Projects


The job search of a young, still-not-sure-exactly-what-I-want-to-do twenty something can lead to many interesting places. Over the course of my RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) career search, I’ve come across a number of interesting news wires, about 26 different careers I could pursue, and quite a few remarkable people. One of those remarkable people was Melissa Lamson, the founder and president of Lamson Consulting, LLC. Melissa is an award-winning global cross cultural consultant, specializing in cultural transformation. She has worked with everyone from Cisco to MTV to the embassy of South Africa (to name a few).

When I came across Melissa’s site, my first thought was “This is a career?! Awesome.” The second, after about an hour of research and devouring Melissa’s website, was “How do I become her?” I researched more and became a bit disheartened at my finding another career path to obsess over that seemed to be one of the smaller niche enterprises (read: difficult to break into). Discouraged, I emailed Melissa asking for more information on her background, her career path, and any organizations she admired. Amazingly, she wrote me back and a week later we chatted on the phone for about 45 minutes.

Our conversation left me smiling – this was really a career I could see myself in, and with Melissa’s guidance, I now had a solid place to start. To make things better, at the end of the phone call, she asked me to write a post for her blog “The Globalist Blog” on my experience working with Stomp Out Malaria this past year. After a week of many drafts, below is the final result. Enjoy!

 

Lessons on International Project Management in Developing Countries

Or, How to be an Effective Program Coordinator for 17 Countries, 3 International Organizations, 60 Field Representatives, and 3,000 Volunteers Across Africa

When I accepted a position as the Communications Manager & Field Representative Coordinator for Peace Corps’ Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative, I had no idea what I was doing. It was one of those jobs where my boss gave me a two-line position summary, a 50-page initiative project plan, and a week to write up a job description complete with a timeline and indicators of success.

Looking back, that vague of a start seems a bit sparse given the magnitude of our initiative, but it also illustrates how projects tend to operate in the developing world. If your organization wants to do well, flexibility and patience are the name of the game when generating your program and coordinating your employees.

My inaugural year operated on a steep learning curve strewn with missteps, but by the end of that time I developed a foundation of principles to follow when coordinating such an initiative. Here are three things that will set your international program off on the right foot, especially when working in developing nations:

 

1) Prepare for failure. The training that our field representatives (or employees for the purpose of this article) received was arguably the most thorough of any program in Peace Corps. We flew them into Dakar for an intensive 10-day training led by top professionals in international malaria prevention; we covered everything from malaria science to behavior change to program management; we gave them endless online resources and access to experts in the field and in the states. What we didn’t do (for our first training groups at least) was talk about what could go wrong and how to deal with it. Instead, our employees left ready to dive into their work the moment they touched down at post. For some, this approach generated good results, but for those who were met with continuous roadblocks, the frustration was enormously de-motivating after such a fervent build-up at training.

Though discussing aspects of projects that could go wrong can be intimidating, it is essential to the durability of any program. Indeed, if someone had not told me to “plan for projects to not go as planned” in the beginning of my time as a field volunteer in Senegal, I would have assumed that I had done something abnormally wrong to have failed. But failure can be imperative: it often reveals insights to our programs that we would have otherwise missed.

There was a noticeable change in our employees’ resiliency once we talked about failure. Their attitudes during troubleshooting conversations went from disheartened to resolute, knowing now that their projects not going smoothly was to be expected. This attitude was crucial when it came to our organization meeting its goals – undoubtedly teams that are irrepressible in their drive to overcome can propel a project towards its desired outcomes at an extraordinary rate.

 

2) Cultivate a team, even if you have to don virtual pom poms. International programs do not lend themselves to a tight-knit “office culture.” Employees often work alone, at posts that are separated not only by international borders but also logistical obstacles such as power outages, dial-up internet, and transportation strikes. If open and continuous communication is the backbone of an effective team, developing countries seem to be built to incessantly thwart employee bonding and therefore the success of a program.

Having our employees consistently talk to each other about what they were doing and how things were going seemed like an easy part of their job to me, but my employees soon taught me otherwise. I realized that if I was going to get my team to exchange information, it was going to take daily coaching before it became a habit.

My strategy for cultivating this routine was through daily Google chat check-ins and monthly phone calls. During these conversations, I encouraged our employees to share their ups and downs: if people told me about things that were going well, I asked them to proclaim it on our private Facebook group; if I was approached with a problem, I’d connect that employee with one in a different post that was dealing or had dealt with the same issue; if someone had developed a great project, I asked him or her to upload and share the plans though our Google docs folder.

