Learning and Unlearning

I spent the last two weeks of my internship incorporating comments into my documents and writing my final case study/appreciative inquiry (AI) report. The AI was extremely fulfilling to write because it felt like I was going full (small) circle with my internship tasks. It started by studying the existing monitoring tools, editing the tools and creating a shorter version, testing the tools on the field and finally creating a usable version. Overall, the original preschool monitoring tool contained 109 indicators, some repetitive, some unnecessary and some difficult to capture on a daily basis. After many rounds of edits, we were able to reduce this to 19 key indicators.

The field visit also helped us capture innovation solutions to problems on the field. These have now been added to the best practices section. This includes stories such as – the Primary School Director who requested for funds from the hamlet budget to construct a preschool. The hamlet chief refused because the school would be attended by children from many hamlets and he wanted all those hamlets to contribute too. The situation was becoming too messy so the Director wrote a proposal to MoE officials and convinced them to build the school. The construction of the preschool is now included in MoE’s next budget. Simpler solutions such as preschool facilitators using sandbox for students to write alphabets, as an alternative to using paper or using available materials like leaves, bottle caps and tais (locally produced material) for artwork have also been included. These solutions are relevant to other preschools and will be included in the next round of training too.


I was also able to write a human interest story which has been uploaded on UNICEF’s blog page. You can read it here.

In my last week, my supervisor informed me of a debriefing session with the Dep Rep on the last day of the internship. Needless to say, I spent all my free time that week panicking about the debriefing session. Hence, I spent a lot of time reflecting on how things went. Overall, I am very grateful for all my experiences in Timor-Leste. What I appreciate the most is the feedback I received on all my work. My colleagues demonstrated oversight and attention to detail at the same time, which really impressed me. For instance, a colleague once sat me down and explained the difference between the words integrated and combined, and explained how the government officials understood the words very differently. Another time a colleague explained the implications of writing gained independence in 2002 versus independence was restored in 2002. Overall, there were many aha moments and lots of learning and unlearning (especially w.r.t. development jargons).

And through a bunch of serendipitous acts I ended up applying and accepting an MnE position in an AusAid project in Timor. So if anyone is passing by or planning a vacation in Timor-Leste, I’ll be here creating log frames ūüôā


When it rains, it pours

Up until this point, my tasks were progressing at a relatively slow pace, but the last two weeks have been really fast. When it rains, it pours is a pretty accurate description of my last two weeks for the following reasons:
1. I had to submit a journal entry for my organisation. Some background about this: I submitted a proposal for combined ECD services for my organisation in the first week of my internship. When I didn’t hear back over the ¬†next two months I assumed my proposal had been rejected. But just 10 days before the deadline, they told me that my proposal was in. So I had 10 days to write the entire paper. After the initial two days of trying to come up with a research question (read:procrastination), I finally started making progress. Next step, getting approvals from everyone which moved surprisingly quickly (big thanks to my dad and classmates who took the time to read through my draft).
Throughout the process, I realized how much I miss writing papers for school. Mostly, I miss writing documents for things that come with guidelines. And I miss formatting and making checklists.¬†IMG_20160822_104954599I also miss submitting papers and getting a grade on it. Just when I thought I had incorporated all the comments and was done with the paper, my supervisor mentioned that putting our work out there will get us good critical feedback. So this isn’t the end!

2. I spend last week entirely in the field. My task from the field visit was to test the monitoring tools I worked on. But the trip’s¬†focus changed because of a last minute donor request. So on Monday we headed to the field with two photographers and a translator.
The donor requested video footage of parents responding to few questions, one of which was ‘What do you hope for your children’s future?
Surprisingly, we got the same response to this question from all parents which were either ‘Nothing‘ or ‘They’re too young for us to be thinking of their future.‘ Initially, we assumed these were quick, immediate responses to our question but when all parents kept saying these we started asking a few follow-up questions.
Through responses to these questions, we realized the closest future people were planning for was harvest season (which is approximately 2 weeks from now). People in this district had such low financial security that they were living more on a day-to-day basis. Now you feel silly for not realizing this sooner.
As a part of the donor assignment we also had to visit some preschooler’s home. Here, we saw first-hand why Timor is so low on human development index worldwide. We saw the fragility of life. I almost wanted to break down but I remembered someone saying ‘this may be hard for you to witness, but this is someone’s home’. This makes it easier to turn away from pity and see the joy people hold in welcoming you into their homes.
On the ride back you have a panic attack about leaving the country in three weeks, which soon enough turns into panic about all the documents that you haven’t written.

