I Came, I Saw, I Learned: My Journey into the South Pacific


For this article we are privileged to hear from MIDP’s Rowena (Weng) Veloso, who provides a wonderfully informative and reflective piece about the experience of her recent Monash internship in Fiji.

‘Bula, na yacaqu o Weng’ (Hello, my name is Weng). This was my usual introduction in the communities I visited during my month-long internship in Fiji. Perhaps it was my funny accent in the Fijian tongue, but I found it amusing that most of the women in the different villages called me ‘Wendy’.
Before ending up at Monash to study a Master in International Development Practice by some twist of faith, I was an accountant and a Master of Business Administration graduate in the Philippines. I also worked at a multinational company for 7 years doing finance and sales. I suppose due to my background, I have always found the subject of financial education interesting and how the knowledge, or the lack thereof, could spell boon or bane for people.

I was one of the 5 students who volunteered for this year’s Fiji Impact Trip. The program is a collaboration between the Monash SEED, a student-run organisation, and the South Pacific Business Development (SPBD), the largest microfinance institution in Fiji, with branches spread throughout the country. Centre Managers, who are part of SPBD’s staff, are the institution’s front liners and managed the accounts of the members who organised themselves into groups and centres. One of my main tasks was to work with these different managers to visit four to five villages a day, where women held Centre Meetings to make weekly loan repayments and savings. During these gatherings, where the women also socialise and discuss any issues, I conducted member satisfaction surveys using a semi open-ended interview format aimed at gathering data and feedback on the participants’ experiences with SPBD.

My short stint in Fiji provided me with a greater insight into microfinance and financial literacy. Microfinance has become a bridge to financial inclusion for these women, most of whom are housewives, and some of whom are illiterate. It has enabled them to become financially included despite their lack of formal documents, collateral, and their villages’ lack of proximity to traditional financial institutions. I heard multitudes of amazing stories on how these women were able to start their own businesses, turn their skills into income-generating endeavours, improve their household, contribute to their children’s education, and build up their savings. Sadly, these narratives are not reflective of everyone as there were those who have not been able to pay their obligations, leading to a worse financial standing. Some of the women have been alienated from their communities as other members had to shoulder the debts because of the group and centre guarantee clause. Even though microfinance is often hailed as the panacea for poverty alleviation, it can also be a double-edged sword. Does it truly empower women or does it make others more vulnerable? There are no easy answers. Hopefully, I will get an opportunity to understand more of how microfinance plays out in gender and development.

Conducting the field work helped me gain a much greater appreciation for the theories I learned at university since I have no prior background in development, notwithstanding the fact that I am from a developing country myself. The field work reinforced the importance of cultural sensitivity, which was not only limited to the physical observance of wearing the sulu (traditional Fijian skirt), leaving my footwear at the door, or sitting on the mats with the women in the villages. Being culturally sensitive is essentially about respect. In this context it was also a celebration of the uniqueness of the Fijians I engaged with and of my own multicultural team. The acknowledgment of differences is also fundamental in practicing reflexivity, which is the awareness of how my own background could inform my biases. I also discovered that in dealing with people, no theory can ever substitute sincerity, empathy, and deep listening. It was indeed humbling to recognise that I came to Fiji not because I could teach something to the women, but because I needed to learn from them. Being open-minded enabled me to immerse myself in the stories of resilience from the ladies who warmly welcomed me into their homes and into their lives, even if it was for just a brief period.

This same kind of openness was what perhaps drove me to feel at home. Midway through the field work, in the villages and in the SPBD branches, I decided to embrace my Pacific Islander name ‘Wendy’, which I could never help telling people without a chuckle. Maybe this sense of having a newfound identity is quite telling of what’s in store for me in the future. A shift in career may not be far behind, who knows. For now, vinaka vakalevu (thank you) Fiji!

Rowena Veloso

Why MIDP? – The Journey

Joining us on the blog today is the newest member of the MIDPA committee, Presley Kajirwa. Presley shares with us the fascinating story of why he decided to study MIDP at Monash, and what he has gained from the experience so far.

Introduction:

Habari nyote! (Greetings to all!)
I am Presley Kajirwa, a young soul embracing his 20-something years miles away from my home country. I was born in Western Kenya. To reach my home you would have to embark on a nine-hour drive from the capital Nairobi.

