by Jonatan Müller
I worked for almost four years as a professional development worker with Christliche Fachkräfte International (CFI, International Christian Professionals) in the south of Laos. When I arrived in May 2015, the hot dry season had just ended, and hours of heavy rainfall ushered in the rainy season in this sub-tropical country. This is the time of year when the vast majority of the approximately seven million inhabitants of Laos plant their rice paddies. They are mostly subsistence farmers. In the hilly parts of the country, which are often hard to reach and are a long way from the larger towns along the Mekong River, this form of agriculture is the source of livelihood for more than 90% of the population. The aim of my work was to understand the challenges faced by the people living there and - together with them and our Laotian team - to develop ways to overcome these challenges. We were able to make valuable contributions to progress towards three of the sustainable development goals (SDGs): "No poverty", "Zero Hunger", and "Good Health and Well-being." This could be measured most easily in relation to "Good Health": Training courses in improved hygiene coupled with development of the infrastructure for clean water supply reduced the incidence of easily preventable diseases, such as diarrhoea, by more than 50%.
In my role as project manager, I coordinated tasks at the interfaces between the project partners of the Laotian government, the local partner organisation Service Fraternel d'Entraide (SFE), and the 15-strong Laotian team. At the beginning of my service, I spent a lot of time with the Laotian team and the inhabitants of the mountain villages in order to understand what life is really like in the villages. This enabled me to gain important experience “in the field”. And together we were able to tailor projects more effectively to meeting the particular needs of each target group.
I found that the preparation with CFI and the project partner in Laos (SFE) was particularly helpful as regards subsequent encounters with people in the field. Even before I left to go to Laos, CFI enabled me to participate in a one-week preparatory seminar that raised awareness of culture and communication as significant aspects of development cooperation. This preparation was supplemented by seminars at the AIZ, the Akademie für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (Academy for International Cooperation) run by GIZ. During my first three months in Laos, I was able to concentrate on learning the Lao language at a language centre in the capital. This was extraordinarily valuable as a basis for my service. I gradually learned to better understand the Laotian way of thinking. This laid the foundations for "achieving the goals together". It was particularly important to me - above and beyond achieving measurable project outcomes - to facilitate discussion about the basic principles of human cooperation in general. The result of this discussion was a list of core values, in the form of "slogans", which underline what cooperation means to us. "We see what is valuable in every person," is one of these slogans. We talked about the practical relevance of such a sentence, and this facilitated discussion of sensitive issues that are often taboo, such as the role of women in society.
CFI provided professional support not only during my term of service, but afterwards as well. I experienced very practical support when I had to have an operation in Germany after a motorcycle accident. When I completed my term of service, I was offered "returnee” coaching, which I experienced as a very helpful way of closing this latest chapter of my life and facilitating my reintegration in Germany. I’m now working as a consultant in the field of international project management. And I benefit enormously from the valuable experience which I gained in Laos, where I was working with a wide variety of cultural groups. I would encourage everyone to gain such experience for themselves.
Jonatan Müller, business strategist and agricultural scientist; 2015 - 2018: Laos, CFI.