Tatamailau: Grandfather of all

Ramelau is the highest¬†mountain in Timor Leste. It is revered by the Timorese as shown by its local name¬†Tatamailau, which means grandfather of all.¬†Last weekend I climbed Mt Ramelau along with some other interns. I’m very glad I did this because this was 50% of my Timor-to-do list.

Ramelau is situated somewhat near the center of Timor Leste. It took us 5 hours in total to get from Dili to Mt Ramelau. The road kept getting progressively bumpier as we drove away from Dili but the scenery kept getting prettier.

We got dropped off at the¬†point from¬†the vehicles¬†were not allowed anymore. From there, it was a 4 hour trek to the top. We decided we’ll trek 3.5 hours to a small¬†church, rest there for the night, and then trek to the top of Mt Ramelau half an hour before sunrise.

Mt Ramelau has few residents because of its historical and religious significance. There is a statue of Mather Mary at the summit which attracts annual pilgrims. The trek has many gateways (natural and man-made) which are considered to be ‘gateways to heaven’. It was above the clouds, so…

We started trekking late afternoon, so we also managed to catch the sunset.

We camped for the night in a small church. It was too cold to get any sleep so we just huddled around the bonfire. At 5 AM we trekked up to the summit to catch the sunrise.

We stared at the sunrise, and Timor for another hour, until we were thoroughly frozen and decided to hike down.

The group:

It takes a village…

to approve a logframe.

Most of the staff members are back from their field visits or vacations so the office finally feels full. Yesterday, the line for lunch ended outside the cafe, so it really, really does feel full. Which brings me to my original point: it takes a village to approve a logframe.

My logframe draft started 1.5 months ago. For the first draft I had a discussion with two program specialist to understand all the existing structures. From the meeting minutes I was able to write¬†an initial draft. This was reviewed, individually and in-person, by a ECD specialist from the Bangkok regional office. After two more rounds of edits I submitted version 3 to a Senior Program Specialist. By this time I had gotten the technical part of the draft correct, so she didn’t have much feedback to provide on that. She did have a lot feedback on the language.

Simply put the language of my document was quiet dramatic. I used terms like ‘innovative’ and ‘relatively new concept in¬†Timor’ without thinking what they really meant. The¬†Senior Specialist, as a national staff and as someone who has worked in this organization for over a decade, could easily spot the casually used terms. Her feedback really help me reflect on my writing. After I made the corrections the document reached¬†my supervisor. Another edit and I was on version 8.

Next, the document was shared with the partnering NGOs. They provided very constructive feedback to ensure that the document was¬†relevant to the situation on the field. And this¬†is where the document has reached. I shared¬†it with the Deputy Rep today morning. It was a regular update meeting so he didn’t really look at the document but shared his general vision for the process. Most importantly, he asked me to go test the tools in the field. So I will be on the field most of next month to add as much relevance as possible to my document.

My logframe’s been through quite a journey. Since it’s a working document I can’t really predict its future, I’m just glad for all the people who took time to review it. It really takes a village.¬†¬†

Early ‘Early Childhood’

“Enriched home environments and supportive and stimulating parenting in income-poor families can improve children’s outcomes to equal those from more economically advantaged families.” Britto &¬†Engle (2013)

A key aspect of improving developmental outcomes of vulnerable children is engaging with parents and caregivers who are responsible for the child’s development. This is especially relevant here because Timor Leste is one of the youngest countries in the world with a high fertility rate of 5.32, a very young population (about 48% of its population is younger than 18 years), and high rate of teen pregnancies (Unicef, 2014).¬†The Situation Analysis of Children in Timor Leste (2014) highlights several challenges faced by parents and children. These include undernourishment, low access and quality of preschools, grade repetition and school retention, use of corporal punishment in homes and schools, and poor sanitation. In 2015, UNICEF conducted an extensive baseline survey on parents‚Äô and caregiver‚Äôs knowledge, attitudes and practices (KAP). The survey showed that parents and caregivers in Timor Leste didn’t value or understand the importance of early stimulation, how to follow up their children‚Äôs education, when to seek medical care if their children fall ill and how to discipline their children without violence.

Hence, a parenting education and support model was created. The program addresses many parenting challenges and issues. And a variety of delivery mechanisms are used to reinforce the concepts. This includes targeted (community sessions), non-targeted (community radio, youth theater, national media campaigns), and intensive (home visits) interventions.