When it comes to Africa, many people are only familiar with South Africa, but there are fifty-three other beautiful countries on the continent. I hate to be biased, but when it comes to my country, I cannot help but be overly patriotic and proud of the home that I did not choose. I come from a resource-rich country governed by ‘poor’ leaders (at least that Is what they pretend to be). My home is Kenya, aka Kenia, and we are the power house of East Africa, although of late we have been struggling to maintain that reputation.

Background:

It was mid-2015 when I graduated from Daystar University, located in Athi River, Kenya. Through my undergraduate course I learned about numerous topics, such as conflict resolution and transformation, peace studies, international relations, & security and refugee studies (just to name a few). I figured therefore that my future would lie in the military or development worlds. After two or three unsuccessful attempts at joining the men in uniform, I decided to focus more on my passion for development. This is how I ended up seeking more knowledge and skills at Monash. Prior to this period, I had temporary employment with international rescue committees, as well as an NGO tasked with protecting refugees and providing essential services once they were safe and settled.

What did I do there?

Apart from receiving and loading trucks with aid materials, we had chats with truck drivers who shared their fascinating stories. The most common narrative concerned how insecurity and poor infrastructure was a constant challenge to their ability to carry out their job of aid delivery.

Why Monash? Why MIDP?

While pondering the next move in my life, my family members recommended that I look into furthering my studies. Following my online research, I decided to settle for an Australian university. Monash University (and I am not saying this just because I am a student here), really stood out for me. I was intrigued by the fact that, from the campus website, I was able to visualise my life as a student both inside and outside of the lecture halls. The clarity, openness, and detailed information made me extremely eager to experience learning the Monash way.

Armed with my passion and experience, I enrolled in the Master of International Development Practice. To be honest, this course is so interesting that if I had the power to wind back time, I would study International Development Practice for my Bachelor’s degree. Aside from how fascinating and enlightening it is, I find this development course to be incredibly diversified, integrative, and realistic.

The goal!

Having completed my first semester, I look forward to building on what I have learnt throughout the remainder of the degree. I am also looking forward to the events put on by the MIDPA, particularly the tremendously-informative Brown Bag seminars. I think that every aspect of the experience of undertaking MIDP here in Melbourne is benefiting me and helping me to achieve my goals. I believe that development agents have a key role in social justice, streamlining public governance, and promoting progressive development. I cannot wait to contribute to these fields. After several windy winters and hot summers full of new experiences and memorable times, I know that the time will come that I will pack my bags for the trip back home. While I will certainly miss a lot, like the many insightful debates with interesting friends, at the same time I am eager for this period, for I know that I will return to my home as a wiser, more knowledgeable individual than the one that left. One that is far better-equipped to meaningfully contribute to making my country, and my planet, a better place to live for all.

Presley Kajirwa

A Reflection on the State of Education in Rural Cambodia Today

Joining us on the blog today is our guest contributor, Emily Maiorino. Emily has been volunteering at Oaktree for 12 months as a partnership manager. She has been working on the Girls’ Education Initiative (GEI) which is an education program targeting vulnerable and marginalised youth in rural Cambodia. Her role has been providing program support to their implementing partner organisation in Cambodia. She is also currently studying a Master’s of International Development at RMIT, due to finish in June 2018. Today, she draws from her own personal experience to share some insightful reflections on the state of education in rural Cambodia.

Basic education is a fundamental human right but, although the Cambodian Constitution guarantees education to every Cambodian child, a considerable gap remains between rhetoric and reality. Significant barriers to accessing quality education still exist across the country, particularly for rural youth, girls and ethnic minority groups. As part of my research working on a girls education project over the past year, I have gained insight into the current problems existing within the Cambodian education system.

1. Cambodian classroom

The issues facing rural youth

Despite the fact that 80% of Cambodia’s population live in rural environments, schools in rural districts face inadequate facilities, lack of resources, poor governance and higher dropout rates than their urban counterparts. Indigenous ethnic groups and diverse Austroasiatic dialects also pose challenges and barriers to rural education.

The proportion of the country estimated to be under 30 varies from more conservative estimates of 59% to as high as 65.3%. The rising number of young Cambodians entering the workforce is creating a pattern of national and international employment migration. Studies have named Kampong Cham as the second major sending area for youths searching for employment. 60% are female.

