A Conversation with Samer Araabi

This past week I met with   to discuss his life, AC, and the work he’s done. While untraditional, his path to Accountability Counsel is certainly inspiring and his engagement with the ethical questions that underscore his work is enlightening.

Headshot of Samer AraabiSamer started his career at Accountability Counsel a little over three years ago, the longest time he’s spent with any job he tells me. He began as a research associate in the newly created Research Department , tasked with developing the department into what it is today. While a majority of the department remains to be interns and fellows, the Research team churns out valuable tools and data for other departments and organizations to use in their fight for corporate accountability.

Most recently the Research team has worked to develop websites  to document notable community cases, the commitments associated with each, and the progress made in implementing each commitment. Our Mongolia Microsite, titled From Paper to Progress, follows a group of Mongolian Herders who filed complaints with an accountability mechanism tied to the World Bank Group. Their complaints concern the Oyu Tolgoi mine, seeking to resolve issues with herders, water and pasture.

Samer has worked around the globe, from DC to Turkey, but feels right at home at AC. He tells me his role at AC is the perfect intersection of all his favorite work: data collection and analysis, international human rights and accountability, and coding. He appreciates the ground-up framework but the systemic impacts it creates.

His work in DC  was oriented around anti-war, anti-government-surveillance, anti-discrimination policy, and more, all things he’s passionate about. And yet, he felt the top-down strategy (”grass-top change” so to speak) did not provide a net good for the world.

Leaving DC and notably burnt out, Samer moved to Turkey near the Syrian border. He decided to take the opposite approach to the grass-top method with more “on the ground” humanitarian work. He worked with a Syrian organization as well as the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to address the humanitarian needs associated with the war in Syria, but quickly discovered that his work in Turkey was not all that different from DC. Not only was the work seemingly fruitless, but the big players were all the same.

While his work in Turkey was less concerned with lobbying and more with direct project work, he still grappled with whether he felt alright advancing powerful interests, even if in the humanitarian world. Again, his commitment to creating a net good was not clearly met.

Like most of us at some point, Samer aspired to change the system from the inside. With an Arab-American past and extensive study on the Middle East, he decided to join the Foreign Service. After waiting nearly two years for his clearance, he changed his mind and decided that the system would more likely change him than the other way around.

Instead, he chose to pursue a PhD while also working as a software engineer. After spending his career debating and working through complex problems that often have extensive impacts, he tells me it felt good to “tippy-tap-tap” and fix a problem. But he laments that this job was too far in the other direction.

He contracted himself out to Accountability Counsel around the same time he got into UC Berkeley for a PhD program. Quickly though, Samer bailed on the program saying “his life was a PhD.” He has since stayed at AC.

In discussing some of AC’s and our past work, many threads consistently appeared. Violence and accountability, for one, but most importantly, understanding and acknowledging the space and privilege that AC operates within. Samer has stuck with Accountability Counsel because of this. He values that AC devotes time to listening – only offering our services to communities that ask for help, not speaking on their behalf, and committing to be by their side until they see real results.

Because of this, Samer pointed out something that I found to be astounding: Accountability Counsel is not anti-coal, for instance, but pro-community-voice . If the community asks for something, who is AC to step in and stop the project? Isn’t telling them what to do just an extension of colonial paternalism?  While coal is undoubtedly evil, I think he’s right.

“Do No Harm” is another quintessential principle of Accountability Counsel. For this reason, AC delayed the release of the Mongolia Microsite, knowing that it would interfere with a political election by putting the complainants at risk. I pushed Samer on this. Where does the analysis of harm come to an end? Does creating long-lasting flows of resources toward the West, such as with coal plants, constitute as harm?  This was unclear, but Samer referred back to the community voice aspect of Accountability Counsel in determining just how they navigate such a tricky network of harm. At the end of the day, AC provides assistance on projects if they are asked to by the community and the community can prove they won’t face harm as a result.

Towards the end of this conversation I was beginning to feel alarmed that Samer couldn’t find this kind of work environment much elsewhere. What was I going to do when I began looking for jobs? He calms me, though, claiming that while rare, workplaces that engage with systems of power and privilege are out there, even beyond Accountability Counsel

During quarantine Samer has taken to growing beans, but notes that the quarantine life was already his own. Making bread and staying home, for instance, have long since been passion projects of his. I hope one day I can say the same.