So far the first community session has been implemented (Feb, 2016) and the second sessions is due in August. My role in this process is:
1) To familiarize myself with all the research done so far.
2) To find ways to integrate the parenting program with the preschool program, so more parents can be reached.
3) To create a monitoring framework to ensure that changes in parenting practices can be tracked, measured and linked to the program interventions, before the second session is implemented. I will also be testing the monitoring framework in the Aug session.

Task 1 and 2 are on-track/in review. For task 3, I’m in the literature review phase. Most of the literature I have found regarding this is about challenges¬†of the existing parenting programs. Which is great information to have. Next, I have to add indicators, means of verification, roles and responsibilities, etc to the theory of change, and create the actual checklists that will be used on the field. Will send update on how this is going soon.

Socially, last weekend I attended a¬†children’s concert. It was being held to raise awareness about children’s right through dance and drama.¬†The event was absolutely amazing…except for one thing. The event was not a ‘No Smoking’ event. So there were too many young people smoking, even around children, which was upsetting to see.
What I loved about the event was that I got to meet a lot of my colleague’s children. Here are a few images from event.

Obrigado for reading.

Britto, P.R, Engle, P. (2013). Parenting education and support: Maximizing the most critical enabling environment. New York: UNICEF
UNICEF. (2014). Situation Analysis of Children in Timor Leste.

Role of Peace Building in Early Years

‚ÄúIn a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.‚ÄĚ ‚Äē Martin Luther King Jr.

As a part of a project for work, I have started reading¬†Pathways to Peace: The Transformative Power of Children and Families. Contributors include¬†many ECD specialists, including Dr. Pia Britto, who features twice. The book presents evidence of¬†events and relationships in childhood which set the stage for personal and social behaviours in later life. It also provides evidence of effectiveness of early childhood interventions that promote peace in communities. Evidence of these can be seen in Timor as well. For instance, in a remote village of Timor, a preschool facilitator decided to use Tetun (Timor’s official language) as the medium of instruction. She did this because the preschool was attended by students from¬†two rival/conflicting communities, and choosing either of their mother tongue languages may lead to clashes. Just short of six-months later, with their children attending the same preschool and speaking a common language, the communities were coming together.

Anecdotal evidence showed that¬†when¬†the focus is on children’s future, conflicting communities can work together. But to what extent can early childhood interventions with families play a role in peace building? What are some concrete steps to get there? And how how do we measure it?¬†This is partially what I have been spending time on over the past two weeks. So far I’ve done read lots of literature, and presently and doing a desk study. Somewhere in the near future I will have to do a logframe and MnE framework on the same too.

But, with all the tragic and useless violence in the world over the past two weeks, this research seems even more relevant.

Apart from this I’ve been working on creating a report for synergy of two existing programs, which are currently being implemented in silos: the alternative preschool program and parenting program. While at Penn, I wrote more than 80% of my papers on ECD. And in 100% of those papers I wrote ‘ECD needs to be delivered as an integrated service by different sectors/ministries’. This has to be one of the¬†top recommendations in the ECD world. Now, I get to work on integrating two programs in ECD, and all the reasons why countries/programs aren’t doing this have started making sense. It’s so complex! But, I’m on it. I recently submitted my first logframe and MnE framework for the integration project, and am expecting comments back on it soon.

In other news, Portugal won! How do I know this? Because of all the screaming and cheering outside my apartment at 5 AM. It’s especially exciting news for Timorese because Ronaldo said that he would visit Timor Leste if Portugal won the Euro Cup. Also, he’s anyways supposed to visit because he’s a UN goodwill ambassador.

Seven Days of Timor-Leste

‘Welcome to UNICEF!’ was my supervisor’s response after¬†seeing my confused¬†expression regarding¬†an acronym. It was an amusing first meeting. I have adapted pretty quickly though. This week¬†I made one contribution to the acronym list: APS – Alternative Pre School. I really hope it sticks.

I’ve had an¬†amazing time being¬†as an intern so far. On the first day my supervisor handed me a pack¬†of readings, briefly discussed my responsibilities and invited my to a field visit (which was a day later).Now there’s no time to get a security briefing so the security officer hands¬†you¬†a one-pager on common¬†risks. You grew up in an unsafe city so you know the rules and rituals that go along women’s security. But you read that sheet and realize you have goosebumps. So you dig up your¬†iSOS card, save emergency contact details from four places (Bali, Bangkok, Singapore and Sydney) and pack your¬†crucifix.

