Of_Substance
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Of_Substance

The Internship (Part One)

Reflections on a month with World Vision International in Cambodia.

Departure Anxiety

In November 2018, I packed my bags and temporarily bid farewell to my three-year-old son and partner, before making my way to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Once there, I reconnected with my colleague Björn Rust to undertake a month-long internship with World Vision International in Cambodia (WVI-C). I shrugged off the several tonnes of CO2 we would collectively be emitting as this time I was travelling ‘with purpose’. This got me off the hook, right? Perhaps many a development practitioner has convinced themselves of this while boarding a plane.

In the weeks leading up to my departure, Björn and I mutually agreed that we were stepping into an elusive opportunity, one that we had romanticised for a long time. As built-environment professionals who had pivoted mid-career by studying disaster management and global development, a stint with an international non-government organisation (INGO) was somewhat of a dream come true.

However, as strong proponents of ‘bottom-up’ social change, we could not deny the cultural, political and geographical differences that would render us as complete outsiders in Phnom Penh. It was one thing to be a tourist, but to work in this new context — especially as openly agnostic and atheist—how would this be received by our new colleagues at this evangelical faith-based organisation? How did a Christian organisation operate in a country like Cambodia anyway? My pre-travel research revealed that the population is largely Theravada Buddhist; did World Vision proselytise as a condition to offering employment or a ‘helping hand’, in the style of missionaries that accompanied colonial empires? If this was the case, such conditions would philosophically oppose our motivation for working in aid, one where social equity is simply put, a human right. A certain inertia sat deep within us, something we managed to quash to make way for the opportunity.

Are We in ‘The Field’ Yet?

In the week leading up to leaving, we were emailed our brief. It involved a ‘re-imagination’ of the WVI-C work environment in cognisance of a recently refined brand essence. The organisation works with children around four pillars: nutrition, education, youth development, and protection. The directorship suggested that the work environment should ‘bring the WVI-C brand to life’ such that staff and visitors are enabled to reflect on the work of WVI-C and subsequently be ‘reinvigorated’ or ‘inspired’, depending on their journey through the offices.

Part of what was requested involved a highly visual outcome whereby information about WVI-C’s work towards ‘transforming the lives of vulnerable children’ could be highlighted through visual cues, imagery and physical changes, integrated into a cohesive built environment solution. Prospective sites included the ground floor of the national office in Phnom Penh, with a view to expanding the ‘brand-to-life’ concept into approximately eight regional offices, as well as a custom solution for the Media and Communications department, our home for the month. Piece of cake! Or in this case, Nom Kong (Cambodian doughnut). The Media and Communications team were clearly dealing us a handcrafted brief to capitalise on our inherent skillset.

Exploring our context, is this the field? Photos: Linsey Rendell & Björn Rust.

We were excited by the brief, albeit acutely aware that one month would be a completely insufficient blip of time to bring the project to life. We had infinite ‘hows’ adapted from various ‘design thinking’ toolkits, along with the skills to graphically and architecturally communicate ideas around brand and space. But ‘why’ were we doing this at all? How could our work during this month make any dent on WVI-C’s purpose? We were after all just two interns very early in their careers as development practitioners. Yet the brief we were given almost perfectly fit into our disciplinary skill sets as design practitioners, putting us at risk of operating in a default mode as two designers working pro bono for our client WVI-C.

In all the participatory practice methods I had studied thus far the overarching takeaway for me was that time is essential to building trust and partnerships. This key ingredient sits in direct conflict with the short time frames and volunteerism often characterising these types of internships offered by INGOs. Rarely would a breakdown of the expert-client dichotomy and a fundamental shift in ways of working and knowing, resolve itself in four short weeks.

However, Björn and I mutually felt that to not even try to deconstruct the sectoral silos global development is often criticised of working within, would be shelving our critical learnings. So, we attempted to drink tea with those who grow it¹ and began to put theory into practice. We commenced piecing together a co-creation workshop intended to form partnerships with our new colleagues as the ‘community’ we were designing with. They were bound to capture the brand they work for and how it could be translated into tangible outcomes if the time and space were granted. Our job, as we saw it, was to harness their intelligence on the somewhat esoteric concept of translating a brand into space.

