Skip to content

Making change happen: Collaboration, and the power of Storytelling

I’ve been working in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste (East Timor) this week, and it’s been a privilege as always to spend time in new surrounds. More so when stationed one hundred metres from the sea, with spectacular daily sunsets, and some of the tastiest coffee money can buy. 

Timor is an island, just a short hop north of Darwin, Australia, and up until quite recently, following 500 years of Portuguese occupation, was an Indonesian colony (between 1975 and 1999). The western side of the island is still governed by Indonesia. Timor-Leste claimed its independence in 2002.

Like so many other countries in 2016, Timor-Leste is experiencing the effects of the current El Nino droughts, disrupting the country’s wet season and ruining harvesting potential. A topic covered on this site back in March during my time in Ethiopia.

My assignment this week, however, has been to support CARE’s work to engage more with private sector companies in Timor-Leste (banks, retail, media and others) and examine ways in which, together, initiatives and relationships can be forged to tackle some of the social and economic challenges the country faces – poor infrastructure, lack of employment opportunities, issues around food security and nutrition, financial literacy, to name a few. Even without a more severe El Nino year, Timor-Leste is dealing with all of these mini crises combined.

And so during a CARE hosted Private Sector Forum here in Dili yesterday, we heard from various companies operating in the country, and how some companies have prioritised delivering on “social goals” within their businesses.

Companies such as ETO Group, who are targeting the creation of 5,000 new jobs for Timorese citizens through their procurement business. Another, Air Timor told us of their commitment to gender equality in the workplace. We also met with Telemor, a Vietnamese based telecom company, serving 450,000 Timorese and looking to scale up the wifi network here still further, whilst designing mobile banking solutions for customers from all demographics, in order to help people better manage and access their money.

In each of these examples, the “business case” for investing in either job creation, gender equality or new product designs for local communities, was well made and is clearly helping drive the companies more directly to achieving their goals. Call it a “win-win” outcome if you like, or perhaps this is just an example of doing good business? However, what was clear was that many companies at the Forum were not describing Corporate Social Responsibility, but instead hoping to develop sustainable business models.

For NGOs like CARE, around the world, there is an important role we can play when it comes to designing and implementing business models like these. Our local knowledge of communities, our grassroots networks, our experience of addressing poverty and injustice – these can all be brought to any business table, and leveraged.

The scale of some of the social issues here in Timor-Leste seems significant, yet with such a small population and geography, the prospect of impacting large percentages of the country’s citizens can be framed more opportunistically. A relatively small investment here can go a long way.

Which, in some ways, is how CARE has sought to contribute to the country’s literacy needs over the past 15 fifteen years.

During this time CARE has published a range of educational magazines for school children, for teachers and also for local communities.

The magazine is called “Lafaek” – which means crocodile in Tetum (the local language, although Portugese is still spoken widely also) and boasts a unique readership in Timor-Leste, because in three circulations each year (totaling 1 million copies) Lafaek directly reaches almost 200,000 children of primary school age, 10,000 teachers, and 85,000 households. In terms of its percentage reach in a single country Lafaek’s coverage is like no other education publication sold in any country in the world.

Lafaek uses storyboards, illustrations and recurring characters and, over the years, these have come to form a special association for school children and for adults up and down the country.

For a nation still rocked by the memory of conflict and war during the time of Indonesian occupation, the Lafaek brand has come to stand as a symbol for stability, learning, and a sense of normality – not just in the classroom, but in the household as well.

As CARE discovered a few years ago, when it conducted a survey of the Lafaek readership, the results were striking:

  • 96% of teachers attested to the importance and popularity of the Lafaek magazines and reported using them to teach, emphasising that they were the only locally created, locally relevant, consistent curriculum support – and the only educational materials ‘that work’;
  • 99% of teachers stated that Lafaek supported children’s learning in basic literacy, languages, natural and social sciences, health, geography, history and civic education
  • 86% of teachers used Lafaek for lesson plans, curriculum content, ideas for activities; and their own professional development
  • 91% of children in grades five to nine said they were learning from Lafaek;
  • 79% of children said they also used the magazines at home;
  • Parents were equally enthusiastic, saying that the magazine helped them to increase their knowledge and to have a better grasp of what their children were learning.

In much of the discourse around international “development” (and what we have learnt over the past half century about what works and what doesn’t work) it can be easy to overlook an intervention such as Lafaek.

Lafaek originally set out to provide teaching material for young children, via the medium of pictures and stories. However, over time, the consistency and quality of Lafaek’s messages have also had the power to a galvanize a generation of students, teachers and parents. It has helped build solidarity, and perhaps most critically, has respected the dignity of its readership.

Timor-Leste is in many ways no different a context to other parts of the world experiencing, or recovering from, protracted periods of conflict and disruption, and coping with the various social and economic longer term after-shocks. This year’s El Nino stands as yet another crisis for the country to now deal with.

