Episode 8: Exploring Development in Laos

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Laos, unlike many of its neighbouring countries, remains one of the more challenging places for NGOs. In this episode, Colette McInerney, former director of World Education in Laos, shares her experience working in the country and the challenges she faced during her time in Laos.

 

Colette joined Cufa’s board in August 2018. With over 20 years’ experience in leading NGO’s both in Australia and Internationally, Colette brings a unique synthesis of effective and respectful leadership skills and practical experience gained through roles as the Laos-based Country Director for a global NGO, CEO of an Indigenous financial inclusion foundation, and strategic public-private partnership manager. Colette has extensive knowledge and expertise in female-centred economic development programs, microfinance and financial inclusion and is a highly skilled fundraiser and strategic stakeholder management advisor.

Find out more about Colette


 

Transcript

 

Colette M

For world education, working in Laos, we needed to work with all levels of government and also, obviously, most importantly, with the beneficiaries of any programme that we would be delivering.

 

Peter M

Are you meant to be developing their capacity at the same time? Is there some sort of criteria or benchmark that you gauge whether or not those people are also benefiting from the project?

 

Colette M

There is, however, a flourishing development of civil society through the establishment of local NGOs, for example, Quality of Life Association in Xieng Khouang and the Laos Disabled People's Association in Vientiane. I see that as a transition or you know, where the work of NGOs, INGOs is to make themselves redundant in the country that they're working into a flourishing civil society and local NGOs. It's really important.

 

Peter M

Welcome to the third series of conversations in development, a podcast about challenges, life stories and experiences in the development sector. I'm Peter Mason, your host and CEO of Cufa, an international development agency, working across the Asia Pacific region. In this episode, we welcome Colette McInerney, former director of world education in Laos, as well as one of Cufa's board directors. So today, I want to talk a little bit about what it's like to work with and through international governments when delivering development. And I understand Colette that you've worked quite extensively in Laos.

 

Colette M

Yeah, I've worked extensively in Laos starting in 2003. That's when my love affair with Laos really started. I worked on an ADB microfinance project establishing three savings and credit unions across the country. I was a consultant with the World Council of credit unions who were in a consortium with three other organisations. I then worked for Good Return as a regional programme manager with a particular focus on livelihoods and financial literacy programme development in Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Indonesia, Philippines, Timor Leste, and Pacific. And during this time I lived in Timor Leste and Laos at various times. And following this, I was country director at World Education in Laos for almost five years. It is actually very complex to work with and through international governance when delivering development, not only are you working in a country that has its own governance and government structures, you are also working with your employer who also has its own governance and of course, your government structures. Working with and between those two worlds can be difficult to navigate sometimes. For example, we are employees that work within policy and process and bound by obligations in our funding contracts where funding is provided by government, whether that's DFAT or USAID, for example, was working in country, you are a guest of that country and must abide by the rule of law and work within the government structures that frame what can be delivered in development, and what cannot. I'll talk a little bit about those processes for INGOs a little later.

 

Peter M

Right. So which regions of last did you work in?

 

Colette M

World Education in Laos delivered programmes in most provinces for its mine risk education programme that's taught in primary schools, though other programmes were focused in the south in Salavan, and in the north in Luang Prabang and in Sien khuong.

 

Peter M

Wow, so you covered a fair bit of territory there. So were you the only expat there or were there are a team of expats on the ground?

 

Colette M

I had a team of 54 staff at the peak of our programmes. Only four of the staff were expats, me included. So the majority, obviously the majority of our staff, were Laos nationals,

 

Peter M

So set the scene a little bit in terms of you working for World Education. So what other NGOs were on the ground when you were there?

