Looking back, Melyn McKay ’08 figures it was inevitable that she would become an anthropologist. “I think I dressed as Jane Goodall for three subsequent Halloweens,” she said, laughing as she recalled her childhood in Utah.

Melyn McKay

Melyn McKay

Melyn McKay ’08 in Beirut, where she was relocated due to escalating fighting in South Sudan, where she was country director for a London-based consulting firm. McKay and her team studied the causes of conflict for international aid and development organizations.

The Halloween treat bag was traded for a backpack and luggage, and the anthropologist, now 28, has worked in Burundi and South Sudan. Currently she is focused on the humanitarian crisis in Lebanon, which is crowded with Syrian refugees.

At Colby the star student (her professors’ assessment, not hers) soaked up the teachings of Colby anthropologists Catherine Besteman and Mary Beth Mills, studied microfinance in Morocco, and won a grant to teach reproductive health in China. After a temporary detour at an advertising agency McKay set off for Burundi, where she worked in a rural health clinic, living with patients in a walled one-acre compound that she couldn’t leave without an escort. “It was trial by fire, definitely,” she said.

“I have to be quite cynical and hard on myself, because that’s the standard of care I owe the people who are impacted by my decisions and my thinking.”

McKay was just warming to her task, which for the past two years has been working as country director for South Sudan for London-based Integrity Research & Consultancy. With clients that include the World Bank, the UK’s Department for International Development, and a variety of NGOs, McKay and her teams study the roots of conflict. They try to predict where and why conflict may arise and find opportunities to decrease those tensions through programming.

South Sudan proved especially challenging, she said. Despite fewer than a hundred kilometers of paved road in a country the size of France—and with seasonal floods leaving portions of the country inaccessible much of the year—McKay’s research team had to work in far-flung parts of the country. “I had people sending pictures of our Defender Land Rover lashed on top of fishing boats to ford rivers,” she said.

In December the simmering ethnic conflict in South Sudan boiled over, with shelling just blocks from McKay’s Juba offices. She evacuated to Beirut, where another challenge awaited.

“There are four million Lebanese and a million Syrian refugees,” McKay said. “You really start to see what happens when you stretch infrastructure and basic services.”

As she has since she first deployed to East Africa, McKay continues to examine the ways aid may be applied and to ask whether the impacts will be ultimately beneficial to those the aid is intended to help.

“I think it’s healthy to question that,” she said. “I have to be quite cynical and hard on myself, because that’s the standard of care I owe the people who are impacted by my decisions and my thinking.”

Anthropologist and international consultant Melyn McKay on the challenges of working in international aid:

DSCF6444_2“There’s a real misperception that going abroad and working in development is going to be really empowering and exciting experience. There are definitely times that are but you also have to have a healthy dose of realism about it. You’re going to have times where you really question whether the work that you’re doing is really helping or hurting. You’re going to be living in places where social norms and gender norms, in particular, are just not the same as yours. … I don’t think it’s for everyone. You make some serious sacrifices along the way.”

Professor Catherine Besteman (anthropology) on Melyn McKay and anthropology challenges and benefits:

Catherine Besteman

Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology Catherine Besteman

“The way that anthropologists see the world is particular. It can be a struggle for a lot of students because you’re defamiliarizing the familiar. You’re taking things that are taken for granted, part of your every day world and you’re subjecting them to a new analytical lens.”

“It just snapped into place with Melyn. She was intrepid as an undergrad and even more so post grad, in terms of just thinking that whatever questions she had in her mind, she was determined she was going to go out and answer them.”

“You can do a lot of things with anthropology degree. We have students do things like finance, advertising, other fields that want anthropologists and their way of seeing the world. Most of our students don’t become Ph.D. anthropologists, of course. The intent is to arm them with anthropological perspectives, with knowledge they’re going to use in whatever they do.” 

Besteman on the reality of anthropological fieldwork and related careers and ways Colby prepares students: 

“When you’re actually on the ground doing that kind of work, it’s a one-step forward, two-steps back kind of experience. You often feel you’re moving in the wrong direction. A lot of what we try to explain is how you navigate the social relationships that exist within any kind of project of social change. It’s hard work. There are people with competing interests, or who share goals but not the methods. Sometimes they don’t want to achieve the same things, but some interests align. Sometimes there are contradictory dynamics.”

The dimension of being a white American in an African country—that requires constant critical self-reflection about what it is you’re doing there, whose interests are you serving, who are your allies and why. It’s a very uncomfortable position to be in.”

Some [Americans] have the hero-rescuer complex. They have skills, the degree, and they’re going to be able to decide things about other people’s lives. That’s not what we teach. We teach that you are going armed with a particular set of skills, and a kind of degree that is an additive to what people are already doing on the ground. You are joining with other people who are engaged in processes of self-transformation or social transformation. And your job is to figure out where you fit in, not to take over and manage.”


Department of Anthropology at Colby