This happened to us last week in Lao Ngam district in southern Laos, after our staff discovered the tail of a bomb in the garden behind the office where our rural livelihoods team live and work. Although the building had been lived in for many years, we called in a clearance team as a precautionary measure to ensure the safety of our staff.
Sadly this is not an uncommon scenario in Laos, which is still paying the price for its proximity to Vietnam. During the Vietnam war, the US dropped more bombs on Laos than the entire amount of bombs dropped in World War II.
We were fortunate to have access to a clearance team from UXO Laos and only had to wait a few weeks to have the land cleared. Others wait years, or aren’t surveyed or cleared at all due to the sheer scale of the problem. Only a tiny fraction has been cleared to date.
Meanwhile, Lao farmers and children continue to lose limbs and lives on a daily basis. Only a couple of weeks ago, a bomb exploded in the grounds of a local high school – fortunately nobody was hurt on this occasion.
Our rural livelihoods program will be promoting a range of new and improved agricultural techniques to those living in poverty in rural villages in Saravane province – but ensuring land is safe to work on will be a challenge for the program. The UXO clearance teams can only do so much.
World Education, together with other local and international organisations, is working hard to address the problem by engaging in a range of activities including mine risk education, victim medical assistance and livelihood support – with funding from the US government. The Australian government is also funding clearance and victim assistance activities – although the recent decision to cut Australian aid to Laos by a whopping 40% (read more here) means these activities will likely end, leaving a very large problem with no resolution in sight.
After several days of lock-out and clearance of our office surrounds, the UXO clearance team has now reported back. Our team (and all previous occupants of the 2-storey office/residential building) had been walking, gardening and playing soccer on land containing many remnants of ordnance, but no live UXO was found.
Quick facts about UXO in Laos:
The Australian ambassador looked as grim as the rest of us aid and development agency representatives sitting around the table as he outlined, and weighed the consequences of, the Treasurer’s drastic decision to slash by 40% Australian aid to one of the poorest and neediest countries in our region – Laos. Africa fares worse – with 70% of its aid budget gone.
I have been visiting our programs in Laos and was in town when the embassy called a briefing on the budget cuts. It was a glum affair.
If we are to judge ourselves by how we treat the least well off of our neighbours then we as a nation have a lot answer for. Australian overseas aid has plummeted to its lowest level ever.
In his Federal budget speech, the Treasurer claimed that this budget ‘is responsible, measured and fair’.
Certainly our budget needs fixing. But a disproportionate share of cuts, totalling one billion dollars, have been inflicted on those who need it most – and are least able to protest.
Does that sound fair?
Most Australians think we give far more aid than we do. The reality is that our overseas aid program represents a measly 0.22% of GNI, falling far short of the agreed target of 0.7%.
I had spent the previous day out in a rural village in southern Laos, accompanying our team who are busy identifying the poorest households in the community to participate in our government-funded rural livelihoods program. From the original target of providing support to 3,000 households to improve income generation and livelihoods, it is now unclear how many the program will actually reach. We have been told that the previously planned 5-year second phase is unlikely to go ahead. That means thousands of families missing out on much-needed support to improve their incomes and build a better life for themselves.
A couple from Lao Ngam district in Southern Laos who are seeking income generation support to enable them to feed and educate their six children
If, like me, you are outraged that those who can least afford it should bear the brunt of the budget cuts, feel free to share your views with the Treasurer and Foreign Minister. The budget allocations are not yet final and will only be signed off by the Treasurer in late June or July.
With enough public support we may yet be able to claw back some of these unfair cuts.
I am the Community Banker for 14 centres which are located between central Nuku’alofa (the capital of Tonga) and to the east side of Tongatapu (the main island). I conduct 3 to 4 Centre Meetings Monday through Thursday. We also co-ordinate client visits when we are out in the field, to check in with our members about their businesses.
During the Centre Meetings, I collect the loan payments and check the members have completed their financial booklets. I also approve new loans for the members. Once the members repay their loan they can apply for another loan. The loan is approved by the Centre Members first and then I approve the loan before it is disbursed. It is really great to see when a member has repaid a loan and not missed any meetings. When the members complete the financial booklets it gives them an understanding of the cashflow for their business and how to grow the business.
I also conduct training with new members at the office and when I am in the field I support the women to understand how to complete their financial booklets. Each of the centres has an FEF (Financial Education Facilitator) who checks to make sure that the members’ financial booklets have been completed each week.