 

Colette M

There were over 70 NGOs working in Laos at that time, for example, MAG, Halo Trust, Hi Care, Oxfam Plan International, Save the Children, Child Funds, etc. There's also an international NGO network that was established in 2005 as a focal point for information dissemination in Laos, and existed to facilitate and enhance the work of its members. I was on that committee for just over a year in my capacity as country director of World Education Laos. The primary focus was to facilitate liaison and information sharing amongst INGOs and other development partners, as well as the government of Laos. The INGO network supported its members to optimise their contribution to development in Laos by enhancing collaboration that potentially led to achieving greater impact than when we act and work individually. The network also represented its members in appropriate forums promoting policy dialogue and supporting the development of civil society in Laos.

 

Peter M

World Education focused on economic development through micro finance and livelihoods, etc. The other NGOs, what sort of activities were they focused on?

 

Colette M

Actually World Education in Laos focuses on education, mine action, economic development and disability inclusion, and this is what I loved about World Education and working with them, is that their programmes are built and designed on the development needs of the country, not a cookie cutter approach of delivering the same programme. For Laos it's country programmes started with the development and delivery of livelihoods programmes. For Laos refugees repatriated back to Laos after the war. This was the impetus for the expertise that world education built over the years in best practice mine action programmes. For example, UXO or Unexploded Ordnance, UXO education in schools, including puppetry and psychosocial support to survivors, and families of victims, and survivors of UXO accidents. other NGOs focused on many other issues in the effort to alleviate poverty and develop the country. For example, UXO clearance, education, nutrition, economic development, micro finance, wash, reproductive health, health promotion and agriculture to name a few.

 

Peter M

Okay, so let's take a step back. Can you explain what the process is to actually be allowed to work in Laos?

 

Colette M

Yes, sure. All INGOs working allows must first obtain an operations permit provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Those permits are only valid for one year and must be renewed every year. Once you have your operations permit and have secured funding to deliver programmes, you must develop a relationship with a relevant ministry to partner with to deliver your programme. The next step is to develop or draft up a memorandum of understanding that is signed between an INGO and your ministry partner, and no programmes can be implemented until this MoU is signed. This process can take anything from six months to two years.

 

Peter M

What's the decision making process in terms of the programme delivery? Is it based on a strategic plan from the Laos government? Or is it a negotiation?

 

Colette M

It's a combination of both really. Programmes that are developed based on bilateral discussions with major donors for example, DFAT USAID, European Union etc. and the government of Laos. For example, the Australian embassy in Laos has a country plan that fits with the most current government of Laos social economic plan for the country, for INGOs that respond to requests for proposals through funders, for example, DFAT or USAID, etc, would normally meet and discuss the proposal at the drafting stage with a ministry that would work with, if successful in their bid for funding. And sometimes, the tight timeline between preparation, drafting a proposal and the submission deadline actually does not allow enough time for this consultation process. So, in this scenario, you would arrange to meet with a relevant ministry, for example, Ministry of Education and Sport, if you were delivering an education programme. As soon as your funding was approved to convince those MoU discussions, which includes developing an implementation plan together.

 

Peter M

So you've got all of these different stakeholders that you're trying to coordinate with. I imagine that takes a lot of time to do.

 

Colette M

Yes, it does, and yes, it can. You really need to coordinate with your main stakeholder, which is the government of Laos, of course, at all levels. So when I say that, I mean, the government structure in Laos is there's a central government, that provincial and district and then down to the village level. So for for World education, working class, we needed to work with all levels of government and also obviously, most importantly, with the beneficiaries of any programme that we would be delivering. And then of course, we would also establish, we usually had good working relationships with our local representatives at the respective embassy. So if we received DFAT funding, we would have a person within the Australian embassy that we would have regular contact with.

 

Peter M

So Colette, tell me a little bit about your time on the ground there and working with the local government. You say Your staff had counterparts, which level did you deal with when you're working with, with the government?

 

Colette M

So I guess, again, we did deal with all levels, but it depends on the nature of the programme. So if we're delivering a programme at the village level, then we're working with all levels of government, our main responsibilities are at the central level where we report back and then like, for example, our rural livelihoods programme, we delivered that in the south of Laos. That was through the Ministry of Labour and social welfare. So at the local level, it was the district Department of Social Welfare where our staff counterparts, so they participated in, you know, local meetings in village meetings and things like that. So they're quite involved in that process.

