I recently came across the blog ‘Blood and Milk’ by Alanna Shaikh. Alanna writes on all things international development, sharing her experiences, stories, insights, hints and tips.
There was one post in particular that caught my eye, “The five classic aid worker blunders”, which got me thinking, am I guilty of some of these too?
Blunder 1: Thinking that you are the only one who has ever tried to do what you are doing.
It is easy to get wrapped up in your work, especially when it is your passion. So, it can be very easy to forget that many others may have been there and done that previously - worked in the same field of research as you and in the same country.
The point being, network, chat and find out all you can from those who walked the path before you. Find out what worked and what didn’t and use that knowledge to make your work more effective.
And don’t forget that the people you are working with, farmers, researchers or community groups, will always have a lot of important and valuable information to offer.
Networking, your colleagues will have a wealth of knowledge
Blunder 2: Believing that all problems have a solution
Most of the work we do in agricultural development is focused on finding sustainable and effective solutions to problems. So, for me, I interpreted the second point as meaning that just because something is different from the way we work at home doesn’t mean it is a problem that needs to be fixed.
For example, in Cambodia I was recently involved in setting up a small pinned insect collection at the Forest Administration Office. The problem was how do you set up such a collection when you have no means of providing a stable temperature controlled room and there aren’t the resources or means to do so or maintain the collection?
One of our colleagues said ‘why does it have to be pinned? Why don’t we just have a wet collection (in ethanol) and a digital collection?” Perfect idea, much more suited to the resources we had on hand and we can use this collection in training across the country to extend the knowledge of insect in forests.
Wet Insect collection at the Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Office, Champasak, Laos
Blunder 3: Building a lot of technical capacity without making sure that someone is ready to use it.
This is something that resonates strongly with our work in developing integrated pest management programs and biological control development in Lao PDR and Cambodia.
In our projects, we have built a lot of technical capacity – insect diagnostics, crop surveillance, laboratory skills – as well as made sure that everyone is supported and ready to use these skills. We spend as much time as possible teaching the skills, learning how to implement them, and then providing support until everyone is confident in using these skills.
We cannot move forward in developing agricultural practices unless the people on the ground – who are implementing the diagnostics, the advice and support – have mastered the tools and are comfortable in doing so.
Blunder 4: Mistaking the capital city for the country as a whole.
Visiting the capital city of a country is still visiting the country, but thinking Australia is a series of AFL matches, lattes and bars based on your trip to Melbourne would be pretty ignorant. This is especially important in agriculture as you will often be working in rural and remote areas.
I guess the lesson to take away from this is to be prepared. Be prepared that you may have to spend time talking with the village chief before heading into the field (and this may even entail having a shot of rice whiskey before 10 am). Be prepared that the villages you are working in may not have flush toilets, a coffee machine or a supermarket. You may have to take your own peppermint tea, a silk sleeping bag and mossie repellent. And whilst these tips are not critical to the outcome of your work, it may mean you are a little more comfortable, in the end ultimately helping you do a better job.
The key points that Alanna puts forward gives us some food for thought when working overseas in international development. Taking time to really think about the work you are doing, designing your project and implementing it on ground can be the difference between a good project and a great one.
Oh, and the fifth point - Blunder 5: Brushing your teeth in tap water – I am totally guilty of this and I’m fine…. right?
In case of emergencies bring some snacks
English is the predominant language of science. For me it’s my first language but for many of my colleagues it is their second or third language. So, I ask myself, when working overseas, is it best to speak local or to speak English?
When I volunteered in Laos, I was determined to learn the language so I could chat with my friends and colleagues, with tuk tuk drivers, watermelon farmers and, when needed, shout at the stray dogs in a language they understand.
However, the more I’ve worked with people in places like Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, I’ve realised that speaking English isn’t always inconsiderate.
Me speaking English means that my colleagues can practice their English skills, which can help them to communicate with foreign scientists at international conferences, write technical reports and potentially enable them to study and work at international institutes.
Find the balance between local and English
Many words that we use in science do not exist in Lao language, so to develop an understanding of a word or a concept it needs to be relatable, and the easiest way to do this is through hands on learning.
When we conduct insect pest management training workshops with people who don’t have a great understanding of English, we’ll always work with one of our colleagues who can help translate. We also use flashcards and insect specimens as visual ques, conduct insect field walks to collect specimens, all the time introducing a little English as you go.
