Working & Learning in Laos – our intern shares her story.
Jennifer Evans, from Stockholm, Sweden, spent a good 5 months as intern with Aide et Action Laos. We caught up with Jennifer at the end of her internship to look back at her time with Aide et Action.
How did your internship with Aide et Action Laos come about? How did you know about Aide et Action?
I was born in Laos where I spent the first 5 years of my live. Then my family moved to Sweden where I lived ever since and attended kindergarten through to university. I only had been back to Laos every other year or so to visit family. So having my roots in Laos I was very interested in spending some time working in this country. Initially, I was searching for a summer job to do during the break at university. During this search, my mother introduced me to Aide et Action Laos. My mother had previously met an NGO worker from Laos, who now had become the Country Director of Aide et Action Laos. I sent the Director my CV and she informed me of Aide et Action’s requirements for an internship or volunteering with them. We discussed whether there were any opportunities for me to assist in a useful manner with their work. During these talks the Director concluded that an internship of about 5 to 6 months would be beneficial both for me and Aide et Action Laos. This would be better for them and me than just a short working holiday during the summer break.
What were your duties at Aide et Action Laos during your internship?
My duties at Aide et Action Laos were varied and exciting. For example, I was assigned to an important mission where I, along with a team from the Lao Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES), conducted a survey in 30 schools to assess the numeracy and literacy skills of primary school children. I was also asked to do other tasks such as translating Lao to English, report writing and documenting field work. And I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in several field trips, ranging from two days to three weeks. That gave me the opportunity to travel and explore Laos.
Can you tell us a little about how you went about the translation work?
When I first arrived at the office, I was asked to do some translation work. I would translate various documents from Lao to English, for example, case studies, field reports and interviews. My translations would then be sent to Aide et Action’s regional office for the Southeast Asia & China region, which is based in Cambodia, to update the team there on the work being done in Laos. At first, I found this work quite challenging, as I did not have a good enough grasp of the Lao language yet. I could understand and speak the language at the conversational level and recognize the characters of the alphabet, but I had never learnt to read or write the Lao language before.
At the beginning, the translation work was quite time-consuming. I would use online dictionaries and automatic translation engines for the words I was unfamiliar with, or I would ask my co-workers for help. However, the more I translated, the easier it became. Slowly but surely, I got a decent grasp of the alphabet and today I can read the language quite well. At one point I was translating letters which had been handwritten by school children. In these letters, the children were thanking Aide et Action and its partner organizations for providing them with nutritious school meals, which makes them healthy and gives them energy to learn well. It was very rewarding to read what the children had written – it showed me, in a very tangible way, the results of Aide et Action’s work and how it impacts the beneficiaries.
And what did you do on the field trips with the team?
I had a lot of opportunities to go on field visits to document the campaigns and events held at schools, interview locals active in education such as teachers, school directors and education authorities, and observe the progress of the projects. For instance, together with a partner organization, Aide et Action Laos is running a school meal program in two schools. Twice a week, a group of parents gather at the school to prepare nutritious meals for all the students at the school. We were invited to observe this program and its practices. To further support this specific program, Aide et Action and its partner organization had arranged educational campaigns on the importance of nutrition and sanitation. Local doctors were invited to teach the children about proper handwashing, sanitation, hygiene and nutrition. The families of the students were also invited to participate. It’s on occasions like these that I would document the activities by taking pictures, video and interviewing the people involved. The Aide et Action team would lend me their camera for this. Once back at the office, I would write a field report detailing our observations, send them to my supervisor who would give me feedback on my reports before sending them on to the regional office.
And can you tell us a bit more about your work assessing the Literacy and Numeracy skills of primary school children?
Yes, I was involved in that mission. In Laos, access to a quality basic education remains a challenge, particularly in remote areas. There are significant differences in learning outcomes between urban and more rural and remote schools, which count many students who do not speak Lao as their first language. Aide et Action Laos are currently planning a five-year project (2019–2013) which will be focusing on enhancing the functional literacy and numeracy of children as a fundamental means to improve learning outcomes in such educationally disadvantaged districts.
To determine the most suited tools and approaches to achieve the expected results and best outcomes for the children during the project, we first of all needed to know what their current levels of knowledge are – that gives us a reliable source of baseline data to work from. To gather these data, Aide et Action teamed up with the Lao Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES) to develop a survey that would allow us to assess the Lao reading and writing skills as well as the numeracy skills of the students. This survey was done in 30 different schools. This was an early step in the project, and was the part I was involved in. I helped develop the survey, participated in organizing and doing the survey across the 30 schools, and was also involved in the final analysis of the results.