 

Peter M

You talk about in terms of monitoring, but is there real skills transfer in this type of system?

 

Colette M

Look, to be honest, not really, it is quite transactional, and it's very much tied to outputs detailed in in the MoU that you sign with your ministry partner, so it's to me it's it's quite a last opportunity, really.

 

Peter M

So working with a Lao government, obviously, there is always going to be turnover within a government. But do you have the opportunity to build strong relationships and strong working partnerships? Or is it very transactional, on project to project,

 

Colette M

We had a really fantastic relationship with the Ministry of Education and Sports. And that was because it was a very long standing relationship in the delivery of our mine risk education programme, and that relationship is more than 20 years old. So it was very much embedded within the Ministry of Education and Sports. We also had a really great relationship with the Ministry of Health for all the work we did together in delivering UXO survivor assistance, and more recently, in disability and inclusion. For some projects, yes, they were quite transactional because of the nature of the programme delivery tied to the funding cycle. We are very much bound by funders timeframes, rather than what the needs of the country are. For example, when we complete a programme, feedback is always that our government partners asked that we extend out programmes, always without exception, I always feel that the programme isn't about kind of long enough. So it's Yeah, it's difficult.

 

Peter M

What's the expectations of a project? What are they hoping occurs with either the local government representatives or the I guess, the central government representatives? Are you meant to be developing their capacity at the same time, is there some sort of criteria or benchmark that you gauge whether or not those people are also benefiting from the project?

 

Colette M

While this would be absolutely wonderful and effective, in reality it doesn't happen for all programmes, there is really no discussion, particularly in the MoU development, nor through that project implementation to set criteria or benchmark capacity. So again, I think, as I mentioned before, it really is a lost opportunity. And that's not to say that, you know, in the current sort of country circumstance, that the government of ours working more towards building the capacity of the government to be able to deliver the programmes themselves as they aspire to graduate from least developed country. So there is a real impetus to build in more stringent criteria around capacity building as an outcome in the project delivery. So I think for while I was there, it wasn't necessarily happening, but I know that it, it is happening at the moment.

 

Peter M

So those government workers, their role is really just monitoring and supervision rather than any type of participation or contribution into that project.

 

Colette M

It really does, and it does appear that way. The government is very restrictive and controlling of INGOs in Laos, and this extends through to the tight control of granting and extending INGOs, the operating permit. As I mentioned, they're only valid for one year at a time, the length of time to develop and sign off on an MoU and programme meetings throughout the life cycle of a project.

 

Peter M

Sorry, I'm getting a sense from you that there's an element of micromanagement of the INGOs from the government. Is that the right perception or?

 

Colette M

So it's very much micromanaged, I would agree. Yes.

 

Peter M

Am I correct to understand that there are no advocacy NGOs, no development of well, no expressed development of civil society within those communities, it's purely a service delivery type function?

 

Colette M

It's absolutely correct to say that there are limited NGOs that advocate in Laos because of the controlling nature of the government. There is, however, a flourishing development of civil society through the establishment of local NGOs, for example, Quality of life Association in Xieng Khouang and The Laos Disabled People's Association in Vientiane. I see that as a transition, or, you know, where the work of NGOs, I NGOs is to make themselves redundant in the country that they're working into a flourishing civil society and local NGOs is really important, and also building the capacity within government. So there's a functioning bureaucracy within the country government are all part of the process to make ourselves redundant and leave the country in better shape than when we started working there,

 

Peter M

it seems, by your comments, that despite the government's stance to maintain officials for monitoring and evaluation, there is a pull from these individuals. And as you mentioned, particular government sectors to have closer relationships in order to have skilled transfers. Having lived there, though, for quite some time, I would imagine you had a lot of local friends, did you get a sense that there was a sense of local people that were discontented, and that wanted to have a voice within their government, or were people happy with the status quo?

