Meeting with Burkina Faso in Ethiopia

At first sight, day to day working at VSO is’t that different to GSK Stockley Park. Thanks to the global ubiquity of Microsoft, Outlook, MS Office and Office Communicator are all used here and meant I could be up and running very quickly, BUT …. these are generally the only tools available – more whizzy things like MS Project, MindManager and Visio (never mind Planisware!!!) are way too expensive for general use. The other really noticeable difference is that the favoured communication medium here is definitely a Word document (often a very long Word document!), rather than Powerpoint. As a newby here, that’s actually proved very helpful as there’s plenty of comprehensive documentation available to help me get my head around so much that is brand new to me. In fact, my first couple of weeks have felt a bit like gulping from a fire hose of information; each new person I meet provides some useful meaty documents to read … and suggests a few more brains to pick, but at the moment both are tending to stack up way faster than I can get through them!

This last week, we (i.e. the advocacy strategy project team) began a schedule of TCs with the directors of each of the ~36 countries in which VSO operates to get their initial input into the global advocacy strategy.

As VSO has also named their London meeting rooms after these countries, we’ve had meetings with Nigeria and Kenya in Zambia, Nepal and Ghana in Vietnam, Papua New Guinea and South Sudan in Eritrea, Burkina Faso and Thailand in Ethiopia, and Gambia, Cameroon and Zimbabwe in Tanzania – all very confusing!! We generally try Skype first to save costs, or if that doesn’t work due to flaky internet connections, a direct phone line. Both often conk out several times in the middle of the call, or are only just usable, all of which is certainly teaching me to be patient. Trying to take notes on a subject you barely know, on a line that’s barely audible from someone often with an unfamiliar accent is also a providing a very thorough workout in active listening skills!

These calls have been truly eye-opening in terms of the magnitude and diversity of issues that VSO is trying to influence through its advocacy strategy.  One key strand of the strategy is about women’s participation and influence in civil society; often this is about seeking policy changes to enable greater women’s participation in district, regional or national government, but I learned that in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the need starts at a far more basic level. Here, a primary obstacle is women’s real fear of physical attack if they attempt to participate in elections, a rational fear in a country where violence generally against women is a major cultural issue and a staggering 50% of women have experienced forced sex.

The other main strands of the advocacy strategy are education, national volunteering programmes and the Post-Millenium Development Goals (or “post-MDGs” as they are known here).  The last mentioned are around an International process, just getting going to determine what will succeed the set of eight  UN Millenium Development Goals agreed in September 2000, and which are set to complete by 2015.  More on these in later blogs!