International leadership: Samantha Nutt shares insights with Dal students

- February 19, 2013

Samantha Nutt, speaking in the Chemistry Building. (Sher Scott photo)
Samantha Nutt, speaking in the Chemistry Building. (Sher Scott photo)

As an Order of Canada recipient, international aid worker, founder of War Child Canada and the author of Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid, leadership is something Samantha Nutt knows a thing or two about.

Dr. Nutt delivered the keynote address of International Development Week at Dal earlier this month, organized by the International Development Education and Awareness Society (IDEAS). In her inspiring talk, Dr. Nutt shared four key lessons learned through her extensive career in international development. 

Lesson 1:  Just because it hasn’t been done, doesn’t mean it can’t be

Dr. Nutt believes that a big problem in international development is that conflicts on other continents fail to resonate with citizens of developed nations. “The problems seem too complex, and like we are so far removed.”

This problem is often compounded by a lack of visible success. Aid efforts are often seen as "Band-Aid" solutions, too little too late, and lose what little resonance they may have had when conflicts continue to rage on.

What is needed, according to Dr. Nutt, are “approaches that sustain and support communities in the long term.” So how do we get there?

Dr. Nutt’s answer is simple: leadership. “Leadership in ID [international development] is defiance in the face of injustice: leadership that, at its core, is about humanity confronting inhumanity.” For today’s students, this means leadership towards, “finding a response that does more than simply plug the gaps.” 

Lesson 2:  The more you learn, the less you know

Dr. Nutt’s second lesson started with a confession: “I will never be as smart as I thought I was at 24.”

Dr. Nutt encourages students pursuing a career in international development to remember that constant “self-reflection and being unafraid to ask the hard questions of ourselves and others” is how change is created. “We need to be prepared to be uncomfortable.”   
This is a message that hit home with the crowd, especially Melissa Le Geyt, Dal student and organizer with IDEAS. Le Geyt says she is pursuing international development because “a lot of the world is pretty unfair and international development is a way to understand the injustices to work towards changing them.”

Lesson 3:  Failure is an essential part of leadership

International development is a complex field, with political, ideological and economic forces influencing many of the decisions made by its major players. In this context, “the biggest wins are about courage and conviction in leadership.”

Failure, according to Dr. Nutt, is an essential part of creating change. When we are unafraid to fail, we have “the confidence to speak our minds utterly unencumbered by greatness,” she explained.

Though success is not possible in every endeavour, Dr. Nutt implored her audience to, “keep your wits about you, keep asking questions and … never lose sight of your ‘why.'”

Lesson 4: Ignore the blowhards

With her final lesson, Dr. Nutt encouraged students to pursue their aspirations in the face of any nay-sayers.

“You will be told that international development is a great thing to do when you’re young, but one day you’re going to want to settle down and have kids, and running off to war-torn Somalia just isn’t practical,” Dr. Nutt advised the young crowd. “Well, 20 years and one seven-year-old son later, I’m still stubbornly unwilling to settle.”

Dr. Nutt ended her talk by placing a signed copy of her speaking notes and 50 cents on the lectern. The quarters were symbolic of her first job with an air organization – the upfront half of the value of a contract, necessary to allow the aid organization she was working for to rescue her from Somalia in an emergency.  

“My journey began 20 years ago with 50 cents,” Dr. Nutt explained. “If this lecture has inspired you, and you feel your career in international development is beginning tonight, feel free come down and get them.”  


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