Progressio Ireland’s director Judith Turbyne worked as a developmetn worker with Progressio and the partner organisation Asociacion Popular de Desarrollo Integral (APDI) in Honduras from October 1995 to April 1999. In this Interview she talks about her experience and the impact the placemnet had – on her professional career as much as on her personal life.
Q: What have you done since leaving Progressio and what do you do currently?
Answer: While I was working with Progressio, Hurricane Mitch hit Central America. I had just made the decision to leave Progressio and go home to Scotland. But the hurricane made me change my mind. So I stayed with Progressio for a few months, before taking up a post emergency job with Christian Aid in the North of Honduras. I stayed with them for 11 years, taking on a variety of roles in Honduras, London and Jamaica. I was then offered the possibility of coming to Ireland to take up the post as director of Progressio Ireland based in Dublin.
Q: Please describe your role and the partner organisation that you worked with as a Progressio development worker.
Answer: APDI was a great organisation (Asociacion Popular de Desarrollo Integral). It was made up entirely of small farmers in three municipalities around Gracias Lempira . All the people working with the organisation (with only two exceptions), did so voluntarily. It was a community development organisation that was striving to improve the quality of life of its members and their families. I was recruited as someone who had had experience in community development, and my basic role was to strengthen some aspects of the community development work of the organisation.
Q: What inspired you to become a development worker?
Answer: On leaving university, I had worked in community development in Guatemala. On my return to the UK, I decided to study again. This eventually resulted in my completing a PhD which looked at empowerment in development. Such a lot of study really made me want to do something practical and to return to working at the community level. I was lucky to be offered an opportunity with Progressio.
Q: What struck you most about Progressio’s development worker model / approach?
Answer: I loved the approach of Progressio. That is what made me stay with them longer than my initial placement period. There was a real respect for the organisation I worked with. Key signs of that were that both the placement description and the work-plan that guided my day to day work were designed by the organisation itself with the support of Progressio. Before going, I had always felt that I would learn as much as I could share, and that was very much the case. I hope I left the organisation stronger than I found it. I certainly left the role with a much better understanding of development processes and, indeed, of myself.
Q: What did you enjoy most about your role, and of your experience as a development worker?
Answer: I loved the way it helped me learn about myself; about my own strengths and weaknesses. I also loved being able to cruise around one of the most beautiful areas of the world on my little motor bike, watching the changing seasons from the foot of the tallest mountain in Honduras.
Q: What were some of your main achievements while working as a development worker?
Answer: The administrative team in the organisation became very professional. They adopted a new computerised system to their accounts. While this might not seem amazing, what you had was a team of small farmers, none of whom had completed primary school, managing a sophisticated system in a clear and transparent way. We also did a lot of good work in dealing with issues of gender within the organisation. By the time I left, there was a team dedicated to ensuring that issues of gender were considered in all aspects of the work of the organisation. Finally, I helped the organisation re-visit and reshape their constitution to allow it to more democratically reflect the wishes of the members of the organisation.
Q: And what were some of the key challenges and lessons learnt?
Answer: Everyone in the organisation worked voluntarily, with the exception of small stipends for the director and for a member of the administration team. The work that the organisation did was fantastic, and people dedicated a lot of time to its work. However, they all had amazing commitments elsewhere, and this sometimes made it difficult to ensure continuity of process. There was a need to build in flexibility to the way you did your work, to make it as easy for people to participate as possible.
Q: Did this experience change you as a person in any way? If so in what way(s)?
Answer: It really helped me to mature as a person. I learn a whole lot about myself and about how to manage myself in a culture different to my own.
Q: Did your experience as a development worker influence your career / future direction, and help you to get to where you are today? If so, how?
Answer: I had already been working and studying international development before my experience as a development worker. However, it reinforced my commitment to that area of work. It has most certainly helped me to get to where I am today. It has always allowed me to show that I have both the theoretical and practical experience that is so important to management within an international development organisation.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of becoming a development worker?
Answer: If you get the chance: jump at it. It should be a great professional experience. But, perhaps more importantly, it is a personal experience that will enrich your life forever.