Talking to our Laos country director

In the field article written on the 09 Nov 2011

Photo: Elaine Montegriffo/OxfamAUS

Ever wondered what it’d be like working for Oxfam in the field? Now’s your chance to find out! This interview with our Laos country director Elaine Montegriffo provides a rare glimpse into the highlights, the challenges, and the day-to-day details of her work.

How did you come to be working for Oxfam in Vientiane?

Elaine Montegriffo. Photo: Lara McKinley/OxfamAUS

I have been working on Oxfam Australia’s East Asia program for about 3 years, with a focus on the Laos and Cambodia programs. Although based in Melbourne, I spent considerable time in Laos, including a three-month secondment when the previous country director was on long service leave. When he retired earlier this year after 21 years, I was delighted to be appointed and moved to Vientiane in February 2011. The fact that I had already built strong relationships with the staff here and knew the programs well made for an effective transition into the role.

What are some of your daily work activities?
They are very varied. I have recently been working with other Oxfams in Laos to develop a new five-year strategy and program. I have met with the government and UN bodies to discuss how to improve Disaster Preparedness in Laos, and worked with our humanitarian staff to develop a response to damage to farmlands caused by Typhoon Haima. I have been finalising a presentation on our humanitarian work in Laos for donors, which I recently presented in Melbourne. A highlight of my role is that every couple of months I travel to remote rural areas where we are working with some very poor communities. I am constantly amazed by their achievements in desperately difficult conditions.

What are the highlights of working with different cultures?
Working in a different culture unearths so much about your own beliefs, preferences and values, allowing you to examine them critically, in a way that you simply do not have to at home. It’s a privilege to be able to learn new perspectives and values from Laos people, and I think it is a tremendously enriching experience. Differences in culture here are more a source of amusement or curiosity than stress, and that’s a reflection on the values of the Laotian people.

How do you manage the cultural differences?
Some things are done differently in Vientiane from the way they are done in Melbourne; you accept this and try to accommodate it, but you don’t always get it right. Fortunately Laotians are very forgiving when you make a blunder and it’s a great opportunity for a joke! Sometimes you have to be creative and explore new ways of approaching things; for example, providing appropriate time and space for more junior people to give their views and ideas.

What do you enjoy most about living in Vientiane?
The people, the people and, oh yes, the people! Laos people are incredibly warm, friendly and generous of spirit — and they have a great sense of fun! They also have a great sense of perspective — enjoying your life and family and friends takes priority over everything else. They make Vientiane a delightful place to live.

Although it’s developing rapidly, Vientiane does not feel like a capital city. It is a very charming town draped along the bank of the great Mekong River, which travels the entire length of the country. The level of the Mekong rises and falls dramatically during the year — it’s like the pulse of the country. Its people and size make Vientiane a really easy city to live in. Nothing is very far away, there’s very little traffic pollution and it’s a fascinating place to wonder around discovering temples, bookshops, cafés and markets. Vientiane’s French heritage is reflected in its buildings and its dining options.  Living here certainly makes one reflect on the quality of life in our large cities.

First published on the Asialink website

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Read about our work in Laos