Crafting a Masterpiece is an Iterative Process — International Development and I

Luang Prabang, Lao PDR

The mountains of Laos are just as unforgiving as they are captivating. Life is akin to the silhouette of these mountains — steep descents, gradual ascents, plateaus, and vice versa. They both present great opportunities and serenity, just as they present challenges and adversity. The challenges might be magnanimous, but let’s embrace it one peak at a time and one decision at a time, rather than fear it.

As they say here in Laos, Sabaidee! Hello!

As some readers may know, this is Vivekan Jeyagaran on the other side of this article. I’m writing to you from the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR — also known as Laos), in Southeast Asia.

I intend for this article, and others that follow, to be an outlet for knowledge and experience sharing. I believe that they can serve as a platform for inspiration and reflection, for you and for me.

I want to lift the veil and expand your understanding of countries, people and a world of opportunities that you might not engage with frequently.

This outlet intends to revolutionize the way you and I both think about global issues, complex macro and micro-systems and the roles we each can play.

Lastly, I hope that with my writing, and your thoughts, we will be able to propel both of our understandings of the world we live in. I’ll start on a light note, with a recounting of the steps that preceded my arriving in Laos and I’ll gradually dive into the details!

Social justice, human and economic equity (or lack thereof) among many others related to human well-being were things that mattered to me.

These were more than just buzzwords. I wanted to and am continuing to find a bridge between the skills I have developed, the skills I want to develop and these areas of interest, just as anyone else charting their path is doing.

As a result, I encountered the International Development and Aid industry. I quickly realized that it was a blanket term used to describe the work of a multi-billion-dollar sector. This being a sector comprised of a wide variety of industries and organizations that try to foster human development around the world. One of these days, I’ll dive into the different opportunities available in this sector for those that might be interested, and my opinions about it.

Predating that encounter however, I graduated with a degree in Business Management from the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC). I finished with my head held high, with 18 months of private sector experience and many years of extra-curricular experience under my belt. In between I also had the chance to spend 2 months volunteering in the Czech Republic.

My transition from a Business Management degree into International Development was quite intriguing and continues to be an ongoing process. The two intersect in several ways, and work hand in hand through partnerships and cooperation.

There are an abundance of opportunities available through many different kinds of organizations; Multi Lateral Institutions, Canadian Non-Profit Organizations, International Non-Governmental Organizations, Social Enterprises, Foundations, Multinational Corporations, Consultancies and more! I will certainly shed more light on that as I continue this venture.

Fast forward a moment and there I was wandering about in the underappreciated beauties of Malawi — The Warm Heart of Africa.

Satemwa Tea Estate, Malawi

I was no seasoned expert, but I had some valuable experiences and a personalized understanding of socio-economic inequality (and inequity). I did and continue to believe that I have a respectable intellectual wingspan and a Canadian non-profit organization by the name of WUSC seemed to agree. That’s how I found myself in this small, landlocked, East African nation that I knew nothing of.

I unexpectedly realized that Malawi and I shared many connections. The history of Malawi’s tea industry for instance was directly connected to that of my homeland, Sri Lanka.

That wasn’t all that bonded us though, and by the end of that 6 months contract Malawi had become another home — it is after all referred to as the Warm Heart of Africa.

This country gave me more than I gave her; a long list of benefits that I can never repay. The friendships I had with Malawians and foreign workers top that list.

Malawians hoping to propel their homeland into a new age of socio-economic prosperity taught me the importance of community-led development.

Foreigners working in Malawi who had all but been to the center of the world and back, taught me the importance (and the real possibility) of accumulating holistic perspectives and experiences.

The everyday Malawian citizens, service providers and passersby who accepted me into their community showed me the importance of embedding yourself within the country you call home, whether short or long term.

The experiences, and moments of inspiration and reflection that I shared with those new friends have been etched into my memory.

I continued to chart this path in another part of the world that brought me even closer to home. This is where Laos, or Lao PDR comes in.

Wat Phu, Lao PDR — Ancient Khmer Hindu Temple from the 5th Century AD

I’ve been in Laos for 4 months and will be here for another 8 working through Cuso International. I have been working with and reporting to one of Cuso’s partners, Swisscontact.

Cuso International is a Canadian development organization that works to reduce poverty and inequality through the efforts of highly skilled volunteers, collaborative partnerships and compassionate donors.

Swisscontact is a business-oriented independent foundation for international development cooperation. Economic, social and environmental development have been the name of their game since 1959.

As a Program Associate with Swisscontact, I have been working in areas of Product Development, Tourism Development/Management, and Business Development.

My work in Laos is focused within the Mekong Inclusive Growth and Innovation Programme (MIGIP). This programme aims to do just as the name suggests, through sustainable (and responsible) tourism development in Southern Laos. This focus comes from the recognition that tourism has the potential to drive job creation, increase and diversify sources of income generation, improve livelihoods and alleviate poverty.

The experience thus far has been a confluence of conceptualizing new programs and implementing existing programs. The number one priority is to institutionalize strategies and initiatives with our partners to make for sustainable development. This work requires secondary research and analysis. The most unique elements come from conducting primary research in a number of different areas — villages of all shapes and sizes, National Protected Areas, islands communities, an ancient volcanic plateau, coffee farms, and entrepreneurs of all varieties.

The goal here is to develop business models and markets that facilitate inclusive economic growth for all parties. The programme works to prove that markets can, and should, work for everyone. What does that all mean and what does it look like? I will dive in deeper another time, and so I will stop there so you can explore the surface first.

Crafting a work of art is an ongoing process of meaning, reflection, innovation and uncertainty.

Consultation meeting with leader of a village with a long and treasured history in sculpting and handicrafts — Lao PDR.

The handicrafts from this village might have been rooted in their long lasting traditions and practices, but they understood the importance of design innovation. Our lives and careers should be our masterpiece. We should accept that crafting that masterpiece is an ever-changing process that doesn’t have to be constant, nor predictable.

Now, I know that there is a lot going on, in my life and in yours. That is true today, and it will continue to be true tomorrow and years from now. This process doesn’t have to be extremely complicated.

It is a matter of experimenting and exploring how you can satisfy your professional, personal and intellectual curiosity within your means. In fact, that is the path that many of us are charting, whether we realize it or not.

For me, it has been an exercise of asking questions and learning about ways in which I could redirect my skills in a medium that reflects my interests and values.

There is however a lot more to the process, and it varies from individual to individual. I hope that by writing and putting my particular experiences out into the world, we can each learn from shared ideas, discussions, and reflections.

If you have any requests about what future posts should discuss or highlight, please do let me know and I will put my best foot forward to make it happen!

As they say here in Laos, Phob khan mai — see you later.

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