Kampong Cham and Tbong Khmum provinces are the most densely populated region of the country, even surpassing the capital, Phnom Penh. The Mekong River divides the Kampong Cham and Tbong Khmum provinces, creating a rich floodplain for agricultural practices. The region continues to be well known for rubber, cassava and tobacco plantations, which engage a significant amount of child and youth labour. Factories owned by foreign investors are penetrating the region and employing thousands of young women and men. Through my own qualitative data collection, I identified that a direct correlation exists between the emergence of new factories within close proximity to rural communities, and increased secondary school dropout rates.

The imminent need for stable financial security drives youth -particularly women and girls- out of education and into employment. Gender roles are firmly structured and historically, women have seldom been associated with success in education or business. Hierarchical and patronage roles are also embedded deeply within Cambodian culture which limits the female role models available for inspiration. Young women and girls often leave formal education to work in the domestic sphere or seek employment to generate income for their family. The critical period for girls is lower secondary school (grades 7-9) when the majority of dropouts occur. In many cases, the increased employment opportunities and paychecks that stem from further education do not appear to be a payoff that is justified by the associated costs of school.

2. Cambodia Krochmar and Chumnik Student Interaction

Rebuilding education

Cambodia is in the process of rebuilding its education system after its collapse under the Khmer Rouge. Over the 15 years, education campaigns and policy reforms have promoted the value and importance of education as a national priority (see the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) website regarding education for policies, strategies, legislations, and statistics). Through the commitment of MoEYS and interventions from international agencies, an attitudinal shift is occurring at a national scale.

Presently, around 97% of children are enrolled in primary school, with gender parity achieved for boys and girls. This initial step focussed largely on the expansion of access to education and increasing enrollment rates. Lack of quality education, however, remains the crucial issue and has resulted in significant numbers of children repeating grades or failing to complete even primary education. Low literacy and numeracy levels in secondary school are some of the consequences of low-quality education. The current agenda remains strongly focussed on quality education, teacher training, capacity building, gender and overall equality.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and accompanying international pressures drove a sense of urgency in regards to education reform. Cambodia joined UNESCO’s Education For All (EFA) program in 2003, which kickstarted the next decade of strategic planning. Partnerships between MOEYS and international agencies that formed during this time have worked to combat systemic issues and cultural norms. A long list of programs, policies, research initiatives, action plans, monitoring reports, and goals have been the product of the last 15 years of work in education.

3. Cambodian students writing

Where do we go from here?

The disparities that still exist in the Cambodian education system are affecting the most vulnerable and marginalised groups of its society. The barriers and challenges are particularly ubiquitous for rural youth and girls. Nonetheless, Cambodia’s education system is in a racing upwards trajectory. Through international NGOs, foreign aid, partnerships between states and institutions and rising local support, quality education is high on the national agenda.

“To build a quality higher education system that develops human resource with excellent knowledge, skills and moral values in order to work and live within the era of globalization and knowledge-based society” – MOEYS’ 2030 vision for higher education

MOEYS’ vision reflects the national desire for Cambodia to match ASEAN’s economic growth and prosperity. There’s still a long way to go to in terms of achieving equitable access to quality education for all, but I do think strides are being taken in the right direction. The education system will be in the spotlight over the coming decades and my hope is that it remains a national priority. While a future independence from international aid would be ideal, at present, multilateral efforts are displaying encouraging results for young Cambodians aiming to fulfill their right to education.

 

 

References

ASEAN. (2013). State of Education Report.

UNESCO. (2015). Education for All National Review.

UNICEF. (2015). Annual Report Cambodia.

 

 

Advice for Aspiring PhD Candidates from an Admissions Expert

Joining us on the blog today with five key recommendations for aspiring PhD candidates is Joe de Pasquale. Joe has worked in Higher Education for at least twenty years at both Monash and Melbourne Universities. At Melbourne he was responsible for overseeing the scholarship scoring process for an academic department of the Faculty of Education. Whilst at Monash, he was the PhD Admissions Manager in Arts responsible for assisting potential research students with their applications for admission. 