The pom  poms came out when I would emphasize employees’ efforts in order to build momentum towards a group conversation. For example: “Hey look at this great project Team Ethiopia is doing – I bet a few of you could adapt this for your own initiatives,” and so on. At times I felt silly with my relentless “sunshine” cheerleading, but eventually the group began uploading their project reports and discussing frustrations on their own. Result: a cohesive team that sustained their international conversations even after I had left the initiative.

 

3) You are a guest, so build some clout before you implement something new. After arriving at their posts, some of my employees were constantly frustrated when their fellow Peace Corps Volunteers wouldn’t take heed of their calls to action. This was especially true for those implementing our program in countries that had never focused on our goal (malaria eradication) before. It didn’t matter that my employees were also Peace Corps Volunteers – it mattered that they were coming in trying to start something new, and the local crew was not having it. 

Why should the established local groups do as my newly installed employees said? My team may have been experts in their field, but the local working crews were experts in their environment. Sure, we could have relied on their boss ordering them to do as we said, but in terms of sustaining the change we were brought in to initiate, that plan did not have much longevity.

This is especially true in developing nations. When you are starting a project in a new country – even if it’s through the same company you worked for elsewhere on the globe – you are still entering the work culture of a different group, and that makes you an outsider. Western styles of business will not bode well in, for example, many African countries. If you were to walk into a boardroom and jump directly into your meeting (as one might do in America so as not to waste anyone’s time), the local population would consider you rude for not greeting them and engaging in small talk before you began the meeting.

Obviously, the principle here goes beyond small talk: if you, as a guest in a country, want people to care about what you’re trying to do and say, you need to first make the effort to show them that you care about how they operate and exist. This means spending your first few days (or week) of business getting to know people, learning how their officer operates, even gaining a few business proverbs in the local language. After that, you will enter your project not as an outsider who acts as he or she knows better than the local workforce, but as a new business partner who will build something with the established crew. This approach gives local work teams the opportunity to take ownership in your initiative, which means employees who care and thus will work harder towards your desired outcome.

 

Successfully managing projects that operate internationally requires a profound approach. Companies that work in developing nations are often in some way trying to better a population’s wellness while they meet their own goals. In these situations, it is important to keep the adage in mind that it is not enough to be well intended in your efforts to do good – organizations must be critical of their own work and constantly adapt in order to achieve the greatest possible outcome for all parties involved.

These are principles that worked for me, but as each country and culture is different, so will be the avenue organizations need to take in order to get their job done. If these ideas do not work for your project, then let me then suggest empathy. As our initiative was trying to figure out the best way to function, what led me to the above foundation was constantly putting myself in the shoes of my employees, my managing team, and those we worked for. Coordinating international projects means coordinating a wide spectrum of people, and when you can align their needs with the goals of your company’s, you will not only realize your goals, but also enable their results to last.

Getting snazzy with photoshop! My coworker Mike came up with this block font design for an info sheet we created for Stomp a few weeks ago, so I took the idea and ran with it for our World Malaria Day promotional materials. And to think I used to only know how to mess with photos.

BAMM; Blog About Malaria Month; Stomping Out Malaria in Africa; World Malaria Day

Did you know that pregnant women are four times more prone to malaria infection than at any other stage in their lives?

What will YOU do this year to Stomp Out Malaria?

And now an anecdote from my friend William who is currently in Vietnam:

I’m in Vietnam right now, went out for lunch and saw this fruity watermelon cocktail at the table next to me. So i asked the waiter if i can get that too and she just laughed at me… Turns out, they only give that to women cus its women’s day.
As they should. Another good tale: read about Africa’s Girl Power.

Hello lovely friends and family and random internet wanders who’ve happened upon my blog,

The crew crossing the bridge into Kolda meme

As of this past Tuesday, the increasingly epic Kolda Donkey Rally trotted into Kolda, ending a six-day journey of over 100 kilometers, 12 causeries, 1 kilo of Moringa seeds, 17 volunteers, and of course 4 donkeys.  To be frank, we realized on about day two that maybe the idea of riding donkeys for six days across Kolda was in fact not the best idea (logistically, comfort-wise, realistically for full-gown 24-year-olds riding donkeys in 121 degree heat) that we’ve ever had… regardless, the purpose of parading PCVs on donkeys across Kolda to bring attention to the alarming burden of malnutrition in Kolda was achieved.