I really like working with the community, especially the women, and to help build their confidence to manage their loans and managing a good business to support their families. Their businesses include making handicrafts, selling food at the school canteen, and selling firewood.
I am from Vava’u which is the island that is famous for whale watching. I live in Tongatapu with my sister, who has four kids who I love to joke and play with. After work, I help out at home with some chores, including feeding the pig called “Ma”.
I am doing a media course at the moment and when I finish I will be able to create short videos and edit them. I hope to be able to make a video for the SPBD Business Woman of the Year Awards this year for our website.]]>
After a snug hour long commute via jeepney, we arrived at Alubihod Beach. What I first noticed when I arrived to the beach – and what never ceases to endear me – were the colours. From the brightly painted pump boats that take tourists out for island hopping tours, to the Dora the Explorer balloons, the colours were so vivid and festive, something which I have a soft spot for.
Whilst at the beach I had the opportunity to try yet another local delicacies, Taho. Taho is a traditional Filipino snack made of silken tofu, sugar syrup and sago pearls. Its sweet and savoury flavours were so unique, and as I am a big fan of super sweet foods and soy, it was a match made in heaven. Although served warm, this snack proved fitting and refreshing for my day at the beach.
My big day at Guimaras left me feeling like a snake – sleepy and content from a day spent eating. However like a snake, next time I will have to allocate more time to basking in the sun in between snacks to recharge my energy for the jeepney and pumpboat commute home.]]>
Highlights of the last month have included: a weekend getaway to the beach with TPC colleagues, watching a traditional Khmer shadow-puppet show and, pretty importantly… finding a good spot to go jogging in a city dominated by traffic.
It’s almost impossible to imagine jogging around the streets with earphones firmly plugged in and your mind wandering, as you might in Australia! But there is a green oasis (rare in Phnom Penh) where lots of locals go to exercise out at night in the open air. It’s a park next to one of the city’s most famous architectural landmarks, the Independence Monument (a lotus-shaped stupa built to commemorate Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953). At night, the trees are lit up by blue fairy-lights, kids play soccer or hacky-sack and Cambodian grandmas take brisk walks around the statue of King Norodom Sihanouk which gleams in the centre. It’s places like this where you can find some moments of peace during the working week, amongst the chaotic surroundings.
Taking some time to go and see a traditional Khmer shadow-puppet show has also been a memorable experience. Accompanied by traditional music and using huge, leather puppets, the story of The War of Indrajit was told with changing coloured lights and actors using their own physicality to illustrate the narrative as well as manoeuvring the puppets in an expert way.
The other main highlight so far has been a social trip away with the TPC Operations team to Kampong Som (also known as Sihanoukville). It began bright and early on a Saturday when around 50 of us piled onto a bus at 5.40am, stopped for breakfast on the road (rice with pork, noodles with beef and meatballs, or rice porridge with offal), and drove six hours to get to the beach-side town. The weekend was spent paddling in the ocean fully-clothed (Khmer style), learning local card games and eating absolutely delicious BBQ seafood of every kind. Seafood is my favourite food so I was in a particularly bloated yet blissful state while staring out to sea…and really, is there any other way you want to be?]]>
You can read Bridget’s bio here.]]>
Like many people in Australia, I’ve been to Bali a couple of times on holiday. Across to the Gili Islands, Lombok, and as far as Flores in order to see the Komodo Dragons on a boat trip. And like many other holiday makers, my impressions of Indonesia have been of busyness, lots of tourists, and even more touts selling everything from taxi rides to t-shirts. It’s relatively easy travel as transport is cheap, most people dealing with tourists speak English, food is good, and accommodation options varied.
So in relocating my life to Sintang in West Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, I had some preconceived notions of what to expect. However, the reality couldn’t have been further from expectation!
We are in an extraordinarily fortunate position to come to this town, which is accessible from Pontianak, the capital of West Kalimantan, by plane (45 minutes), car (several hours) or boat (several days). We are about as far off the tourist trail as possible in these days of globalisation, and that’s what makes us so fortunate.
After a couple of weeks here, I haven’t yet seen another foreigner, and their lack means no western-style restaurants or bars, no red light districts, and certainly no touts. Not a single person has tried to sell me something. Not a single driver of a taxi, angkot, bemo, tuk-tuk or any of the other forms of transport around has harassed me for business.