I think that mission was, for me, the most valuable experience of my internship as I was part of it from the very start, i.e. from its conception stage, and was able to engage with it during the early discussions and planning phase. I got to experience the logistics of developing a project and bringing about the cooperation between different parties involved, first hand. I had the opportunity to give my input and participate in the discussions regarding the design and the contents of the survey, which was a very interesting experience for me. And I was also involved in the implementation of the survey – together with the team I went on a three-week field trip across the country to visit all the target schools and do the survey in each of them. After we had gathered all the data, a colleague and I analyzed the findings and wrote a survey analysis report at the office in Vientiane.
Why did you do this internship and what did you learn from it?
My study – International Development, at Stockholm University – gave me a good, solid theoretical knowledge about development, but did not specifically prepare me for any practical work in the field. We did have the opportunity to do a short internship as part of our thesis, but I opted to do a minor field study instead. This said, I do believe that my study contributed a lot to making me question how development work is being carried out. At one stage during the program, we were learning about the controversies surrounding the growing Chinese influence and the Chinese contributions to development in developing nations. In Vangvieng, one of the areas I frequently visited during our field trips with Aide et Action, there has been a surge of Chinese presence with a Chinese company building a railway between Vangvieng and Vientiane. This is just an example of how my internship has helped me complement my theoretical knowledge from my studies, with practical experience in the field, in a concrete development context. And that was precisely what I was hoping for.
My time at Aide et Action Laos was very rewarding as it gave me an opportunity to experience working in an NGO in a developing nation. It was very interesting for me to experience working in a different culture and to be able to be involved so closely in development projects. Unlike my other experiences working in the development sector, my internship at Aide et Action Laos allowed me to visit the sites of the projects we were working on, observe the progress made and talk with the beneficiaries. Being able to visit the sites where the work is happening and speaking to the people involved there, including the beneficiaries, is completely different than working from an office. When visiting the sites, you get to directly meet those impacted by the work, which provides a greater incentive to continue work. However, this can also be difficult at times, as you get to see the conditions which some people are living in and realize that it will take a lot of time and effort to change the situation for the better.
I also got to experience the challenges of development cooperation. Sometimes there can be differences of opinion between different organizations involved, or between an organization and local authorities, or even between an organization and the beneficiaries. It made me realize there can be challenges at so many different levels when it comes to pursuing a development project, as there are a lot of different parties involved, and they might all have their own perspective on things.
Another aspect I would like to mention is how my internship changed the way I view children today. In Laos it is very common to see young children helping their parents tending shops or carrying and looking after their younger siblings. It has made me re-evaluate the capacities of young children and has made me more aware of my interactions with them. Aide et Action is an organization committed to children’s rights and is very adamant about this. For instance, prior to my first field trip, I was briefed on the rules and practices Aide et Action must follow when taking pictures of children. These would include getting the child’s consent to having his or her picture taken as well as that of their parent or guardian. And we needed to make sure we do not take pictures that could embarrass the child or hurt its privacy or dignity. All pictures were to be respectful and relevant to the work we are doing. As an adult I am responsible for looking after them and protecting them from harm, but I also need to understand they are their own person, with their own rights, which cannot be ignored. And maybe this does not strictly count as a “professional skill”, but I still see it as important knowledge gained, and for that, I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to do this internship.
And of course, I also gained some really useful practical skills which I believe will help me when I enter the job market. For example, with the help of my supervisor, I learned how to write different types of formal reports, to use the correct terminology and to structure my texts according to specific document types. I also learned how to use various computer programs. For the data collection during the survey, for example, we used KoBoToolbox, a program that allows you to design and create surveys, collect the data and later compile these into graphs. PhotoShop is another application I learned to use.
What would you say to other young people considering an internship?
I would encourage any young professional interested in an internship to apply, especially if it is abroad. I believe it’s a great opportunity to further develop both professionally and personally. An internship is a great opportunity for a young person to test the waters working in a specific field they’re interested in.
My advice to others would also be to make sure they research the organization they are applying with. If the organization works towards the same goals that you also wish to see realized, then it will be even more rewarding working for them. The people working in the development sector are generally very pleasant to deal with and appreciate any help they can receive. Do not be afraid to ask a lot of questions of your future supervisor regarding any issues or concerns you may have.
I would definitely recommend to others to do an internship or volunteer with Aide et Action. As Aide et Action focuses on education, empowerment and children, I think it would be best for prospective interns to already have some knowledge and a strong interest in these topics. Also, they need to be aware that doing an internship in Laos may be challenging if you do not speak the language, as people outside of the larger cities do not speak much English. And it can be challenging to arrange your working visa.
Finally, at Aide et Action Laos, there were a lot of opportunities to go on field visits and visit the schools. You get to interact with the teachers and the children of the schools, which I thought was great, but if you’re uncomfortable working with children, this may not be the best option for you.