I joined the rally-spectacle on the 12th, after the crew had been on the already been on the road for three days.  One look at everyone Saturday afternoon made it clear that exhaustion and dehydration were common companions throughout the rally, but the crew mustered up the enthusiasm and powered through that evening’s causerie in wonderful form.   Though of course some were better than others, we can honestly report that every one of the causeries (“health talks”) we led about malnutrition and how the leaves of the Moringa tree are one of the best tools for fighting vitamin deficiency went very well.  The leader of our brigade, Geoff, brought along his counterpart, Moustafa, who did most of the talking during our causeries.  Moustafa was was an absolute champion when it came to corralling villages we were visiting to attend our health talks via his megaphone and bucket-load of enthusiasm.  Combine three megaphones, four donkeys, and an average of nine volunteers at each causerie and you have enough of a circus to attract a small crowd in every village, be it simply out of curiosity as to what the hell we were doing or not.  The point is that a lot of people were reached all over Kolda as we made it rain Moringa seeds. Check and check.

1 of the 12 moringa causeries

As I’ve alluded, after slow days in the sun combined with scanty meals and continuously running on empty, it’s not surprising that before long we were explaining in Pulaar (well, everyone else was, I agreed along in Mandinka) to Moustafa what “slap happy” means as every late afternoon and evening turned into a delirious giggle-fest.  One evening, Moustafa contemplated Geoff and Curtiss’s definition of slap-happy as he glanced at Wilma, Cara, Mike and myself rolling around some mats, belly-laughing at our latest “ass” joke (you’d think after six days with the donkeys they would have gotten old, but they never did).  Moustafa slapped his hands together, nodded his head and looked seriously and Geoff and Curtiss: “Yes. Slap-hap-py. That is definitely what is happening,” he said as he picked up his mega-phone and said his new favorite English phrase we taught him over the course of the ride… “Oh my donkey!”  Enter fits of hilarity to all in the immediate area.

On a similar note, I want to end this post about the rally with a big THANK YOU to everyone who donated to the Gardens of Moringa Fund.  Over $1,600 was raised since we posted the Donkey Rally informational video on YouTube… which is amazing!  After covering the costs of the donkey rally, we have enough money in the fund to finance eleven small projects.  To refresh everyone on the ideas behind the Gardens of Moringa Fund: money will be used from the fund to support small-scale projects that pertain to Moringa; project costs must not exceed $150 and must include an intensive Moringa leaf bed and a causerie on the health benefits of the leaves.   In an organization where there often seems to be no medium between large-scale grants and volunteer-funded initiatives (difficult when we aren’t paid as much as stipend to get by each month), the Gardens of Moringa Fund will enable a lot of great projects to happen on the grassroots level the country over.  So again, thank you!  And remember that any time your change-purse gets a tad too heavy, you can donate to the country fund and designate the money to go to the Gardens of Moringa fund.  Hooray!

Unfortunately, none of the video footage we shot during the rally is at all pertinent to the actual rally and more for the ralliers’ amusement, so I do not have another YouTube snippet for you all to see.  Instead, and as usual, below is a collage of photos from my time with the Donkey Rally.    Enjoy!

Charlene climbs a Moringa tree to gather seeds. Photo by Curtis McCoy

 

Kelly, Wilma, Cara, Charlene, Mike, & Mike breaking open Moringa seed pods. Photo by Curtis McCoy

 

The long road of the Kolda Donkey Rally

 

9am Breakfast after a 6am start

 

1 of the 12 moringa causeries, Nebedaye is a local name for Moringa. Photo by Curtis McCoy

 

Mike challenging some local kids to a wrestling match between causeries. Photo by Curtis McCoy

 

The local kids kicking Mike's butt. 13 against 1 will do that. Photo by Curtis McCoy

 

Heading into Wilma's village, our stop for the night.

 

Me testing my balance trying to get on my bike one morning. Three bikers carried all the baggage for the donkey crew. Photo by Cara Steger

 

Off bring and early each morning, bikers and donkey riders (walkers) steady on down the national highway in Kolda. Photo by Cara Steger

 

Mom and daughter listen to one of the causeries

 

Mike looks on as Kelly and Cara nap between causeries. Photo by Curtis McCoy

 

Another day ends as we roll into our host village for the night. Photo by Curtis McCoy

 

Me feeling the crazy-slap-happy we indulged in at the end of each day.

