Room to Read

Volunteering for Room to Read

Vientiane, Laos

Nov 21st - 25th, 2016

This blog post is somewhat different from all my usual travel blogs, as it is not about a sightseeing trip but a report about my week working as a volunteer for Room to Read in Vientiane, Laos. My employer, Credit Suisse, has been a supporter of Room to Read for more than 10 years. Apart from financial support one of the ways they do this is through an international skill-based volunteering program called the Global Citizens Program (GCP). It is a program organized in partnership with a number of charities focused on global education programs. It provides employees of Credit Suisse the opportunity to work with one of the charity partners on a specific project for one to two weeks.

Getting into the program involved a fairly competitive selection process, which requires prospective participants to submit a detailed written application and an interview, in which I was asked to describe the reasons I wanted to participate, the particular skills that I could apply to the program and how the program would help develop my own leadership skills. I was lucky to be chosen as one of the 2016 GCP participants for an assignment with Room to Read in Vientiane. The objective of my assignment was to design and deliver a workshop on Risk Assessment and Risk Management and to provide hands-on coaching to the staff of Room to Read in Laos. I had found out that I was chosen for the assignment back in May, which left me plenty of time to prepare. And it turned out I really needed that time, since it was quite a bit more work than I had initially anticipated.

I arrived in Laos on a Saturday, so I had all of Sunday for some sightseeing in Vientiane before the start of the workshop on Monday. The training was held in the offices of Room to Read in Vientiane, which are located in a quiet side street not too far from the city centre. Oupasath, the HR manager, was kind enough to pick me up from my hotel for the short drive to the office every morning.

There were a total of 21 participants which were split into two groups. I spent two days with each group leaving the Friday for more focused one on one discussions. The first two days were with the program teams from the literacy and girls' education programs, while the second group consisted of the functional and support teams, such as finance, procurement, HR and IT staff. Some of the staff members were based in the far North of the country and they came down to Vientiane to learn about Risk Management from me.

I successfully managed to say "Hello" and "My name is Georg" in Lao, which everyone found quite amusing. My initial introductory icebreaker worked quite well. I asked everyone to introduce themselves, tell me what they do at Room to Read and how long they had been working here. And I asked them share a personal detail from their lives, but as a twist I handed out cards that said either Truth or Lie on them. Based on the cards they had to either tell everyone a true or false personal detail about themselves. And then everyone else had to guess if they told the truth or lied, and those who managed to fool their colleagues won a prize. (I had brought with me a couple of large boxes of very nice Swiss chocolates, which were a popular prize in all the exercises and games we did.)

Since the participants had all very different roles and backgrounds, the main goal of my workshop was to provide them with a general framework of how to think about risks, how to ask the right questions and then to find the most effective ways to manage and control these risks. I tried to do this using simple examples and lots of group exercises.

We first focused on defining what risk is in general and how to best identify all of the risks in a project. To illustrate this we did a number of brainstorming exercises to find all of the possible risks for a simple example project. Once we had risks identified as a group we looked at the risk matrix, which ranks risks by their probability and severity. I also did some exercises and games to teach basic probability concepts, and we talked about cognitive biases and common mistakes people make when estimating risks and probabilities. On the second day we focused on evaluating the previously identified risks and how to decide whether to avoid, accept, transfer or manage these risks. I also introduced various risk management techniques.

I started the second day of the workshop with the famous marshmallow and spaghetti challenge. I split the group in three teams, and gave each team about 20 spaghettis, a handful of mini-marshmallow, some string and some tape. And they had 15 minute to build a structure as high as possible, which turned out to be a lot of fun and everyone got very creative and competitive.

In the afternoons we had more focused discussions on the particular issues and problems the teams face. These included issues like girls dropping out of the program early, vendors not delivering building material in time or the difficulties of conveying new teaching methods to older teachers. It was fascinating to me to hear about these wide ranges of issues and challenges, but also encouraging to see that the risk management strategies I had introduced to them could be applied to these types of problems.

I had a really great time during my week in Laos, and working with the staff of Room to Read was an incredibly rewarding experience and a lot of fun at the same time. They also made me feel very welcome. On my last day the country manager invited me along with all the staff to lunch at her family’s house. This was part of a large and traditional Buddhist festival, which celebrated her nephew entering the monastery and becoming a monk (for a short period of time).

The assignment certainly pushed me quite a bit outside of my comfort zone. It was a subject that is quite different than what I do in my day to day job as a market risk manager at Credit Suisse. I had to be very flexible in my preparations, as I did not really know much about the specific problems they deal with beforehand. It was very interesting to work in a completely different sector and environment than the one I am used to and to find out that the skills, techniques and experiences I have gained within finance can be translated and applied to other areas.

More about Room to Read:
Room to Read was founded by John Wood in 2000 and has grown to become one of the leading charities focused on education in the developing world. They are now active in 10 countries in South and South-East Asia and in Southern Africa. In the 16 years Room to Read has been in operation 10 million children across Asia and Africa have benefited from their literacy and girl's education programs. Founding and building a global charity from scratch was documented in detail in John Wood's two excellent books "Leaving Microsoft to Change the World" and "Building Room to Read", which are very inspiring.

Room to Read has been engaged in Laos since 2005. They work closely with government schools to improve the educational opportunities for children in remote and rural areas of the country. Their main programs involve the construction of school buildings and libraries (usually in close cooperation with the local villages), the training of teachers and the publication of local language children's books in order to help children from poor communities develop a lifelong habit of reading. (Unfortunately I was not able to visit one of the schools during my week there, since they are all far away from Vientiane, but I hope to be able to do that on another trip to Laos in the future.) They also have a girls' education program which provides scholarships and support to keep girls in school after they finish primary school. This is a very crucial program, since there tends to be a lot more pressure on girls to drop out of school early and work on the farms or to get married at a young age without finishing their education. More than two thirds of the world's illiterate people are women. Room to Read's girls' education program tries to address this huge education gender gap.

I was very impressed by the dedication of the people working for Room to Read. They all care deeply about what they are doing and are incredible motivated. I very much hope I was able to make at least a small contribution in helping them with their incredibly important work. What would make my time in Laos even more worthwhile, would be if you considered donating to Room to Read. They are one of the most effective charities in the world with one of the lowest overhead, which means almost all of your donations will directly benefit a child in Laos or one of the other countries Room to Read is active in.

And if you have any doubts about what an enormous difference a small donation can make to the life of one girl in Laos, then please watch this very moving video about 15 year old Souphy:

Quote from John Wood's book "Leaving Microsoft to Change the World":
Educating girls is also a smart investment. For a relatively small amount of money, one can change the future of a girl in the developing world through the lifelong gift of education. Room to Read’s program, as an example, supports a girl by paying her school fees, buying her two school uniforms, two pairs of shoes, a book bag, and school supplies. She is also given health insurance, a bicycle (schools tend to be sparse in the developing world, so travel times are long), and a strong female mentor to look after the group of young scholars. The all-in cost of this wide-ranging package: only $250 per year.

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