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ASI Game Changers: Meet Alex in the DRC

Our “ASI Game Changers” series introduces the people who make our work possible and allows us to learn about what drives them in their quest to create lasting impact in some of the world’s most challenging, complex environments. In this edition we are speaking to our colleague Alex Miles.

  • Name: Alex Miles
  • Role: Project Manager,
  • Location: Goma, DRC

What’s your big “why”? What’s the positive change/impact you and others in your field are trying to achieve and what are some of the challenges you face whilst doing so? 

A diverse team coming together to solve complex problems has a buzz about it that energises me. A lot of the programmes in our industry have a daunting scale or issue that they want to address, but once you get running and build a strong organisational culture, mission and purpose for your work it’s exciting to see what a project can achieve. From there, you know that the better you come together to approach this problem, the greater the impact of your interventions on the lives of other people.  

If you could write your own job title that best describes what you do here, what would it be? 

I think “inherent all-rounder” would probably best describe it. As a project manager, I have to have a balance of skills and be prepared to deal with unusual situations – often you build relationships with people from completely different worlds to you, either within your office or on the other side of a partnership. You need to have a good peripheral sense because you are doing a lot of different things at the same time. It feels a bit like spinning plates: making sure that everything is ticking over well, having a good judgement on when to make adjustments, and trying to give experts the space to do their thing. I’m a big believer in hiring the right people and trusting them to deliver their value, which I think ASI does really well. 

What do you like about working in a global development company? 

The opportunities and buzz of constant change that a global environment provides is what excites me. Working for a global company is like peeking through windows into different worlds. It also means we have had a working culture that has lent itself well to the transition to remote working and that definitely has made things easier post-pandemic. Knowing that my colleagues are always working on something interesting and seeing the results come in from time to time, learning something new and seeing new movements and projects around the globe is inspiring.   

I am also learning every day and that’s because of the opportunities I mentioned: I didn’t set out to move and work in the DRC, but here I am and I love the country and my journey here. One thing that I’ve gotten used to in the DRC is learning the culture of greeting passers-by in public, even strangers. Waves, thumbs up, a smile, somebody may go for a fist bump. After living in London for a while, where people keep their heads down in public, it’s nice. It’s a communal culture here, people spend a lot of time outside where they’ll recognise people they pass by on the street. There are many hard, terrible things about life here, especially for the poorest citizens, but at its core the culture is welcoming.  

What’s the most exciting thing happening in your project/at work right now? 

We’re kicking off our first Prime USAID contract! Energising or daunting it may be, it feels like a piece of history, and we’ve been enjoying the different working style and energy that USAID brings to the table. It feels like something we are just learning to tap into and a way that we can continue to expand. We are going to be really working in the bush here, with our first team trip to Northern Congo in just a short while. We have an ambitious mission to bring together an alliance of actors from a wide spectrum, and at the centre of this is one of Africa’s key (and oldest) national parks with species such as the elephant, lions, giraffe, hyena, and a host of primates. They are currently attempting to re-introduce the white rhino. This feels like something completely new and challenging and I feel privileged to be part of it.   

A picture taken by Alex in a sanctuary for orphaned bonobos.
Lola Ya Bonobo is situated by Kinshasa and is the world’s only sanctuary for orphaned bonobos. Bonobos have been driven from their habitats over time, either by other species, who are forced to compete for space, or by human activity such as deforestation. Adam Smith International has worked with FCDO to examine the supply chains that lead to habitat destruction, potentially influencing the next wave of donor projects in DRC. Photo: Alex Miles

What movements or discussions inspire you generally right now? 

I’ve closely followed the democratisation of media and increasing cultural access for people in sub-Saharan Africa, which has been uplifting. In Goma, there are groups of street dancers, a slam poet society, and a young photography group for example. So, there is a new generation who are now able to participate in globalisation and cultural movements who until very recently had been confined to the geography, values, and cultures of where they were born. I think that in the West globalisation is something we have started to see as exhausting, coupled with a sense of decline or increasingly unfair economics, though it’s a reminder that for much of the world it is bringing benefits and that we’re in the middle of a huge boom of citizens who will be able to participate in a global conversation.   

What volunteering or passion projects do you do outside of work? 

I really enjoy documentary photography and the people and places it has allowed me to capture: I’ve documented stories of Rohingya in Bangladesh, Congolese rangers in the face of poacher threats and many more. That’s why I was thrilled when I had the chance to volunteer at a local NGO called Camme and give photography classes to disadvantaged youth. Camme is funded by a very cool global NGO called Lens on Life, whose mission is to shift visual storytelling to local voices rather than international photojournalists. I think this taps into the movement that I described above. It’s really fascinating to see how they portray Congolese life and culture.   

What’s a quality a game changer should have? 

Tough one, but I’d probably say versatility. I also think it’s important not to take things too personally or feel defeated. Our projects can be conflict-ridden environments and often you are at the crux of several demands – people won’t always understand that, and you need to have a good sense of what is fair and be confident taking a decision that is right for all parties involved. There are some situations where you’re never going to feel great and trying to anchor yourself is the best way to get through those. 

A game changer doesn’t sleepwalk and so I think there’s an element of innovation there too. If you’re on autopilot you can’t innovate and if you can’t innovate you can’t change things – for the better hopefully.  

I also think that keeping connections with colleagues and having a good mentor and an honest relationship with that person is important. You can get a little lonely in a project office, you’re normally the only PM and perhaps the only person from your culture of origin. Staying connected with other people, finding opportunities to keep up with what they’re doing, running ideas and problems past people. That’s the game changer approach.  

Photos below by Alex Miles

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