 

Wilma, me & Cara: the bike crew with our heaviest loads the last day of the rally! Photo by Jason Haack

 

Mike and Wilma (and Jason's dog) rejoicing at the Kolda-ho! sign (misleading though as Kolda meme was still an hour away). Photo by Curtis McCoy

 

Glory banner as we crossed the bridge into Kolda meme! Photo by Pam Pratt

 

 

Two weeks ago was WAIST – the West Africa Invitational Softball Tournament, which was basically 4 nights and 3 days of non-stop chaos.  This led directly into my Close of Service Conference (COS conf) where I experienced the first panic attack I’ve ever had. We met all of these incredible people during a career panel, who work for the UN, and WHO etc.  – all things I would love to do – but as they spoke, it became more and more clear how unqualified I am to ever do their jobs.  Then I started thinking about any type of job I’d want once returning state-side and I freaked out a bit more because there is nothing (currently) that separates me from 10,000 other returned PCVs (RPCVs) who are applying for similar jobs, and I started seeing myself going home in May and having to settle for something I didn’t want to do for years just to begin paying off my student loans.… cue minor panic attack.  Shout-out to Chris Brown for sitting next to me and fielding the spazness.

After the last career-panel discussion, my country director and boss, Chris, came up to me and we started chatting about how I’ve enjoyed my second year here so much more than my first due to the fact that I enjoy being around the energy and motivation of all of the current volunteers.  He continued the conversation with, “Well, why don’t you extend?” And I explained (as I had already to a few people in the PC office that had already asked me about extension positions, or working as a 3rd year volunteer) that I would never consider extending unless there was: 1) a very specific job for me to do and one that only Amanda Wybolt could do – as in, not something they’re looking for any extender to fill, and 2) something that would help me career-wise in the long run.  This led to Chris telling me about a new malaria prevention program that is going to run via PC Senegal: teams of volunteers from 25 countries across Africa will be coming to Senegal for trainings on malaria prevention techniques based off of the model used by PCVs in Senegal.   This program will be the first of its kind in Peace Corps history.  “Do you want to be involved?” he asked.

Without thinking, my initial response was “No!”  When Chris and I had this conversation, mentally (though I had no idea what I was doing post-PC) I was already heading state-side for at least a bit.  So the idea of staying here for year?  Not so appealing.  Indeed, a total 180 of where I was going.

And then I realized I was being a bit childish and irrational. So, I agreed to have a meeting on Friday with the people already involved in the initiative (total of 5 including myself and Chris).  I left the meeting with a 30 second verbal blurb of how Chris saw me being involved and with all of the existing documents on the project to read over.  Over the weekend, I called 17 people – PCVs in country, friends and family from home – and the more I listened to myself describe the pros and the cons of the position to people over the phone, the more lucid my situation became.  This would be a huge opportunity – I could really gain a lot by working with this initiative.  By this past Sunday, the idea of taking the job was pretty much a no-brainer.

Skipping the details of the meeting and getting straight to the point – I took the job!  So what exactly will I be doing?  Strictly speaking, I am not allowed to tell you all too much because the program will not be officially announced in the end of April to coincide with the 50 year anniversary of the swearing-in of the first Peace Corps Volunteers, but, basically: I will be the communications coordinator for volunteer efforts in the 25 countries working through this initiative, involved in organizing and creating training manuals for PCVs across all sectors of the participating countries (including Senegal), and in charge of media bits for all of the above through social media and regular interweb information sharing.  I will also be working with multi-national NGOs and country organizations that will be partnering with Peace Corps on this initiative… in every country involved.  … AHH!  Exciting…  The other answer is “Who knows!” because I’m writing my job description as things go along and I have a feeling that this will be one of those things that as the initiative takes shape, my job will become into something totally different as we are seeing it now. Who knows where this initiative will be in 6 months? Right now there are 5 of us involved, apparently by 6 months there will be 30+. That could (should) change things. So boom, another cool thing about the job: growing with an organization.

Beyond working for an amazing program that is truly going to do good work all across Africa (and save lives! Progress is good!), there are two other points that made me decide to stay here: (1) that this position is really catered to my strengths and interests (communications, training facilitation, media work), and to have that at 24 years old, especially working on something that is this big of an initiative with this much responsibility – I realize is pretty rare; (2) that by staying in Dakar for a year, I can really put myself in a much more competitive place (career-wise) than I am right now. Especially as far as getting an international job is concerned. I can take this next year to learn actually learn French  (something I was never able to do in my Mandinka village), and make contacts outside of the Peace Corps world and among the international ExPat community that exists in Dakar.

Other details:
You may be thinking, “A year?! Do you get to come home at all?”  Yes, I get a bit over 6 weeks, which I will probably take July to mid-August.  I have been off of American soil for exactly two years as of February 28, 2011, so email me if you want to enjoy the first few days of “WTH is that?! I want some Mexican food.”

What about the extension? Where will I be living?  I will be living in Dakar with my friend Renée starting in about two months – ahh!  That means I can dress like a real person, can still bike around (and maybe get hit by cars like I used to do in Boston), and will be working in the PC office and have my own spiny chair. Yes!  Renee and I will also be speaking only in French on M/W/F, and are officially extending an open invitation to any visitors, as long as you come bearing gifts in the form of food, live performance, or pretty things.

