution, is not going to solve the fundamental issue of the risk of floods or polluted air and water.

The fourth speaker, Professor Virginia Murray from Cambridge University, defended the concept of resilience, drawing on her experience working with inter-governmental disaster risk reduction processes. She argued that resilience is crucial for those high-level international forums, as it resonates well and is easy to translate.

The discussion that followed raised interesting issues such as:

Is local civil society key to resilience?

While resilience seems to be a fairly clear concept when applied to natural disasters, what role does it have in conflict?

Does focus on resilience detract donor funding from humanitarian responses?

Saving lives today versus saving lives tomorrow – does one occur at the expense of the other?

Is it the role of NGOs to engage in state-building, or should they focus on short-term relief efforts?

It was fascinating to listen to the arguments both for and against. The debate made me wonder, however, if the contention is not in fact over definitions rather than the actual concept. After all, few would argue against humanitarian aid in crisis, where saving lives is an absolute priority, and few would completely rule out development efforts that have a chance of preventing crises in the long run. As with many things in life, it may be a question of balancing one with the other. Whether we use the term ‘resilience’ or not, is another matter. It may be safer to think of another term that stirs less controversy.

Either way, I will be watching this space and looking forward to the next Bloomsbury Humanitarian Debate. Earlier this spring LIDC launched its new Working Group on Humanitarian Crisis that brings together academics interested in conflict and natural disaster from across Bloomsbury Colleges. A few weeks ago LIDC awarded one of its annual Fellowship grants to Dr. Tejendra Pherali from the Institute of Education and  Dr. Karl Blanchet from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to explore the educational and health response to the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan and Turkey.

Humanitarianism is certainly a very potent area for interdisciplinary, inter-institutional research to explore.