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

How to Get the Real Experience Abroad

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My summer internship began back in March 2015 when I applied for the position of Fiji Partnership Manager with the Socio-Economic Engagement and Development club at Monash University (Monash SEED). A student-run club that aims to create social impact through different means such as microfinance. The primary responsibility of the position was the creation of a brand new international project, and involved constant use of basic communications technologies, such as email and Skype, that served as a liaison tool between Monash SEED – and the South Pacific Business Development (SPBD Fiji), the largest microfinance organisation in Fiji.

By selecting this project as my internship, I came to realise that working cross-culturally was going to be challenging. However, I felt confident in my capabilities to not only become experienced with the role and responsibilities of being Fiji Partnership Manager, but also of achieving leadership skills that the role required. And the first step to achieving that was to recruit my team.

At the beginning of semester two, I recruited four enthusiastic undergraduate students. They were always patiently waiting for updates of the partnership with SPBD Fiji. However, things were going slow. One week, the SPBD Fiji General Manager would email me saying to go ahead with the partnership, and by the next week there would be no response at all. I tried to communicate through other means like Skype messaging and phone calls, which only on certain occasions worked.

The role of project manager was challenging: shuffling work between two organizations, and motivating my team, while trying to stay positive waiting for responses. I quickly came to realise that the role was not as easy as I had originally thought. Anantatmula (2010) explains how important the role of the project manager is. A role which involves planning and executing strategies while being able to lead a team. I wanted to do all those things. However, sometimes I felt discouraged, thinking that probably the General Manager was not taking me seriously and that the team members, faced with all the uncertainty, could change their mind and quit at any time. I had to tell my team that I was trying to do my best to make the partnership work, but in case that these efforts were not successful, that they should consider starting to look for other internships or activities for the summer. In the end only one of them decided to part ways with us, the rest patiently waited for further developments.

It was November 2015, two weeks before the semester ended. I was preparing to have an important Skype meeting with the General Manager that week and I was feeling nervous. During the meeting we arrived at the conclusion that we wanted to be part of a project that involved going into the field and help SPBD processes while making a real impact on the women (members), which are the main reason why microfinance works. Then we brainstormed other project topics, from updating manuals, helping with administrative tasks, to improving financial education lessons. We concluded that SPBD needed to know if the members were satisfied with the services provided. Finally, we came up with the idea of creating, conducting and analysing data of a member satisfaction survey.

I realise now that even though I had the means to create a partnership with SPBD since we started the e-mail and Skype arrangements back in July 2015, it was important to have a clear understanding of what the particular objectives and goals of the stakeholders involved. It took me a few months to finally design a project that would benefit all of the stakeholders. Certainly, I learned how to communicate with both my team and the organisation in order to deliver the expected results.

We arrived in Fiji at the beginning of January. A team composed of two undergraduate students with backgrounds in arts and finance, and myself a Master of International Development Practice student. We had two weeks of preparation in Melbourne. Preparing the members satisfaction survey, talking with customer service experts and also arranging accommodation among other travel preparations. Everything was approved and on time. I knew that we were going to surveyed 100 SPBD members, visit a few villages and travel with field officers. All these things required some logistics arrangements which, according to the General Manager, had already been prepared. However, I was a little concerned about how everything was going to turn out. I remembered how things had been very uncertain just a couple of months before. I recalled the time it took just waiting for an e-mail response, and how that made me feel, as though I was not being taken seriously.

Finally, our first day of internship arrived and I was very excited. My team and I waited in a conference room until the General Manager arrived. The first thing that I discussed with him was establishing a sample group. I knew that it was the largest microfinance organization in Fiji, however I was not aware that SPBD had branches in four predominant areas all over the country. The new information changed our perspective of the project in general: we decided to change the sample group to make it more accurate. We changed our entire schedule, which required us to travel by bus from Suva to Sigatoka, Lautoka and then by boat from Suva to Savusavu, Taveuni and Ovalau.

Fortunately, my team agreed to travel and cover the unplanned expenses. We all knew that in order to reduce any bias in the results, travelling to all the branches to survey its members was essential. We went back to the hostel, very excited for the days to come working in the field. I felt very lucky on having an amazing team, and I felt like I was doing a good job as a Project Manager.

During my summer internship, I have been exposed to a wide-ranging array of people, ideas and culture. It certainly gave me firsthand experience on working cross-culturally. The role offered me practical insight into the workings of a real world microfinance institution and its impacts in development scopes. Gaining knowledge and skills, such as team work, time and budget management, and ability to negotiate and delegate. Proving a strong awareness of the position between both of the organizations, I have initiated, developed and maintained an effective partnership between them, associated groups and external agencies and individuals.

For those seeking internship placements, my suggestion to you is this: Have you considered contacting organisations or institutions and proposing a project? You don´t need to wait for the perfect internship position to open up, you can begin a partnership with a simple e-mail or Skype meeting to discuss a project that could benefit both… And just be patient.

Reference:
Anantatmula, V S 2010. Project Manager Leadership Role in Improving Project Performance. Engineering Management Journal, 22, pp.13-22.