PhD THE website

1. Make sure you convert your degree to the appropriate scale:

This is a mistake most international candidates make, but it also applies to Australians looking to apply for a PhD overseas. Something you might not know is that PhD candidates are assessed very differently from coursework programs. For PhDs, we look for the equivalent in grading scale (for example, an 80 in Australia would be a High Distinction, but in the UK it would be a 1st class). Make sure your grades are adjusted to the scale in your country of choice. Universities usually provide conversion tables to guide you, but if unsure, make sure you convey to the admissions officer how your grades rate in your university’s grading scale. The minimum admission standard at Australian universities for a PhD is H2A or Distinction average. (note the minimum for a university scholarship is H1 or first class honours or HD). The numerical figure varies from university to university but the key is to understand the grading level. A grade in the first division (is the minimum for a scholarship) whilst the grade in the second division is the minimum admission requirement.

2. Do not bulk email your proposal to people within the same faculty:

I cannot stress this enough. It is the easiest way to get your proposal discounted. I know that sometimes universities do not make it easy for you to find a supervisor, but bulk emails are never a good strategy. First of all, it shows that you do not have a personalised, targeted approach which is something academics really value. Most importantly, you are just wasting everyone’s time and that is something that academics truly dislike. Tailor to your email to the academic which has the most similar research interests. Don’t necessarily just target the Head of Department or Professor. Quite often, the most likely supervisor will be a more junior academic at a senior lecturer level or associate professor.

3. Make sure you present an academic CV:

Surprisingly, this is a mistake most applicants tend to make. An academic CV is supposed to showcase your research capabilities and technical expertise. Most people will just mention doing a Masters, but they neglect to mention whether they have done a thesis or research project. It is always a good idea to add the title of your thesis as well as your grade, as this will demonstrate that you have the necessary skills and relevant experience to carry out a PhD. Also know the word count of the thesis or pages (we normally say 300 words per page times by the number of pages equals word count.)

4. Read the admissions criteria carefully:

The same way you would address key criteria in a job application, it is really important to hone in on the admissions criteria. All the information is there for a reason. Learn to read between the lines in order to highlight the relevant experience and skills they might be looking for. Use their language; that shows your commitment and that you really understand your targeted audience. This is particularly relevant if you are also applying for a scholarship.

Most universities expect you have to complete a substantial thesis at an honours level or at a master level. The length of the thesis will vary from institution, however, students who have only completed a project subject will not generally be assessed as being eligible for admission

5. Find referees that can be your champions:

Most of the references we get are fairly generic, simply stating that X was in their class, performed well, got X as a result. This tells us nothing about you as a person. It is important that your referees know you well and can truly emphasise what your skills and strengths are and back this up with concrete evidence. Make sure you have a chat with them beforehand so that they are also aware of what your goals and objectives are so they can highlight relevant evidence of your technical knowledge in that area.

As a personal recommendation, I would suggest you pay a visit to the admissions department before applying. Believe it or not, they want you to do well and they are there to help with any questions you may have. If possible, I would suggest arranging a meeting in person, as emails can sometimes get lost in the noise or not really clarify your doubts. Again, this is something that I have always personally encouraged, but it might vary according to faculties. However, going for a friendly chat to discuss admissions criteria has been an invaluable experience for several of the candidates that have crossed my path.

Joe De Pasquale
Senior Manager, Global Engagement

Development and Academia: experiences of an international convention

The International Studies Association 58th Annual Convention was held in Baltimore, Maryland from February 22nd – 25th, 2017. It was organised by the International Studies Association, a premier organization promoting research activities since 1959  through connecting scholars and practitioners in the field of international studies. The theme of the convention was “Understanding Change in World Politics”. The theme resonated with the current political climate in America which impacted the participation of some of the potential attendees in the convention.  The travel restrictions led to  thoughtful exchanges and a number of protest events in solidarity with ISA members who were denied entry and could not attend. In fact, several members of the panel boycotted the conference altogether in solidarity with their fellow ISA colleagues.  

Despite these setbacks, the conference brought about 6500 people together from all corners of the world, both north and south. The participants were academics, researchers, young scholars, educators, and activists coming together to debate and discuss future world events, with a particular focus on research and activism. As a Young Career Scholar, the Presidential address by Ashley Leeds  (president of the International Students Association) was a particularly riveting start to the conference. It was an amazing experience to see academics and scholars (whom one has read and heard so much about!) under one roof. To witness such a big turnout at the event was both intimidating and overwhelming. I could see scholars dressed up in suits with their name tags hanging around their necks debating and discussing everywhere around us, whether it was outside the Hilton, (which was one of the main venues for the event) or at the cafeteria and bars around famous areas of the city. The sunny weather in Baltimore was an unexpected bonus and certainly added to the charm of the city.

