Sunday, September 6, 2009

petra at work part two: challenges and rewards

My work is very challenging, of course, and the challenges tend to fall into one of several categories. The first is ordinary work-related stresses that everyone is a familiar with – tight deadlines, lots of projects, way too many emails, etc. Next come the challenges of working in a culture and language to which I am not native. World Vision Thailand has about one thousand staff in all, three of which are white foreigners. I intimidate most people. The office politics are intense and my unfamiliarity with Thai culture makes it harder for me to recognise what would otherwise be familiar drama, and harder to respond appropriately. It took me five months to figure out the scan-to-share-drive function on the office photocopier because I kept forgetting to ask my English-speaking colleagues when they were around, and I didn’t know how to ask the question in Thai (or understand the answer, for that matter). I don’t have a personal translator, nor would it be reasonable to want one, and while my colleagues can usually translate for me in meetings etc, sometimes it’s just not convenient. That can be lonely and frustrating. Management practices are unfamiliar. In taking care to avoid a cultural misstep in the workplace, I get into a habit of uncertainty that is difficult to break. I sometimes struggle to feel confident and sure of myself even when I do know exactly what to do next and how to do it. Working through these dynamics is a continuing struggle. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to be an unending one. It has gotten easier since I arrived.

There are also challenges of working in a developing country. I actually have better workplace resources and conveniences than I anticipated (a laptop, photocopier, wireless most places, most of the supplies I want), especially when compared to the majority of humanitarian workers in the world. For example, I have yet to be without electricity at work when I needed it. That said, most power outlets are frankly scary – always buzzing and sparking – and power strips are universally sub-par. This is a big deal when you work on the road with a laptop, and often need to power LCD projectors (but note, too – I have regular access to an LCD projector.)

I also develop exciting and novel health problems here. I struggled to participate effectively in a week-long conference not long ago, because I had Giardia from a bad fish dish and had to keep dashing to the bathroom to puke or to go through the equivalent process on the other end of the digestive track. It’s too hot outside, and too cold inside because the air conditioning everywhere is perpetually set to 18 degrees.

People are in general shockingly, infuriatingly ignorant of good environmental – even sanitary – practices.* Toxic paint, sewage, batteries, bleach, it all goes right down the storm drains and into the canals where poor kids swim and people fish for food, and from there into the ocean and into the groundwater, poisoning the planet. Over-consumption of cheap plastic crap is endemic even among NGO's. Giving gifts is an essential part of hospitality here. Combine that with the easy availability of every kind of stuff you can imagine(there are a TON of factories in Thailand). You get the picture. Everything has a ton of plastic packaging, which ends up in the street, in the poor neighbourhoods, and probably in the ocean as well. My colleagues are all conscientious about turning off lights and air conditioning in the office, but in some places (especially large businesses) it's standard practice to leave doors and windows open with air-conditioning on. Workplace recycling is existent but minimal - and in a country famous for illegal logging in protected forests! Meanwhile everyone – NGO’s, businesses, socialites, hipsters - pays lip service and less to environmentalism, because slogans like “love earth save earth” and “green earth” etc. are trendy and Western. Such waste is hard to see, and harder to change. The infrastructure for good environmental practices is weak to non-existent and the bad habits are well ingrained.

Another challenge is, honestly, boredom. It can be really boring to sit all day in the back of a room listening to a meeting conducted in Thai that I can’t understand but that isn’t crucial or related directly-enough to my work for it to be worth asking someone to translate. And I know that the networking meetings, especially the government events – are very important and effective in our long-term advocacy strategy, but the pace of such meetings can feel frustratingly slow. My Bangkok colleagues and I get very bored of each other at times. I had one trip that lasted two weeks. I spent a full two weeks – most meals, all meetings, 54 hours in the van all told, even sleeping because we share hotel rooms to cut costs – with the same five co-workers. I laugh about it now, and it was a great experience overall, but at the time we were so sick of each other!

Beyond all that are the emotional challenges of my work. The fact that I anticipated seeing difficult things when I started this role has not made seeing them appreciably easier. Nothing really prepares you for the reality of seeing malnourished naked children wading barefoot through raw sewage (by which I mean a shiny, mucky mixture of parasite-infected human and animal excrement, plus kerosene, stagnant rain water, rotting food, rotting . . . other things, engine oil, blood, you name it. The smell is indescribable), or visiting a market where people sit in stinky mud for twelve hours a day pulling the wings off of grasshoppers, for which they can earn up to the princely salary of 60 THB a day. For context, 60 THB is $1.76 US, and one regular serving of basic street noodles costs about 30 THB. More difficult still is realizing that, as hard as these people have it, there are people all over the region – all over the world – in even more desperate situations.

There are challenges because the stuff of my work – poverty, exploitation – is painful in itself, and sometimes further challenges simply working in this part of the world. Not long ago I spent a week in Cambodia, attending a regional training in anti-human trafficking advocacy. Participants came from five of the countries in the Mekong region. As we compared the advocacy climate and policy formation processes in our different countries, the diversity of context engendered some memorable exchanges. For example,

Lead Trainer: “Let's talk about community mobilisation. If you were planning to organise a march, rally or a protest in your town - in your country, what would you do first?”

Delegate from large communist country to the north (chuckling): “Reconsider.”

Or later,

Lead Trainer: “I’m now handing out flow-chart diagrams of the legislative process in each of your various countries, so you can analyse them...well, almost all of your countries... You folks, I'm so sorry, I looked all over the internet and couldn't find anything outlining the structure of your government...”

Delegates from totalitarian military state (laughing heartily): “Don't worry, there isn’t one! It's so simple we don't need a diagram. Our law is whatever the Senior General decides is a good idea.”

At moments like these we all laughed, because it was funny and because really, what else can you do? Here is some more development-speak for you: “Advocacy in Restricted Contexts.” That my colleagues in these neighbouring countries face extreme difficulties goes without saying, and the pain beneath the humour is heartbreaking.

So it goes without saying that my work here is difficult, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. I’m so happy to have the opportunity to be doing what I’m doing. I know that what I’m doing is worthwhile and is changing people’s lives. In fact since my main professional focus is program monitoring and evaluation – designing and implementing ways to measure and communicate the impact of our projects – I can say that with greater surety than many development workers: It’s actually a big part of my job to figure out whether what we’re doing is working and, if it isn’t, how it can be fixed. So far, the evidence seems to say that we’re doing a good job.

*I’m not talking here about abjectly poor people, refugees, etc who, generally speaking, have more immediate concerns. I’m talking about average, comparatively middle-class Bangkokians: my peers and colleagues.

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.