PROFILE: Volunteering To Improve Efficiency – A Steep Learning Curve

Fourteen months working in Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) management position in rural Cambodia forced Aucklander Rachael Lowe to lighten up and be more flexible. The experience also taught her that sometimes you need to lower your expectations to achieve your aims.
From May 2007 to July last year, Lowe was management adviser to an HIV-AIDS non-government organisation in small town 40 kilometres from the Vietnamese border and two and half hour drive from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. The role was an assignment for VSA, the New Zealand development organisation which relies on volunteers sharing their skills and knowledge to help improve the life situations of people in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
Lowe has travelled the world and worked in all sorts of jobs in all kinds of places. Beginning in graphic design, she has been project manager and business analyst in many fields including telecommunications, sports, transport logistics, local government, retail, education and advertising. Most recently, she managed an America’s Cup project with iVistra Technology in Auckland and an intranet project at Vodafone New Zealand.
Her Kiwi colleagues thought she had an accommodating and laid-back personality – they described her as flexible. But that’s nothing compared to how easy going she is now, how her adventure in Cambodia has impacted on her work practices, Lowe says.
The real challenge for Lowe was dealing with cultural differences. The Khmer people are very different from Kiwis and it took months for her to work out the distinctions and modify her behaviour. Open and frank discussions became thing of the past. “I found Cambodians generally are cautious, reticent and unwilling to share information,” Lowe says.
Relying on her ideas being translated and dealing with people who had never worked with foreigner before was testing. Plus the modern management and human resources practices we take for granted were non-existent in the NGO she was working with. Lowe had her initial expectations turned upside down. But she ended up learning more than she taught and the experience was so enlightening, she’s now back in Cambodia for more.
Lowe was attracted to working for VSA because of life-changing choice she made to visit Ethiopia on her way home to New Zealand from Europe in 2005. Ethiopia is unlikely to ever be high on list of desirable tourist destinations, but Lowe is sceptical about how places, people and politics are presented in the media. While in Turkey she watched BBC documentary series about Ethiopia and her curiosity was piqued. “I was in Ethiopia for five weeks. I was stunned by how much sickness and poverty there was everywhere, while at the same time the people were joyful and dignified.”
In one family Lowe stayed with, seven-year-old girl Haimanot was ill through the night, coughing, vomiting and crying. She had been sick like that since birth. Lowe travelled 10 hours with her to hospital for diagnosis, fearing tuberculosis. Haimanot has asthma and medicine has turned her life around. “This experience and the poverty all around me made me realise that little good can go long way. I was inspired to see if I could put my professional skills to humanitarian or development use.”
Lowe’s geographical preference for VSA assignment was Africa, but there was no position to match her skills. Instead, she headed off to Svay Chrum district in Svay Rieng province, Cambodia. The Rural Economic Development Association (REDA) where Lowe worked is funded by international donor organisations. Its official purpose is to reduce the adverse effects of job migration, labour and social exploitation, on rural families vulnerable to persistent conditions of poverty. In practical terms, REDA provides outreach counselling, medicine and funding for HIV positive people.
HIV/AIDS is more prevalent in Cambodia than any other Asian country – more than one percent of the population is infected. Social services are few and far between. The government is transitioning from state of reconstruction to development and the nation is still recovering from years of war and the brutal Khmer Rouge regime which executed fifth of the population in the 1970s. For the past decade, foreign aid has been around 20 to 30 percent of GDP.
Lowe had no clue about any of this when she arrived. “I knew about the Khmer Rouge and what had happened, but that was it. When I travel I tend not to buy Lonely Planet guide, I just turn up. I didn’t want to have preconceived ideas.”
Formally, Lowe’s job at REDA was to work with colleagues to improve the efficiency of the organisation and develop the executive team’s management skills. major part of her role was to establish three-year growth strategy. Looking back, Lowe is happy with what she achieved, but she acknowledges the frustration she suffered, the professional compromises she made and how much she had to change the way she did things so that she could accomplish something.
Partnerships may be natural way for New Zealand managers to share logistics, but in Cambodia it wasn’t always the case. Lowe introduced the concept of collaboration with other NGOs to strengthen and broaden the services and reach more beneficiaries. As the area is remote and difficult to traverse, if NGOs work together they can improve their outreach services. “It is real mind-shift for REDA staff, mentality shift,” Lowe says.
She found that in her area people preferred to work individually and the benefits of teamwork were unfamiliar so things didn’t get talked through. The Khmer Rouge had enforced regime of fear and reprisals. People became used to being reserved and not showing emotion. “It is hangover from those times of conflict. The body language is different and I misunderstood many cues.”
In time, Lowe could better read what people were thinking and feeling. “Also, I took step back. I had to stop myself from taking it all so seriously. I lowered my expectations. Many Cambodians hadn’t even reached secondary school, so I tailored instructions in less complicated language and broke tasks down into smaller jobs. As time went by we all started to trust each other and it became lot easier.”
Lowe had unknowingly stepped into political situation at the office. The person she was mentoring was also her translator. That caused some misunderstandings in her dealings with other people in the organisation. But, once neutral translator was engaged, the situation was sorted out in one-hour meeting. “After that it was complete shift, it was awesome.”
At REDA, the staff are all Cambodian but the link goes much, much deeper. The people all met in refugee camps in the 1990s on the Thai border. The group of friends decided to establish the organisation – it is more than just work to them and the ties of friendship are hard to cut.
“I thought to myself that I am an outsider here, I just have to let go of lot of things that might be more normal in our culture. I had to decide what I could help with and what I could not. The ‘could list’ included strategy and pure business management and teaching skills through workshops. I could not change, or not quickly anyway, anything to do with social ties and social links, such as the way people are hired or how conflict is managed. I was acting more as facilitator in way, trying to get people to talk and communicate. I was giving ideas on how to approach work in more businesslike fashion than social fashion.”
Working out the best way to express concepts was challenge for Lowe. After observing the aspirations of many Cambodians to acquire material possessions possibly for the first time in their lives, Lowe began to use money as descriptive tool. “If you are explaining concept people don’t understand and you introduce money into it, it can help to get more interest and insight into the consequences of actions.”
By changing her expectations, it was less frustrating. “I don’t take things so seriously now. I am more flexible and I thin

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