Picture 1: Flashcards and flip charts, a good tool to manoeuvre around the language barrier
The key is to tailor the language to the audience.
For instance, when running a farmer field day, present in the local language. If it is a mix of industry representatives, local and foreigner collaborators and government officials it might be easier to present in English, with dual local language/ English notes provided. When developing protocols for a monitoring program, it might be more valuable for all notes and instructions to be presented in the local language.
What it comes down to in the end is the audience. Who are you working with and what do you want to convey? Non-English speakers are not going to benefit from technical advice in English, the same as an entomologist doesn’t benefit from technical medical speak, its foreign.
Picture 2: Hot tip: Find a fluent lao-English speaker to give you a hand (Ms Kaisone Sengsoulichan)
A few points on writing & publishing in science
A few years ago, Lindsey Bell wrote a RAID piece on publishing in research for development, and he speaks about mentoring and coaching your collaborators in publications. One of the suggestions for this is workshopping, breaking down the task so that it is easy to work through and manage. This is such a valuable training exercise in supporting your coleagues in developing English writing skills, and one that cen be applied in many areas of agricultural research.
So, when working overseas speak English. Sit down and have formal or informal lessons with your colleagues, they want to practices reading, writing and spoken English as much as you want to practice their language too. And if all else fails, I suggest everyone polish their mime or drawing skills, because it sure helps when no one speaks the same language!
Picture 3:Immerse yourself in cultural activities and learn the language. A little karaoke never hurt anyone.
Madaline Healey has a chat with plant pathologist and international agricultural researcher Lester Burgess
Tell us a little about yourself?
I grew up in country NSW. My father was a headmaster in small one-teacher schools until I was 14 when we moved to Campbelltown, near Sydney. My formative years were spent in a village near Mudgee in the central west. The school residence was surrounded by wheat fields and sheep paddocks. My grandparents had mixed farms in the Crookwell and Yass districts. My first pocket monies came from selling rabbit skins and picking up potatoes (spuds). I developed a love for agriculture and science and so went on to study a BScAgr degree, majoring in Plant Pathology at the University of Sydney.
Teaching was in the family genes so I went on a Teacher Training Scholarship and then did a Diploma of Education. Then I was offered a scholarship for a PhD on crown rot of wheat, a newly recognised disease. This involved a lot of interaction with farmers which I thoroughly enjoyed. Post-doctoral appointments followed at the University of California, Berkeley, Cornell University, and the University of Melbourne before I joined the staff of my old Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Sydney as a Lecturer.
By this time my research was focussed on all aspects of the genus Fusarium, one of the most remarkable and important genera of the fungi. This involved collaboration with a network of colleagues internationally, established through the appointments as a post-doc. These networks were a key factor in my professional development and research!
Watermelon gang in Laos, Lester is 4th from the right
How did you end up working in international agriculture?
I convened the first Plant Pathology Conference of the fledgling Australian Plant Pathology Society and obtained DFAT funding to invite two plant pathologists from the University of the Philippines. This and teaching/mentoring students from developing countries fostered my interest in helping such colleagues on a continuing basis. Then in 1992 I established a collaboration with Hanoi Agricultural University, which led to a large ACIAR project and the start of a continuing association with ACIAR. In about 1995 I was asked to consider convening master classes by the Prof Bruce Holloway at the Crawford Fund, starting a long and remarkable association with the organisation and further work in many countries including Laos, China, Turkey, Indonesia, South Africa and Tunisia.
Why did you choose the international agricultural path?
It was a natural evolution initially driven by my interest in Fusarium and people and my career-long interest in working with farmers as well as with capacity building, teaching and mentoring. This has now spanned a period of over 45 years!
Do you think agriculture has changed since you started working in the industry?
In Australia, agriculture has become science driven and very efficient. However, it still languishes in least developed countries and some more advanced developing countries too. I believe that there have been significant improvements in some developing countries through the impact of international support from all sources, in all scientific disciplines. Teaching, mentoring and providing people with tools is the best way moving forward in the agricultural industry both in Australia and abroad.
Team transport to the field, Lao style
Biggest learning curve for you when you first started in international agriculture research?
Learning the local culture and how to teach across the language barrier. Most importantly how best to help small-holder farmers with low-cost disease management strategies.
Suggestions for people trying to get into international agriculture?