Early career scholars like me were discussing experiences of their paper presentations, as well as their ideas. It was an opportunity for us to expand our networks and showcase our research, in addition to learning some essential tricks of the trade. In short, it was an opportunity for us to grow both personally and professionally. The Early Career Scholar Lounge was a space dedicated especially for young scholars like me to prepare our presentations, recharge and create early networks.

The area around the conference venue was bubbling with activities. During the day difficult choices were made regarding which panel discussions to attend. The conference was structured around Panel discussions which catered to different themes such as Global Development, Feminist Theory and Gender Studies, Ethnicity, Diplomacy, and International Security Studies amongst many others. Presentations and panel discussion allowed all participants to enter into meaningful, practical debates around the above mentioned themes. It was an excellent opportunity for a future development practitioner and researcher to educate herself from the diversity of experience that participants brought to the table. In the evening, networking events were organised such as various receptions which provided a chance to meet people working in similar fields. Some of the discussion would carry outside the conference venues.

Personally, this conference was an eye opener in many ways. Firstly, I travelled to America, a trip I know I would not have the courage to take in near future if it was not for this conference. Secondly, I engaged with some of the smartest minds pursuing their PhDs . There was always so much to do like attending discussions, establishing networks, getting nervous about my own ideas and of course to explore the charming Baltimore.

Recalling my presentation, I had never been as nervous as I was when I saw a room full of people who came to hear the panel discussion. The theme of our panel was Peacemaking, Peacebuilding, and Post-Conflict Transformation: Gender, Agency and Political Change, to which I contributed with  my paper on Afghan Women; Peacemakers and Resilient Survivors. The paper talks about how experiences and perceptions of men have historically shaped the politics and discourse of conflict resolution. This simultaneously implies the silencing of a large part of the population and making their experiences invisible. It is important to explore the brilliant work carried out by the women in these silent and private spaces where they are subsequently confined to during the conflict.

As you can probably imagine, the experience of the presentation itself and all the feedback I got afterwards has been incredibly informative and rewarding. I am glad I took this chance to go present something that bloomed from a little idea that I had. This was my first international conference abroad, so I am positive this experience will stay with me for a lifetime. I am now more determined and motivated to pursue my academic career so I am hoping this will have been the first of many presentations to come. Watch this space.

 

Natasha
MIDP student

nrag4@student.monash.edu

+61 410 937 347

Choosing the Right Path for You

Photo from Shutterstock

I initially did not plan to study international development. When I decided to take on the challenge of a master’s degree my first choice was the field of conflict management and resolution. This owing to the fact that there has been a decades long armed struggle in the southern islands of my country with secessionist groups. I was immersed in this topic, being a student of international relations and politics and seeing how similar conflicts had developed in countries throughout Europe and Asia.

Originally I was set on applying to Monash’s Masters on Crisis Management back in early 2014. But as fate would have it, the program was removed and I was advised to look into the Masters of International Development Practice program, which was said to offer similar classes to my original choice.

The more I researched the MIDP program, the classes it offered, the applications it could have back home, the structure of the course of study, and the parallels it had with my interests (which were so obvious I failed to notice them previously) the more I saw myself in the field of development work.

Fast-forward to a week before classes, having the O-week orientation with Samanthi, and my head is spinning with all the different options for classes and streams to choose from. Because I am on the 96 unit course of study it meant that I had to take 12 units of undergraduate formation classes on international development, 48 units of core classes, a 12 unit capstone class, and 24 units of electives. The choice of classes for the electives being the prime shapers on the development stream I would be studying.

I hope what I am saying up to this point makes sense because to be honest, I was confused and overwhelmed as heck, but in a good and exciting way. I wanted to try everything out just to see what would fit my interests and needs the most. I wanted to take on the two streams of crisis management and sustainable resource management. What happened next was a series of lessons, discoveries, and the realization that I was not going to stick exactly to a certain stream but try and forge my own with the tutelage of professors, development practitioners, and even classmates.