What about the Fodé Bayo?  And Nacho??  I know, I know.  In true PC style, they need me in Dakar working on this ASAP, but I still have the garden/fencing project (of which the funding still has not appeared in my bank account), so as soon as that rolls through and rolls out, I’ll be up here.  I think that’ll be about two months… just enough time to enjoy mango and cashew apple season, yes!

Funny, this time last week I was still unsure about taking the position or not.  Now I’m planning what I will be doing this time next year – in Senegal.  Of all the people.  Who would have thought.   Life is funny sometimes.

This is a post about the last project that will come to Fodé Bayo before I leave country – if – it gets completely funded before I leave.  Below is the story of how over 35 volunteers are working together to bring over 22,000 books to more than 35 villages in Senegal.  Here is the website: Bringing Books to Senegal where you can donate and help see that this project happens.


A bit over a month ago, I received an email from my good friend in country, Jessie, about a project she wants to do, but needs some help with.  She found an amazing organization that ships books in French from Europe to Senegal, but the thing is that they only ship large amounts of books.  Like, a massive amount.  As in too many for her village of 300, but a pretty prefect amount for say thirty-five different volunteers and their villages.  That’s where my village comes in, and your philanthropic selves as well.  But I get ahead of myself.   Here’s the project information via the horse’s mouth… aka Jessie:

So there’s this NGO called Books for Africa. They, of course, send
books to Africa. But the way they do it is particularly nuts. They
ship a 40-foot container weighing about a bazillion tons, chock full
of around 22,000 books — books in French for kids.

Books for Africa is different from a lot of the organizations I’ve found for two reasons. First off, they’re able to ship French books from Europe, which is much more useful to Senegalese students than English books. Secondly, they ship massive amounts of books. When I saw this, I thought I could never partner with Books for Africa. That’s just way too many books for my village of 300.  But then I started talking about it with other Senegalese volunteers, many of whom expressed interest in receiving books and starting libraries in their communities.

As a result of all these conversations, Peace Corps/Senegal is partnering with Books for Africa to bring textbooks and reading materials to schools and community libraries throughout the country. Volunteers in about 35 communities are working with teachers and village leaders to open libraries and reading spaces, to start or supplement literacy programs, and to incorporate more books and reading comprehension into classrooms. It’s a really big project, and I’m excited that it’s happening.
In order to get these books to Fodé Bayo and the other villages in Senegal, we need help with the shipping costs. As you can imagine, the cost is huge – about $8,000.  Thankfully, all 35 volunteers involved will be asking their families and friends to help donate to our cause, but so far things are not looking great.  We’ve had the donation site up for about a month and so far have only received $100.
I know I recently hit you all up to help raise funds for the Senegal Moringa Fund, specifically the Kolda Donkey Rally.  The project that I am emailing you about is equally important, and like the Donkey Rally/Moringa Fund will benefit villages all over Senegal, not just in my area.  When you think of charitable donations you would like to make this year, just please think of this: of all organizations that you can donate to, PCV facilitated projects, like this library initiative, guarantee that your money will be going to a worthwhile cause.  There is no mystery intermediary dealing with your funds or a generic photo of an African kid saying “Thanks!” for your $20.  Instead there are people you know (like me!) who are able to tell you a story about where they money is going, who are involved in the process when the funds and materials arrive, and who will email you anecdotes and photos once the project is underway.  In other words, donating to projects such as this one and the Senegal Moringa Fund are the most beneficial types of donations you can make because 1) you know exactly what you’re donating to, and 2) can see exactly where the money is going.  No Santas on the corner ringing little bells here.
Anyway, venturing away from my soapbox, here is the website that you must go to in order to donate to our amazing library project: Bringing Books to Senegal.  All donations are of course tax deductible, but more importantly, will help bring over 35 little libraries to Senegal.

The grant process is delayed yet again as I need secondary approval for my project, which translates into two more weeks of waiting for an answer as to whether or not the grant is approved.

In the meantime, I’m working on visual aids and murals for the health workers and matrone (midwife) that works at the health hut in my village.  Below is the nutrition mural we’re planning to paint this week at Fodé Bayo’s health hut:

Very exciting, I know.  Sarcasm aside (sorry I’m frustrated with the grant delay after working to get everything lined up perfectly for the review committee on time), murals and visual aids are really effective learning tools to use with an illiterate population, which majority of the people who use my health hut are.  And painting murals is a relaxing thing to do  all day.  At least it’s still cold season.

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