In a case of extreme role reversal, we, being two pale (or pink, depending on the heat) tall and very foreign-looking visitors, have become the attraction. I’ve lost count of the photos I’ve been asked to pose for, by my landlady, colleagues and members at CUKK, restaurant staff, and random people in the street. The irony is that I have never felt less attractive, as the high humidity tends to leave me coated in sweat and very bedraggled. Frankly, fame will not be going to this volunteer’s head!
Being such a novelty, the other benefit is the hospitality we are offered. Everyone is so friendly and helpful, they are happy to show directions if lost, offer rides, take us out for meals and patiently explain the intricacies of the Indonesian language. It’s astonishing to realise how fatigued other parts of the world have become to visitors, now that we have experienced this refreshing and generous hospitality.
In many respects, staying in Sintang is difficult due to the distance from anywhere else, lack of an expat community, English speakers or Western facilities (I do miss a sit-down toilet and shower rather than a cold bucket of water!), and public transport.
In other respects, living here could possibly be considered remarkably easy as it’s a safe location with a strong sense of community, relatively slow traffic and considerate people. Within a block of my house are small shops selling water and gas refills, fruit and vegetables, and a supermarket that even stocks spaghetti and cheese. No one tries to rip us off or offer us ‘tourist’ prices. Now I just have to hope that my glowing descriptions of Sintang don’t bring on floods of tourists!
You can read Heather’s bio here.]]>
A few of the moving in challenges included: fridge which does not keep cold (leading to vomit smell of papaya and off fish); toilet with a very slow flush – after several visits from the plumber, I found a DIY on the internet which seems to have worked; having to use the landlady’s washing machine which has to be filled with a bucket during the wash and rinse cycle; a gas stove with only one working element (cooking dinner was a real effort).
This week I got an extra special surprise when I got home to find that the painter managed to not only paint the verandah but also my Sheridan sheets (the one indulgence I bought with me from Australia).
But perhaps one of the biggest challenges was running out of gas while I was cooking Saturday lunch for some friends. How do you get a 13kg bottle of gas to your house on a pushbike? I did contemplate it for just a minute. Impossible! Thank goodness I spotted an expat I know driving past in a car and he helped me out. Lunch was saved and was delicious – curry fish and vegetables.
I walk about 15 mins to work each day which takes me along one of the busiest roads in Tongatapu. It could give Sydney a run for its money. I actually walk faster than the traffic. Unlike traffic in Asia though, everyone just falls in behind everyone else and patiently drives at under 10kms per hour. No horns, just polite waves and toots if you know someone. The occasional blast of music can be heard, usually from the local buses.
On Saturdays, I go shopping at the markets. I have had my bike fitted out with a basket, essential to carry all the groceries (which come only available in bulk size purchase). There is a central market which sells everything that you need and there’s a Saturday morning Fair which sells clothes and the oddest of things at good prices. The fish market is really busy and you can buy from the local fishermen or from the fishing co-op. Everything from whole tuna, clam, lobsters, cockle shells.
The night markets along the side of the road and the Chinese owned shops are open quite late on Saturdays. Every Saturday is like the Christmas Eve rush in Australia. There is food going out by the car load in preparation for the Sunday cooking of the umu and family celebrations. There is the odd coffee shop open on Sundays, but generally Tonga completely shuts down on Sundays. Sundays are about Church, family and eating. Actually every day is about eating, but Sunday is extra special.
During my first month I have cycled & walked, hitchhiked (“suto”) to the beach, participated in an art workshop run for youth, attended a pot luck dinner run by local hospitality students, attended the church service by the first Tongan Catholic Cardinal, and tried every flavour of TipTop ice cream. For an island where there is nothing to do, there is plenty to do!
At work, I have had the pleasure of travelling with the teams to the field and participating in training for both staff and SPBD members. I have 2 favourite days at work. Monday morning is devotion day and the team take it in turns to present a prayer and relate it to the work they do at SPBD. My other favourite day of the week is Friday, when there is a lot of activity in the office because it is loan disbursement day and new members “fillers” training day (all new clients need to go through financial education training before they can receive a loan).]]>
My first week in Cambodia has passed. My first impression was the heat, the second impression were all the peculiar noises. The constant traffic of motorbikes and tuk-tuks everywhere, people shouting to sell items on the street, the nightly calls of the geckos (which surprised me on my first night), and just general chaos.