In our global race to better deliver aid and development solutions, to those most in need (whether in Timor-Leste, in Vietnam, or in any country the world over) this week’s visit has hit home to me that, without working with others, and without investing in dignified interventions – in this case through a vehicle such as Lafaek and the power of storytelling – we will fail each and every time to reach the finish line.

Now, where did that sunset get to…


Dili sunset. Photo by Me.

Resilient Markets in Ethiopia


At home with Sindayo, a GRAD beneficiary in Tigray. Photo credit @ CARE Ethiopia.

Last month I visited Tigray, Northern Ethiopia, to interview farmers and livestock traders faced with the drought effects of one of the most devastating El Niños in 50 years, to learn about their coping strategies in the face of extreme weather patterns.

We wanted to find out how these coping strategies were linked to national and international market systems and how, through these systems, it might be possible to bring about a better deal for those in the supply chain typically made more vulnerable by drought: women.

CARE International, the global NGO and my employer for the last decade, has been operating in Ethiopia since 1984, and works alongside other international and national organisations to bring solutions to those whose livelihoods are invested in agriculture, and who by default are affected by regular market “shocks”.

After 70 years of operations around the world, CARE’s focus within any country programme is to bring about positive changes for women and girls. We do this because of the myriad of existing social and economic injustices faced by women and girls, all over the world, many of which have been described on this blog. At CARE, we talk a lot about “empowering” women and girls, and this encompasses many aspects, including improving access to economic resources for women and, crucially, increasing their control over those resources.       Read more…

What are we waiting for?

In case anyone needs ideas for New Year’s Resolutions.

Stunning, on every level…

Lend Me Your Ears


Hoa Binh Province, rural Vietnam

Christmas is coming and there’s no stopping it. Even here in Saigon the Vietnamese have started to embrace what has become an indulgent festival of consumption, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.

And, at this time every year, people like me pen blogs like this one, instigated to push a perspective your way. People like me who (you’ll soon enough not be surprised to read) have just spent half my week up in rural Vietnam, meeting local communities.

So, what’s the perspective I’m peddling ? Well, no doubt by the end of this post I will have worked it out…    Read more…

“Scale, impact and partnerships” – seeing through the buzz factor

I’m back on the regional conference circuit at the moment, and it’s awash with talk about “scale” and “impact”.

Sound-bite central, indeed, with events I’ve attended recently also still obsessing with how to achieve scale and impact by working in “partnerships”. As suggested in my last post we need to look beyond semantics in the sustainability arena, and instead get real about what some of these terms actually mean as, all too often, our preoccupation with the vernacular distracts us from action.

The UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have included “global partnerships” as their 17th Goal. The proof of authenticity around what the UN thinks can be achieved with this Goal will be revealed over time. However, right now, it seems to me that if you are not talking about “scaling your programmes”, or “measuring the impact” of your efforts (in terms of playing a positive role in society) then you are not “on message” – and that, for many, is a public relations cardinal sin.      Read more…

Partnership musings at 33,000 ft

Photo credit @saigonsays

Photo credit @saigonsays

Over the last couple of months I’ve spent time at various “partnership” themed events. Bangkok, Singapore, Hanoi, even the leafy outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia, many thousands of miles away from the hustle bustle of Saigon. Different venues, but similar take-away recommendations about how, if we are truly to tackle social and environment issues and bring about change in the future, for the future, we must join forces with others.

In some cases, forming alliances which might seem oxymoronic: for example, big business in partnership with local communities; municipal governments working with large NGOs.

Previous case studies on this blog site (where CARE is partnering with companies in the region, including GSK and Diageo) are backed up by hundreds more out there, many of which are breaking new ground and offer hope for replicating models which others can adopt, adapt and improve. Read more…

Women’s Empowerment in the Hospitality and Tourism sector


Drawing in the tourists – a Sri Lankan sunset over the Indian Ocean

I have visited Sri Lanka in a work capacity every year for the past five – posting about it just recently on this site – however, this April, I’ll spend my 40th birthday there, as a tourist, on the country’s southern coast.

Post war Sri Lanka (since 2009) has much to offer the increasing number of tourists, flocking to experience white sand beaches, up-country tea plantations, and the joy of some spicy coconut sambol for breakfast.

The hospitality and tourism sector is one upon which Sri Lanka is heavily relying, not only in terms of driving up economic gains for the country, but also in making a positive ripple effect on related social factors – in particular, supporting the employment needs of what equates to several million young Sri Lankans on the look out to secure a job.

Within this context, as well as having the potential to positively tackle youth unemployment in the country, the hospitality and tourism sector is in a position to also address why it is that so many women in the sector are not being supported in their careers – and in some cases, why in the very first instance it is a challenge for women to even enter the workforce. Read more…

%d bloggers like this: