Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Being an EUAV Project Manager in Kathmandu: who really benefits from my work?

At first glance, being a project manager in the capital city of Nepal seems impossible. When you come here and experience how some of the most obvious things work and are managed – like road traffic and maintenance, or construction works - you really have the impression that planning and coordination aren’t definitely a Nepalese motto. Indeed, many things can’t be completely accomplished because of a long list of complications and obstacles. Nepal has been suffering from almost 20 years of political instability, civil conflict included, and the terrible earthquake that hit Kathmandu Valley in 2015, has left visible wounds everywhere. In 2015 the country voted a new Constitution and, since 2017, has got a stable government and it is slowly recovering from both natural disasters and political troubles.

Eastside of Kathmandu viewed from Swayambunath Stupa
Shocked and disturbed by all the chaos, dust and pollution that invaded me as soon as I came here, I felt a little bit relieved when I found myself in V.I.N. Head Quarter in Naya Bazar, the North East area of the town between Swayambunath and the tourist neighborhood of Thamel. Volunteers Initiative Nepal is the Nepalese NGO where I am “deployed” (yes, I feel like a soldier when hearing this word) as a Senior EU Aid Volunteer and where I will be working until next May. It was founded in 2005 with the purpose of “empowering marginalized communities” (this is its motto) living in rural areas, as to say people disadvantaged and excluded by many opportunities because of their low caste or poor living conditions. Yes, though officially caste-based discrimination is considered illegal by law since 2011, unfortunately, Nepal is still dominated by this system that affects people’s destiny and career. V.I.N. – in cooperation with the local authorities – is working to bring some basic services to marginalized populations in order to equalize and balance opportunities. Its approach is “holistic” which means that it is working in specific areas on different basic needs: education, health, infrastructure (toilets, earthquake-proof house reconstruction, community centers), entrepreneurship (especially for women and the youth), and environmental conservation.

Since the beginning, I definitely felt very welcomed at V.I.N.’s office: the staff is very friendly and nice, and I have never found myself out of place though I can’t understand when they speak Nepali among themselves. Though in some cases I wished I could have arranged spaces and materials differently, I found V.I.N.’s office area and the staff’s work much more organized and planned than anything else outside and around. Working and management styles were quite different from what I had in my mind, but I definitely saw the footprint of careful planning and coordination.

So, what am I doing here in Volunteers Initiative Nepal?

One of the schools where V.I.N. is working
When I arrived in Kathmandu, I was really eager to immerse in social life to learn about the
people, the local cultures and V.I.N.’s work: to talk to my new colleagues about what they were doing, to interact with the volunteers and hear their stories, and to go to the villages to meet the people who have benefitted from the projects. As a person with an anthropological background, I rely more on and get more satisfaction by directly knowing people and their activities than reading formal documents that often miss reporting interesting and precious information. Nepal has a wonderful diversity in terms of ethnic groups and languages, and V.I.N. is working in different areas of Kathmandu province, such as Tarakeshwor. I was really happy and curious to go on the field and to know more about it, but this hasn’t happened until the middle of October. I was expecting at least to get data from the employees and the volunteers since verbal interaction with beneficiaries living in the rural areas wouldn’t have been possible without an interpreter. I was asked to wait and slow down, and to start getting my first information from official sources.
I was asked to read documents and reports: definitely useful and important since one of my tasks is to improve the quality of documentation, but I was expecting a much more diverse kind of duty and I felt this quite boring. I could not imagine staying in the office all day on my desk in front of my laptop. While all this boredom was happening, after only ten days from my arrival, my life was suddenly livened up by an infection, I was hospitalized for five days, and I had a sick leave for twelve. Yes, unfortunately, it was dengue, the most fast-spreading new mosquito-borne infection of all Asia. I kept it as another kind of test about my resilience, another way to know local life, people and services. Indeed, the hospital – actually the best one in town – was excellent.

What are my tasks here as a project manager? Who really benefits from my work?

Religious ceremony for the new Community Learning Center in Tinpiple
One of the challenges to be faced when you have not a daily and direct relationship with the beneficiaries – as it is my case – is to explain to people what is your job, what you are concretely doing on a daily basis and what is the real impact of your work. When I said to people here that I was working for an NGO, I received two extremely curious reactions from them. On the one hand, a reaction of exaggerated admiration: “You are hero, you really do a good job, thank you for helping the Nepalese people”. Actually, I see many heroes around – like those who work in rural areas and deal with health issues, poverty, violence, malnourished infancy, or those who really struggle to survive and earn their livelihood – and I definitely don’t see myself as one of them. I am not definitely a hero. On the other hand, people tried to grab the chance to get a job, since the international NGOs’ sector has definitely been one of the most profitable and stable in Nepal in the last decades: “Can you help me to get a job? I need to work”. I am still interested in deeply exploring and understanding the NGOs' imagery among the Nepalese people since it indirectly might affect my work. It seems that, for many people, working in an NGO means to be a privileged person. Indeed, I met on the flight to Kathmandu a young Nepalese woman who has lived in Europe for the last years, telling me: “When I was a kid, I remember development workers coming to the village with big four-wheeled jeeps. You can really get a good job in NGOs”. People’s reactions apart, it is really difficult to persuade people that my work is useful: I am not a nurse, nor a teacher, and I definitely don’t really directly manage projects and staff as I was used doing when I was in Milan.

So, what my job really is?

First training session to VIN's staff (P.c.: Michaela Rossmann)
It is called “capacity building”. My job is to support the NGO in developing and/or improving processes and procedures that can help them to achieve better quality results and to attract more funds. My tasks go from helping V.I.N. organizing good quality documentation and reports to establishing a monitoring and evaluation system, from conducting a risk assessment and baseline survey to directly writing (hopefully) successful project proposals addressed to donors. Anything else that can be performed according to my skills and to V.I.N.’s needs.

Personally speaking, one of the most challenging parts of being a project manager supporting the overall NGO is that I need to know at least something about everything, but I can’t really get an in-depth knowledge about a specific area. Having the chance to develop and implement a small campaign to raise awareness about domestic violence and sexual harassment among women and students living in rural areas, has been a good chance to engage in the communities benefitting from V.I.N.’s work and to “see with my eyes” how things work: the communication and organizational style, how the resources are managed and coordinated, how data from the field are collected to review the activities and how is a report organized. Finally, my wishes were fulfilled and I could really start working on office-based activities with a new vision on V.I.N.’s work.

In the next post, I will tell you something about the above-mentioned campaign and how I contributed to that.

* All pictures are mine unless stated otherwise.