5 minutes with... Jo Povey, Organisation Development Advisor, Myanmar
Before serving as a VSO volunteer in Sri Lanka and in Myanmar, Jo Povey worked for 20 years as the Head of Business Programming and Investment at a regional development agency in the UK, managing large annual budgets and teams of co-workers.
She is a now volunteering with a local non-government organisation (NGO) advocating on disability and child rights, under a project funded through the British Council and aimed at strengthening national civil society organisations.
Why did you decide to become a VSO volunteer?
After 20 years of working in the UK government/quango sector, I was made redundant 5 years ago. For years and years, I had dreamed of packing in my job and working abroad. I wanted to spend time with a local organisation in a developing country and ‘give something back’, as they say. Being made redundant gave me the time, opportunity (and some back up funds) to allow me to go for it.
In 2012 I was lucky enough to get a VSO placement as an Organisation Development Adviser to a local NGO in Northern Sri Lanka, working to resettle displaced people and support local communities in the aftermath of the war. It was such a great experience for me that in 2014 I decided to re-volunteer immediately. The Myanmar Civil Society Programme was just starting up then and it seemed like an exciting opportunity to work (again) with civil society organisations as Myanmar slowly transitioned from military rule to “quasi” democracy.
What is your role?
I am working with a local NGO called Eden Centre for Disabled Children (ECDC), based in Yangon but working all over Myanmar advocating on disability and child rights, specifically the right to an inclusive education. As an Organisational Development (OD) Adviser, my role is to support and advise them on how they could strengthen their capacity (individual and organisational) to deliver direct services and projects and also advocate for policy change at a national level. This involves different tasks, including from at one end - strategic planning, governance and restructuring, advocacy planning for education reform, to practical management and leadership skills, project development skills, developing financial and HR operating procedures.
What do you like about your placement?
I am not a big fan of developing policies and procedures for the sake of having them in place. I most enjoy the people aspects, mentoring, guiding and training staff on why some of these tools can, if applied properly in the context in which they operate, add value to their organisation and make their jobs easier.
I love working with a local organisation, and, as is often the case in a long term placement, being seen very much as part of the team. Communal lunches are a great way to practice Myanmar language and teach the staff “Geordie English”. Whilst undertaking project monitoring and evaluation, I also have the opportunity to travel to various more or less remote field locations and to meet local staff and project beneficiaries, with first-hand experience of the challenges they face. This helps me a lot to appreciate what ECDC and their partners are trying to achieve and really allows me contextualise and support them better. These are probably the aspects that, in my opinion, mostly differentiate an international volunteer from a short-term consultant: the opportunity to spend time with the organisation you are working with; to understand the dynamics, the strengths and the challenges of the project with a pair of “fresh eyes;" and yet to be able to share the organisation's achievements and successes, as a full member of the team.
Is it necessary to be a disability expert to carry out this role?
No, but it helps to have knowledge of the sector and an appreciation of the issues children with disabilities face in Myanmar and globally. My expertise is in senior management and organisational capacity building. If you have the right attitude you can apply this to any sector or organisation.
What do you like about living in Myanmar?
People in Myanmar are very friendly and helpful, and in my experience it is a quite safe place to live. Every town or village has teashops and local food outlets, an abundance of fresh fruit vegetables and of course the local beer. Yangon is a huge bustling city, but if you search hard enough you can find some quiet hangouts in the parks and temples.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
In Myanmar, it’s not the work (though that is challenging sometimes!), it’s the heat. During the hot season (April to May), the temperatures are crazy. There is not a lot you can do to prepare yourself for it apart from drink lots of water and try to find somewhere with aircon. It gives you something to talk about with everyone you meet though “pu-deh-naw” (it’s hot, isn’t it?).
What have your learnt so far?
My programme manager in Sri Lanka said once, “remember, don’t think you have come to save us, we don’t need saving” and this is the best advice I have ever got as volunteer. You are not the director. Be flexible and very adaptive, so that you and your partner organisation get the most out of the placement. You need to think about this when you are supporting partner organisations and it can make getting feedback interesting.
Would you volunteer again?