‘Plan B’ for when someone didn’t have time to bring lunch. Photo: Linsey Rendell.

This process absorbed the first two weeks of our internship, where we would slowly begin to learn more about our new peers. At precisely midday every day, they would clear a desk and de-compartmentalise their tiffin containers for lunch, gathering to share delicious smelling home-cooked meals. Sometimes someone would not have had time to pack a meal so they would skip down to the fruit vendor outside the office building to bring back a bag of tropical treats or several litres of sugar cane juice in flimsy plastic cups, as their contribution. On Friday afternoons, work would stop so that everyone in the Media and Communications office could rehearse Christian devotional songs in Khmer and English for Monday morning chapel. Kinship was a clear priority for most of the WVI-C staff, something we observed was enabled by everyone dedicating time to nurture relationships with one another through these activities.

One afternoon that feeling of inertia reprised when our Australian manager noted that he was keen to schedule a trip for us to visit ‘the field’. Perhaps our former selves would have jumped at this opportunity, thinking it a legitimisation of our purpose for being on an internship like this. But discomfort associated with ‘field studies’ we had naively — and with privilege — undertaken earlier on in our post-grad experience left us haunted by our own, perhaps morbid, curiosity to engage in ‘fieldwork’, in the name of education. In Poor Visibility Robert Chambers mused:

“Visitors may differ widely in nationality and religion, in experience and prejudice, but they usually have three things in common: they come from urban areas; they want to find something out; and they are short of time. So the visit begins… Whatever their private feelings, the rural residents put on their best face and receive the visitor hospitably. According to ecology, economy and culture, the visitor is given goats, garlands, coconut milk, coca cola, coffee, tea or milk. Speeches are made. School children sing or clap. Photographs are taken… When darkness falls and people talk more freely, the visitor is not there.” ²

Surely our urban peers at WVI-C already had their work cut out building trust with their rural counterparts to carry out the programs they were developing to help children and their families overcome disadvantage. As outsiders, what could we possibly contribute in a day or two? Were we not already in ‘the field’ somewhat, given our existing role as interns working in a context foreign to us? We had so many questions for our new colleagues that we had not yet asked. What was it like to live in a country recovering from mass genocide only forty years back? We came from a country where genocide was a dirty word, and talk of the truth was largely swept under the carpet. From casual conversations had with them so far, we found that many of them had family in villages in regional or rural areas. Many were the first generation to be back in Phnom Penh to join the country-wide movement to modernise Cambodia once again. There was so much to learn from people within one building in Phnom Penh, let alone the wider city or another township. So we decided to politely decline our manager's well-meaning offer. Turning back to our desks, we reasoned that an attempt to fortify the work-life of those in the office might be a safer place to practice the development model we prescribed to. Sure it wasn’t as juicy as an excursion, but we were already nearly two weeks in and the ‘spectacle of development’ ³ was not alluring us anymore. The dilemma of how to mesh our design skills with our ethics was enough of a challenge in this new cultural context.

Björn at work aside our brainstorm wall where we slowly processed our understanding of a new context.

Henceforth, Björn worked at investigating participation tools for the co-creation workshop. I used the time I may have lost by travelling to a village in that quintessential ‘Landrover’ ⁴ Chambers warned us about — several of which we found parked out front of Head Office — to gain a better understanding of the history of World Vision in Cambodia. As I trawled through literature sourced from various World Vision websites and documents offered by our manager, I became amused and endeared by my new colleagues’ camaraderie. The peculiarity was that this was largely proliferated by a seemingly unquestionable commitment to Christian culture. There were the weekly Hillsong-style gospel sessions and email sign-offs along the lines of ‘By His Grace’, and so forth. I was almost sure they were not Christian though. How were these different ideologies fitting together?

This article is part one of a two-part series. In part two, I explore the context of our work and the details of our co-creation workshops.

[1]: Manyozo L (2017) Communicating Development with Communities.

[2]: Chambers R (1981) Poor Visibility. In: New Internationalist. https://newint.org/features/1981/02/01/poor-visibility

[3]: Manyozo. op.cit.

[4]: Chambers. op.cit.

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