 

Colette M

I have lots of lifelong friends in Laos. It remains my much loved other heart home that I will continue to visit for the rest of my life. I did, however, get a sense that for some, there was the tension of holding a level of discontent, while accepting that they could not make a change, perhaps accepting of the status quo rather than being happy or unhappy about it, probably a better way to articulate it.

 

Peter M

Were they particularly disadvantaged communities? or Why do you think they were willing to express an opinion?

 

Colette M

The villages we worked in were extremely poor and disadvantaged. For example, the remote villages that we worked in southern Laos delivering our rural livelihoods programme, villages were very disenfranchised with government, they had lost their land to Vietnamese rubber plantation owners and the land that they were left with was completely unusable. This resulted in a lack of income generating opportunities, particularly where, you know, the villagers had farmed their land all their life and for generations beforehand,

 

Peter M

And you were with government representatives at the time.

 

Colette M

yes, we were with government officials from the central government in vientiane, provincial government and district government.

 

Peter M

What was the response from those government representatives? Did they just listen? Or were they more active in the conversation?

 

Colette M

Interestingly, there was no response whatsoever. They did not engage in the conversation, it was quite tense to observe, I have to say. And it was also surprising for me, as I hadn't seen that kind of discontent articulated by any villager in the whole 17 years that I've been working in Laos. So it's quite surprising to me.

 

Peter M

So with the project cycle, you said that you're reviewed every year, is that correct? or every two years?

 

Colette M

It depends on the funding cycle. Really, if it was a three year project, the implementation plan was reviewed once or twice a year with your funding partner. So it really just absolutely depended on the funding cycle of your grant.

 

Peter M

And then the process starts all over again. Is that right? The process for a new project?

 

Colette M

Yes, it does. For each new project, you start at step one. So step one was developing your relationship if you didn't have it already, with your ministry drafting up your MoU. So if you're fortunate enough to have a great working relationship with particular ministries, as we were with World education, this this process was most definitely circumvented to some extent, because of those great relationships developed over many, many years.

 

Peter M

But it would be very time intensive to be going to a government ministry every time you put in an application for funding, surely.

 

Colette M

indeed, it was. And as I mentioned before, it is it's a really important step in the process, though, and absolutely cannot implement without a government partner. So it's incredibly important. You can't ignore it. There's no possibility to ignore that step.

 

Peter M

So then what happens at the other end of the project when you're winding up a project, what's the process you report back to the government in terms of The outcomes of the project or how does that process work?

 

Colette M

I guess we do. So there's usually a project closeout ceremony where the results of the project are shared with government and your stakeholders. So that would be every level of government, as I talked about before your funding stakeholder, so if it was Australian embassy, DFAT, and villages and your representatives, so we would develop that report that end of project report with our government counterparts, so wouldn't be World Education doing an independent evaluation, so to speak, would be very much a report that is written with our government counterparts and shared in that kind of platform, but also to say that we would do an independent evaluation of big projects and share those results with our government counterparts as well.

 

Peter M

That level of engagement is that because they then want to feed that that information and that those learnings into their strategy into the future? I mean, do you see a direct connection?

 

Colette M

Yes, it is actually, the findings or outputs, rather than outcomes of projects are most definitely fed into a bigger picture, which is the social economic plan for the country. There had been quite limited dialogue between the government of Laos and INGOs in the past, but this has somewhat improved over the years, and I alluded to that when I was talking about the INGO network and the kind of influence of that group, but certainly was limited during the years that I lived there. But we saw INGOs invited to the annual roundtable meetings where results were discussed and plans for the future made INGOs have very limited representation in that forum, and ensuring that what we're delivering is what the country needs, and it's really important.

 

Peter M

So thank you so much Colette for your time today. It's been really interesting listening to what happens in Laos

 

Colette M

Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.