Next day, seven of us start our journey from the capital to a district in southern Timor. The seven hour drive is beautiful though slightly tiresome. The first half of the drive is on hills next to the ocean, then inland, and finally through forests next to the ocean.

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Through the drive, the national staff members shared many stories: of independence, their escape, Timorese customs, rituals in family houses, etc. One particular story that stuck with¬†me was about an international partner organization¬†that wanted to create a short ‘heartwarming’ clip. They find¬†a single mother in a remote village¬†whose husband died in the struggle, making her the perfect candidate for the documentary. On the day of filming, they ask her a lot of personal questions hoping to get an emotional response. But, nothing. Soon¬†the translator is in tears and refuses to continue the interview due to ethical reasons, so they quit¬†for the day. The translator asks the woman why she doesn’t cry while sharing her story. The woman says she’s lived through a violent period¬†(1999), dodged bullets and been on the run in forests for months. She didn’t time to stop and cry. Today she can afford to feed her family one meal a day, she has no time for tears.

The rest of the¬†journey is¬†similar. People keep¬†sharing intimate stories and resilience¬†keeps¬†coming up as a recurring theme. Soon enough you are¬†amazed and inspired by¬†how¬†emotionally strong people can be. You make a mental note to google how to be more emotionally strong. Soon enough you feel overwhelmed with how accepting people are of¬†foreigners, especially to Indians (thanks Bollywood). People turn to you and say Indians are good people. You try not to smirk but you wonder if people in your homeland¬†make foreigners feel this welcome and accepted. Soon enough you start trusting what you feel, and lose the one-pager on security risks. You remain cognizant of the security concerns, but don’t let them take over your experiences. Soon enough you feel minor changes within you. Soon enough you begin to feel less home sick.

Oh Timor!

I finally landed in Timor Leste (East Timor) after five days of travel, two transit stops and three airports. Not complaining. Those five days really helped build the excitement and suspense of reaching here. Up until this point, the excitement was restricted to telling people Timor Leste’s location on a map and finding out what I could through Google. But now that I’m here, I’m really excited to further¬†explore this beautiful island.
So, Timor Leste?
Honestly, I hadn’t heard of Timor Leste till the internship opportunity opened up. We weren’t taught about Timor Leste during geography or history lessons in India. And the same held¬†true for my classmate from all over the globe. Partially because they were colonized for so long, and partially because its a very small island. So, here’s a quick history lesson on Timor Leste.

map-2Timor Leste was the first nation to gain independence in the¬†21st century. The country was colonized by the Portuguese for 400 years up until 1975. There was a brief, but violent, period during World War II when Timor Leste was colonized by the Japanese. It is estimated that tens of thousands of people lost their life during this period. After WWII was over, Portugal regained control over Timor Leste. In general, because of the remote location of the island, the Portuguese didn’t¬†invest in development activities. So when they left in 1975 (due to the instability in Portugal), Timor Leste had to start from scratch.
In the same year, under the rumours¬†of a communist political party, Timor Leste¬†was¬†invaded by their neighbours: Indonesia. Indonesia, with the backing of many western governments, colonized Timor for 24 years. Like the Japanese rule, this period too was very violent. It is estimated that 30% of the population died during this time. However, this period was known as a period of ‘integration with Indonesia’ and not ‘colonialism’ worldwide. In 1991, the media captured the massacre of 250¬†pro-independence demonstrators in Santa Cruz cemetery. This received international attention and bought¬†the plight of the Timorese to the limelight.¬†In 1998, after a change in leadership in Indonesia, the Timorese were provided with a referendum which allowed them to choose either independence or integration with Indonesia. On voting day, 98% Timorese came out to vote for independence and finally the small nation of mostly farmers were able to win their freedom. On 20th May, 2002, Timor Leste was declared an independent nation.
Some troubles have remained since¬†independence. In 2006, the UN redeployed troops after clashes stated prior to elections. But Timor Leste has been peaceful since 2008. They have enjoyed profits from its large¬†oil reserves and have undergone substantial growth. The World Bank says that “social and economic development in Timor Leste can be seen as remarkable”

I’m certain that Timor Leste’s history will influence many of my experiences here and I am very excited to see how.

Here are a few photos. Until next time!


Cristo Rei – Was built by the Indonesians to mark integration of Timor Leste with Indonesia


Dili beach: So many shades of blue!

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