Sunday, September 6, 2009

petra at work part one: what I do

We’ve now been in Thailand for almost half of our planned stay, and I feel pretty well at home. Professionally I’m very happy indeed, as my work is engaging, challenging, full of variety, contributing to a more just world, and using my skills and abilities to an extent to which I can feel proud. It is, as we say in the Bay State, wicked.

My official title is Anti-Human Trafficking and Advocacy Program Officer – e.g. I am an Officer of the World Vision Foundation of Thailand Anti-Human Trafficking and Advocacy Program. On the local level, we work with communities to 1) raise awareness about human trafficking, labour exploitation, and how to protect oneself from both, and 2) fix other problems that make people vulnerable to human traffickers (in development-speak, this is “increasing community resilience” and “decreasing vulnerabilities”). We also advocate nationally and regionally for the adoption and effective implementation of policies, laws, Standard Operating Procedures, Memorandums of Understanding, etc. to combat human trafficking and assist trafficking victims.*

My work is a lively mixture of writing, reading, thinking, planning, travelling, talking, teaching, and organising. I spend about 35% of my time at my desk in a crowded Bangkok office. I plan trainings and develop curricula for them, write reports on recent trainings I’ve lead or trips I’ve taken, read periodic reports from our project locations, and write reports to send back to the World Vision offices that fund World Vision projects in Thailand (primarily the US, Australia, and Canada, but also Japan and Hong Kong). I develop presentations about the program to share with partner organizations, and write the content for communications materials like fact sheets, flyers, issue briefs, etc. I keep up-to-date with the latest research and information about human trafficking – especially materials published in English. Recently I’ve been working closely with one of my colleagues to develop and finalise our anti-human trafficking advocacy plan for the next six month.

I spend another 15% of my time elsewhere in Bangkok. Just about every international NGO that does any work in Asia has an office in Bangkok, and there are always events and meetings with government agencies, UN agencies, and NGOs to attend. Most are opportunities to network, promote World Vision and our work, establish contacts and credibility, and find out what everyone else is working on at the moment. We exchange information and research, and maintain the government connections that allow us to advocate effectively.

The rest of the time, I’m travelling around Thailand to visit our project locations. Most of these are in the border regions of Thailand, where Thailand touches Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Cambodia.** Visiting project locations is called going to “the field.” Calling the poor communities where we run our programs “the field” actually bothers me (I mean, what we’re calling “the field” is somebody’s home, not just some strange “other” place where NGOs go to meet and study and run programs. If it weren’t somebody’s home we wouldn’t be there studying and working!). But, “the field” is the standard term throughout all the NGOs, and maintaining consistency is much more important than making sure the English term we use sounds PC to a native English speaker, especially since English is everyone else’s second or third language and most of the people who live in “the field” don’t speak English at all.

I usually go on these field trips in a group of three to five of my colleagues from the Bangkok office. I observe our projects being implemented and help to maintain World Vision’s local NGO and government network. On a typical trip I might visit a World Vision community centre to meet with local staff for an update, then go with them to the home of a local village leader to see World Vision volunteers run an information session about safe migration. I might accompany a World Vision youth group to their school to run an assembly on human trafficking and health, visit a few families that World Vision has helped to start helpful projects in the home (ex. raising frogs or mushrooms to eat and sell), and attend a cross-border meeting among local government and NGO representatives trying to coordinate their services to human trafficking victims. I will also train local staff in advocacy, human trafficking, and project monitoring, and especially in World Visions approach to these. I train through an interpreter, and it works like this:
1) I develop all training materials (powerpoints, handouts, etc) in English.
2) I send them to a translator, who creates Thai language versions.
3) On the day of the training, we project the Thai presentation for the participants. I present from a printout of my original English materials.
4) I speak in English and the interpreter translates for participants. The interpreter also translates comments and questions from participants so I can address them.

It’s a bit cumbersome, but it seems to work pretty well. My colleague’s work with migrant communities, after all, so they’re used to language differences and interpreters. Many are bilingual in Thai and the language of their next nearest country (Burmese, Lao, or Khmer), and most speak a least a little English as well (though they’re often too shy to use it much with me). We often bring guests – consultants or colleagues from partner organizations – to visit our projects. About a month ago I was travelling with a colleague from World Vision Australia to Ranong in Southern Thailand. She interviewed a migrant Burmese fisherman who comes regularly to the World Vision centre there. Every question and answer went through the following translation chain:
Question: Anna (English) → P’Ling (English >Thai) → P’Doh (Thai >Burmese)
Answer: K’Poi (Burmese) → P’Doh (Burmese>Thai) → P’Ling (Thai>English)

When we travel its usually by van or bus. The trips are usually long. Starting in Bangkok, it takes four hours to get to our closest project site. Our farthest are twelve and fourteen hours away depending on weather, traffic, and other factors. I have been to more roadside 7-11’s than I thought existed in Thailand. I have spent hours this year gazing at rice fields through the small filmy windows of mass-transport vehicles. Occasionally the scenery changes slightly, and I see rice fields from a different angle, or rice fields growing on mountains. It’s a good thing rice fields are generally quite lovely.

Upon returning to Bangkok, there are reports to write, emails that need a response, and issues from the trip to resolve or follow up. Then I start the next round of reading, writing, networking, research . . . and planning for the next trip out.

* And for all our much-beloved, super-progressive, sensitive, and linguistically-aware friends in the US, if you are concerned about my use of the word “victim” where you would probably have chosen “survivor,” let me assure you there’s a very good reason for this choice and I’m happy to chat with you about it any time.
** Thailand also touches Malaysia in the south, but we don’t go down there because we’d probably get blown up.

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