For a nature lover like me, the lack of green in Phnom Penh is compensated by fabulous selection of fruit trees growing everywhere in the smallest pavement cracks: bananas, huge mango trees, durian, jack fruit, pomegranate, water apple, and ginger, are the ones I have managed to recognise so far.
I’ve started my work at the CMA (Cambodia Microfinance Association), trying to design apps and other technology solutions to help with the rural training that Good Return facilitates in rural Cambodia. There is so much we could do with technology, but we need to start small and work step by step. It’s going to take time to get all of us at Good Return, the local training teams, and the training participants to be comfortable with these new tools. I’m also trying to keep a focus on longer term goals, where these solutions we develop could be used with a wider audience in all of the countries where Good Return works.
Phnom Penh is a vibrant city full of events and activities. When browsing for any technology related events I came across an one which was promoting technology careers for women. I had no option but to attend, and it was probably the best things I’ve done so far. There were presentations and discussion (in English, lucky for me) from local women IT professionals trying to encourage more women to get into the field.
At the event, we were also presented with the results of a 3 month long technology program at a local girl’s high school. The girls were about 15, and had worked hard to first come up with ideas, then to draw up specifications for the solution and create a business model. Finally, they used simple programming tools to code up a function app to implement their idea.
I really enjoyed listening their confident presentations, full of proper business language, and their great app ideas on enhancing the livelihoods of rural farmers. The girls were very young, but were not afraid of technology and thought there was nothing weird about them coding. I really would like to work with them to keep it that way!
After collecting a handful of business cards from local IT professionals, University teachers, and students, I’m keen to start thinking about plans to involve more local technology talent in our projects as well.
You can read Salla’s bio here.]]>
My journey from Australia to Cambodia to begin my role as Good Return’s Field Support Officer turned out to be much more eventful than anticipated – full of heart palpitations and several pools of panicked sweat. So for your benefit and amusement, here’s a quick rundown of my departure day that hopefully will help you with any future preparations for overseas travel and save you from un-needed stress!
5 am: Wake up. Realise it’s 5 am. ‘Hey…it’s ok…’ I think to myself, ‘My bags are all packed… just need to zip shut my large suitcase…’
5.45 am: Attempting to zipper shut suitcase.
5.50 am: Still attempting to zipper shut suitcase.
5.51 am: SUITCASE ZIPPER EXPLODES IN A GLORIOUS SHOW OF FURY AND MANIACAL DESTRUCTION NEVER BEFORE SEEN FROM AN INANIMATE OBJECT!
“MUHUHAHAHA!” says suitcase. “@Z^Z#*@!” says I.
5.55 am: Get in car and drive to airport to buy new suitcase.
6.30 am: Buy new suitcase and re-pack in a sweaty, sweaty daze, checking watch every few seconds and feeling t-shirt get uncomfortably soaked with perspiration.
Lesson learnt: pack and CLOSE suitcase way before you intend to depart. If you leave it to the last minute, you may not have the time or wherewithal to know what objects to discard and the wrath of your suitcase will be swift and merciless.
… Fast forward many hours later …
3.55 pm Hong Kong time: Arrive at Hong Kong airport. Flight was delayed leaving Sydney and so causes me to miss my connecting flight to Phnom Penh. Get told no more flights until the following day. Checked-in luggage not accessible.
4.00 pm: Proceed on mission to locate underwear for sale at HK airport. ‘Surely this will be easy,’ I think to myself. Everyone wears underwear. We all love underwear. Underwear for all!
4.20 pm: Mission unsuccessful, even though I have said the word “underwear” to numerous, bewildered strangers. Moral of story: always pack spare underwear in your carry-on!
5.00 pm: Arrive at hotel to stay the night. Fall into an exhausted stupor and sleep for a blissful 11 hours!
Despite the frenzied beginning to my trip, my first few weeks in Phnom Penh have been excellent. The staff at our partner microfinance organisation, TPC, have welcomed me and taken me out to lunch around the city numerous times. I’ve witnessed the training of trainers for Good Return’s new Consumer Awareness and Financial Education (CAFE) program; I’ve eaten unusual fruit desserts at roadside stands; and I’ve gotten involved in defining TPC’s new mission statement to encompass social and environmental goals.
I’m really looking forward to what comes up next as I settle into my role as Field Support Officer and living in the bustling capital city of Cambodia.
PS – You can read Diana’s bio here.]]>