The advice given by Louise Fresco in her Sir John Crawford Memorial Address at the recent Crawford Fund annual conference in August sums it up perfectly: you need to be a “jack of all trades and master of one”. This is especially important if you are capacity building and working with small-holders. Smallholders deserve the very best advice adapted to the context of their farming system. So find local solutions!
What have been some of the rewards in working in this field?
Seeing the impact of my work in improving livelihoods, people increasing their production level and therefore their incomes as a result. Learning the cultures of various countries and making lifelong friends in many countries. Seeing the professional growth in former students from developing countries, ACIAR and Crawford trainees and returning regularly to the same small-holder farms. Working closely with the Crawford Fund since retirement I am still on the ground in Laos and continue to receive these rewards.
Lester in a rice field on a Fusarium fujikuroi mission!
I remember as a 17-year-old telling all my high school friends that I was heading off to university to study agriculture. “Agriculture! You mean you want to study to be a farmer?” That response was something that I would endure through my entire undergraduate years.
Why I wanted to work in Agriculture
Agriculture is a big part of my life. I grew up on a broadacre property in central Victoria. I knew how important agriculture was and also how difficult it could be. I chose to study agriculture because I wanted to help. I wanted to help farmers produce more, both economically and sustainably.
My first job out of university was working for the Queensland Department of Primary Industries (as it was known at the time) as an entomologist in their horticulture plant protection team. It involved researching biological control options using good bugs to get rid of bad bugs in vegetables.
From scones at parliament house to Laos
A few years down the track, a colleague sent me an application for the Crawford Fund young scholar program, to attend the annual parliamentary conference. I remember thinking 'if anything there will at least be some decent morning tea, I mean it’s at parliament house.'
As it turned out, it was the turning point in my quest to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up. The Crawford Conference is where I realised that I wanted a career in international agriculture. I knew that this was my thing, that this is what my skill set was for. The only snag: how was I supposed to actually get my foot in the door? Cue the Crawford Fund seminar of young scientist’s experiences volunteering in international agriculture, a few months after the conference. At the end of this seminar, the organizer announced that there was a volunteer position with Scope Global, supported by Crawford Fund, in Laos. This was my ticket.
Leaving all assumptions at the door
For six months, I lived in Savannakhet, a dusty, French-provincial town on the banks of the Mekong River, working with the Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Office (PAFO) as an Entomology Officer. This role was part of a long-term commitment to increasing production in southern Lao PDR by building capacity in pest diagnostics and IPM. I was so enthusiastic, so keen. I had all these great ideas of what the team and I would do and what we would achieve.
First day at work, I was locked out of the laboratory. Seems there was a meeting on and everyone forgot to tell me. No problem. Day two: locked out again. This was a blessing. It made me realise that all of the preconceived ideas I had about my role would not work here. From that point on I went in with no assumptions. I left it all behind and went in with an open mind.
Fighting geckos and singing with locals all part of the job
My colleagues and I worked on building capacity in insect diagnostics, curating insect collections and building pest checklists for vegetables in the local area. We monitored pest and beneficial insects on local co-op farms and developed pest guides in Pasa Lao (local language) for growers. We developed and facilitated an insect diagnostic and IPM train-the-trainer workshop for crop protectionists and extension officers from provincial and district offices.
We used pressure cookers as autoclaves, torches as microscope lights and battled daily with geckos that continued to eat our insect collections. We worked alongside growers to manage pests and were rewarded with countless lunches and impromptu karaoke sessions. And man we did a good job, an excellent job in fact. We became all round crop protectionists, a little bit of entomology, a little bit of plant pathology, and a little bit horticulturalist all rolled into one.
Continuing to help farmers in Mekong region
I still volunteer time to the Crawford Fund, working alongside my mentor and pal Professor Lester Burgess to continue our work in southern Laos. Our next big project is to build a glasshouse in Savannakhet, to raise healthy pest- and disease-free seedlings, and use it as a training centre for local horticulturalists.
In my job, with the University of the Sunshine Coast, I am also working on an ACIAR project, which regularly takes me to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. I get to work alongside some of the most incredible people and help contribute to rural economic development of the smallholder farm sector through enhanced control of insect pests in the long-term.
So in response to the many people who said ‘Agriculture! You want to be a farmer?’ No, I just want to give farmers a helping hand.