This post is for everyone who wonders what I am actually doing here in Laos.
I am situated in Pakse, Laos which is a small city located on the Mekong River. Tourists come here but rarely stay more than a coupe of days. The expat population is virtually non existent and if you find someone who speaks English you hold on to them with dear life. So how did I end up here & what am I actually doing?
I think most people assume that I am traveling South East Asia and living the life volunteering in a trendy backpacker hostel like I have previously done. However, this time round I am doing something completely different.
I am volunteering for an organisation called Village Focus International, their goal is to invest in local leaders to create global change. As a result of this 72/75 staff members are local, which is quite unique for an international organisation. VFI has two main programs;
1- Land and Livelihoods
Land security & local management of natural resources are two of the most critical requirements of healthy rural villages. VFI aims to improve stakeholders’ (government, civil society, private sector, local communities particularly women and ethnic groups) capacity, knowledge, and participation in decision-making on land-related issues so that rural communities can exercise their full land rights.
2- Protection and Empowerment of women and children.
This is the program I am working with. We offer assistance to victims of human trafficking and also try to educate vulnerable populations about safe migration. In order to do this we have 2 drop in centers in Pakse city, a shelter for female survivors and we also have a mobile outreach team who travels around to different provinces to conduct outreach and educational activities.
The majority of people here are uneducated about human trafficking. They have no idea what it is, what it entails and the negative consequences it has. As a result, many people practice unsafe migration and unknowingly become part of human trafficking syndicates. After these victims are discovered by local authorities or other international organisations working to end trafficking, they are then referred to our organisation. Authorities accompany victims to the Lao border where we meet with them and bring them to one of our drop in centers. At the drop in they are provided with food, clothing, counseling, education, health checks, family tracing, and other necessary services. Each person is then repatriated back to their local community safely with the help of a VFI social worker.
Girls who would like to receive further assistance are invited to live at our SHELTER, here they live full time and receive vocational training, schooling, life skills, counseling and a strong social support network. The goal is to provide these girls with skills so that when they return to communities they have a skill which can help them to generate an income.
We also have a store dedicated to selling the girls hand made goods! It is called the DREAMWEAVER store and the sewing students do internships there. This gives them practical experience but they also make money off the items which sell.
So where does this Falang* fit in?
I am living at the Shelter with all of the survivors, it is an amazing experience to watch these girls make full use of the opportunity they have been given. At the shelter we also have a vegetable garden, a mushroom farm, a chicken coup and a fish pond! The survivors (and now me) are responsible for the upkeep of our house and all the little projects. I am part of a team of six girls and on a rotational basis we cook, clean, care for the vegetable garden and look after the mushroom farm. Apart from learning to live like a local, I assist with social worker duties and provide a set of fresh eyes on the projects and offer ways to help update our procedures. I teach English to the survivors and staff members, help to update our social media platforms and do a bunch of English document editing.
The difference that VFI makes to the local communities is highly evident. VFI also shows that it is worth investing in local people, because given the opportunities they can achieve greatness and be as inventive and entrepreneurial as much as any college educated foreigner – also by employing local people you are empowering an entire nation and helping them to keep their culture.
It is hard to believe I have already been here for a month and a half, the time has flown by! This opportunity is proving to be challenging but also immensely rewarding. It is exciting to be part of such a progressive and influential organisation. I have gained invaluable insight into the going-ons and runnings of an NGO which has increased my knowledge but also corrected and developed previous beliefs I have held. I am looking forward to what the next two months holds but also am excited to continue following the progress of VFI because we have a lot of big stuff happening in 2016 including the opening of a brand new shelter in the north!
Well there you have it, that’s what I’m doing with my life at the present moment. Feel free to contact me or check out villagefocus.org for more information!
*Falang means French person in Laos however now this is a term generalised to all white westerners.