Irene, a development worker of Spanish/ Dutch nationality, is currently responsible for training and communication with Red COMAL (the Network for Alternative Community Trade) in Honduras.
What is your work background?
I graduated in Human Geography just over four years ago. During my studies I had the opportunity to participate in a research trip to Kenya, which was an incredible experience; working in such a different environment and with people of other cultures was fascinating. Over time, I have moved away from research because I wanted to work more closely with rural communities, firstly in Bolivia and now in Honduras, with the support of local development organisations.
What inspired you to become a Development Worker with Progressio?
What attracts me most to the development worker model is the opportunity to work directly with the poor, and the intercultural aspect. I find being part of local projects and exchanging experiences, knowledge and skills very enriching and I hope the same goes for those around me. I believe that interculturality forces you to question your behaviour and personal beliefs, and as such it improves ways of working and social relations.
What is your first memory of arriving in your country of placement? What made the biggest impact on you?
I remember the first time that I came to Honduras very clearly. it was at the end of Holy Week 2010 and I arrived in Tegucigalpa and the capital was completely empty, which was a very strange feeling. I wanted to experience everything I could and to absorb this new culture which was going to be mine for the next two years and I found it very difficult to find something that would give me an understanding of what Honduras was and what it was like. Since then I have got to know the country in more depth: it is an extremely complex country that is undergoing an exceptionally turbulent time, having been in a prolonged state of transition since the coup in June 2009. Also, the extreme measures of security and the instilled fear at a social level due to the violence and cultural and political influence of the United States are elements that made me open my eyes to the reality of life in this part of the world and which, at a personal level, were not easy to accept.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
The thing I enjoy most about my role is the contact with the leaders of the Red COMAL in the different regions. As part of the team working with the Network’s School for an Economy of Solidarity (Escuela de Economía Solidaria), we are running a comprehensive programme for organisational development and training in eight departments across the country. This has allowed me to meet a lot of inspiring people and understand Honduran culture and the reality of life in rural areas of the country.
What has been the most exciting moment so far?
Celebrating Red COMAL’s 15th anniversary was very exciting. I had been working with Red COMAL for three months when we visited all the geographical areas where we worked and celebrated the anniversary with community fairs, debates on the practices of an economy of solidarity project in the community and cultural afternoons. There were many happy moments and I got to know the cultural and social differences among the different regions of Honduras.
And the biggest lesson?
My experience in Honduras has provided me with many enlightening lessons. Perhaps one of the most important lessons was understanding the strength of the status quo. A lot of strength, creativity and above all perseverance is needed in order to change things. Changes take a long time and begin on an individual level in each of us. I have to say that I have been lucky to have been surrounded by people who are open to changing the established order.
Since you started your placement, what is the biggest change you have seen?
The biggest change that I have seen since starting my placement would be the implementation of a new component in the training process that at COMAL we have called “encuentros”(meetings or encounters). Through these meetings, we are moving towards a regional training model that is more autonomous, comprehensive and organised by the community leaders themselves. It is a step that requires fewer resources at a time when there is not a lot available, and I believe that this new way of working complements the technical workshops for the transfer of knowledge to the member groups that are already being run.
What is the biggest development challenge facing the country where you are working and/or the sector/theme/area in which you are working?
There are many challenges, but perhaps one of the biggest for the organisations which are committed to fair and equal development, is finding the language that really meets the needs of the concerned communities. Project planning and design should address the actual needs of the people with whom and for whom we work more. In order to do this, it is necessary to establish efficient communication channels which allow the real aspirations of the people and families with whom we work to be communicated.
If you could change one thing, what would that be?
Approaching the problems we face in our work with a view to changing things has led on many occasions to problems that hinder the achievement of tangible results. My wish would therefore be that we approach the problems that we encounter in our work from a perspective of dialogue and mutual understanding, carrying out constructive and group projects with all those who are involved in the issue.
What strikes you most about Progressio’s Development Worker model?
The opportunity to experience realities different to my own and be able to contribute and be part of local development projects.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of becoming a development worker?
I believe that soaking up the cultural and social reality of the country where they want to work is essential. Interculturality should be seen as a horizontal dialogue between two different and complimentary perceptions. The process takes time, and development workers should take this time and have patience in order to succeed in their work.
Where do you see yourself once your placement has ended? And in what ways is this placement with Progressio assisting you to get there?
I think I will continue working in the area of international development. Without a doubt, my experience with Progressio has helped to improve my professional knowledge while also giving me a new perspective and experience of how to deal with the reality of life in the countries where we work.