Now I am halfway through the MIDP program and am pretty much set with the remainder of classes for the last 2 semesters that I have left. I am entering this next semester more at ease with my choices and having a clearer vision of where I can apply myself in the development sector. But instead of boring you into the whole story of how I have ended up with the ‘stream of study’ I have set myself on, I will try to give some pointers that have helped me out in what to look out for when deciding classes and streams.

A caveat though before we start: this list is not by any means exhaustive and perfect, some things may apply to you and some things may not. But hopefully it can be of help, even in the smallest of ways.

 

Tip#1: Read up on the course, its structure, and classes offered

First things first, get familiar with the MIDP program! I know this is an obvious point, but it is something that should not be taken for granted. Really be sure that you know and understand the structure of the program that you are on, and the classes that you need to take in order to graduate. Make sure to have enough room for your core units and capstone units when enrolling for your semesters, you do not want to be in your last semester and realize that you have failed to take one of those classes.

And while you are reading up on the MIDP program and getting all excited about the possible classes to take, check the schedules on when the classes are being offered and plan your units accordingly. There are some classes that are only offered in semester 1 or semester 2, and some that will not be available for a whole year even, so be sure to check the dates before setting up plans.

 

Tip#2: Look around the handbook

In the handbook entry of the MIDP program, there are lists of classes that you take as electives written under the streams of study. It is a great place to start with choosing units for the semester but do not limit yourself strictly to those options. Search for topics that you are interested in and see if there are classes offered that you are qualified to take.

Heck, even look up the handbook entries of different masters programs just to see the kinds of classes that they offer, more often than not, there could be related topics to development that you can enroll in since development is a multidisciplinary sector. Be sure though to consult your options with Samanthi to see if you will be allowed enrolment into certain classes. This brings us to the next tip.

 

Tip#3: Talk to people

Set up a chat with Samanthi if you are unsure about the classes to take. It will help if you have a goal in mind that you want to get from the MIDP program. For example, you are really interested in grassroots community development, urban development and sustainability, or disaster response and management. She will always have stellar advice on things that you can look into, and you will leave the meeting having more options to choose from but having a clearer perspective.

It will also help a lot to talk to your professors, especially if you are really hooked on the class that they are teaching. They might just have some advice to give to you for studying and working in that specific field.

Another good way to sift through prospective classes is to talk to your classmates. Ask them about classes they have taken and the things they have gotten out of it. And even if you are classmates are not on the same program, ask them anyway, you might just discover another class that relates to your stream of study.

 

Tip#4: Explore your options outside of the usual classroom

There are loads of other ways to get knowledge, advice, experience in development apart from the classes offered in university. Try joining organizations and projects that are related to your stream of choice, or allow you to practice a skill you have learned from class. You can also join or apply to seminars and workshops, there are plenty on offer during the school year. A good place to look out for them is on the MIDP facebook group. Although these are not going to be graded, attending these events will help you discover more aspects of development. I have been lucky enough to be part of MIDPA, Monash SEED, Colab M, and the Greensteps@Monash program, all of which have acted to enrich my development study.

 

Tip#5: If you are still looking to get classes that are not offered, try cross enrolling

Although I have not personally done this, I have looked into this option and know some people who have gone through the process of cross enrolling to other Universities and getting them credited for their degree. I would say that you should definitely look into this if you are really keen on taking up classes that are not offered in Monash but are relevant to your stream of study. If you are considering this option, I strongly suggest that you set up a meeting with Samanthi to explore this, and to know the requirements for cross enrolling.

 

Tip#6: Assess the classes you have chosen and see what kind of knowledge and skills you will be able to get from them

This one I got from my Colab M mentor and on one of my talks with Samanthi. In the development sector it is good to have a mixture of specific focused development issue based knowledge, and wide ranging hard skills that are transferable across topics. So once you have chosen your classes, try and see the skillset and knowledge that you will gain upon completion. These wide ranging skills can range from anything from writing (which is good for grant proposals and reports) to monitoring and evaluation.

As mentioned previously, this list is by no means comprehensive and exhaustive. If you have any other tips or nuggets of knowledge for figuring out classes and choosing a stream of study it would be great if you could share it in the comments below.