Laura Hastings is a native of Westport, county Mayo, and works as a project manager for Concern Worldwide’s child health programme in Sierra Leone. Aaron Clark-Ginsberg caught up with her in Freetown to find out what it’s like to work in international development.
You’re a project manager for a child survival programme. What does your average day look like?
It varies quite a lot and can be a bit chaotic. I work with 13 people focusing on improving child health in the western slum areas of Freetown. I coordinate the programme, give it strategy, and help manage finances. The project has three components. The first one is on improving health facilities and getting them to a higher standard. The second one is about working with our field operations team to promote health practices in the community. Our third component is focused on research where we work with The Johns Hopkins University.
Do you like the job?
I love it. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.
So you’re doing research, management…
and administration! The glory of my job! That image of pulling your hair out with frustration at a computer, that’s a lot of my job.
That sounds terrible!
That part is. If you just sit in your office you’ll go crazy. I try and make sure that I get out to the field teams as much as possible because that’s what gives you the insight to what the project’s actually about. It helps you get to know the nuances of it, see the challenges, come up with the ideas in consultation with the teams, and then to be able to redesign, redevelop, and get your motivation. That’s the total fun part of the job because you’re seeing something change.
And you actually have seen changes?
I’ve seen a lot. In our project and the way that Concern operates is very much through consultation. Concern believes in the bottom up approach, we believe that, whether you call them beneficiaries or participants, that the group you’re trying to target and improve their livelihood are a critical voice to saying how a project should be designed, delivered, implemented, and monitored. This project feeds into Concern’s philosophy and everything we’ve done has had community involvement, and not just tokenistic but getting them to make real decisions. They will critique us and tell us when we’re doing good or bad. They’re challenging us and it’s a really good relationship.
You like it when they’re demanding?
I do. It shows that they’re passionate about it, that they’re interested, and that they’re taking the project on. It’s great.
So what do people back home think about what you’re doing?
My dad thinks I’m doing great stuff. I think it would be great if he actually came out and saw the reality of it, saw the office administrative work and the amount of time spent planning and in meetings. When you go to ministry meetings they tend to go on for a long time and you come back months later and it’s the same meeting. My dad believes I do all these wonderful things—I think he actually believes I’m building stuff.
Like digging in the dirt?
Digging, ploughing, delivering babies. He thinks highly of it. I think my friends would be more in tune with it because they know the reality; that everyone’s job has certain moments of enlightenment—something that motivates you—but the reality is all the preparation that you have to do behind it.
Do they know about Concern?
Yes, I grew up in a small town and we all know Concern. We did fundraisers in school for Concern. When the pensioners in my dad’s local pub found out I was going to work with Concern in Sierra Leone, they were all telling me, ‘oh Laura I pay 17 pounds out of my pension every month’. My nephews sponsored a water pump harvesting scheme, so now I have to go get pictures to show them because they want to know if their water scheme is working. That culture of giving is still alive and it allows us to do great things in our projects.
You seem to have found your niche. Do you have any advice for people who want to work in international development?
Whatever field you’re in, you need to be passionate. It’s a wonderful experience and way to be engaged. To work abroad you need to be flexible and it’s not like you’re out in the field every day having adventures, a lot of it is in an office or at meetings. The cons are that you can get lost in it. You see people in the field who have been doing international development for years and their friends have gotten married and had kids and they miss out. When you return it’s hard to connect. It can be a lonely life because you move around a lot.
I don’t know what I want to do, I question it every couple of years. I love my job and get a lot of energy from it, so for me I feel like it’s another field assignment or two, but it means I have to sacrifice other things. I know friends and family would like me to come back home because I’ve been away for a while but I’m not quite ready to do it yet.
Author: Aaron Clark-Ginsberg
Aaron Clark-Ginsberg is a PhD student studying disaster risk reduction and working for Concern Worldwide. You can learn about his work here, http://www.ucd.ie/cha/people/
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Photo credit: Laura with the Concern health team in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Laura Hastings