Weh with Ling

DevQuest interview : Weh, Yeoh Managing Director of OIC Cambodia

Feb 7, 2015

There is a pervasive myth that it is foreigners like myself who are creating change in poor countries. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth… Studying development and working in Cambodia has taught me that my role is to support those people making the change, like my Cambodian colleagues.

Tell us a bit about your career before moving into development/not-for-profit.

I worked as a physiotherapist for two years in the public health sector – mostly with the ageing population and people with disabilities. I enjoyed the interaction with people and learned a lot, however I realised pretty quickly that it wasn’t for me. I love problem solving on a large scale, and gathering people together to tackle tough problems. At the time, I had no idea that working as a physiotherapist could help me in a development setting eventually. But in retrospect, through working face-to-face with people with disabilities, I gained some key insights that enabled me to work in the disability and development sector later on.

How did you make the transition in development and to what extent were your previous skills transferable?

I spent six months in 2006 volunteering in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam. It was disastrous. I was a young, naive 24-year-old with good intentions but no clue of what I was doing.

One year later, I went back to Australia and started working with a great little organisation that helped people with disabilities. More importantly, I went back to university to study international development, to try and work out how to do this thing, ‘helping people in poor countries’ better. I learned a huge amount that I didn’t know when volunteering in the orphanage.

Since coming to Cambodia, I’ve realised that there are so many challenges to overcome here, and I’ve learned more about how to tackle them. There is a pervasive myth that it is foreigners like myself who are creating change in poor countries. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. I tried to be the person making the change while volunteering in the orphanage. That didn’t work. Studying development and working in Cambodia has taught me that my role is to support those people making the change, like my Cambodian colleagues. Once this became clear to me, there was no other way to work anymore. My approach must be to build upon this philosophy, supporting Cambodians to help other Cambodians.

When did you first start working in development and what was your first role in the sector?

My first real development job was with Handicap International, working as a physiotherapist advisor in China. The organisation helps to build resources for people with disabilities in poor countries. It was an eye-opening experience. We were tasked with helping the local Chinese government to set up basic services for people with disabilities, and also looking at a national education program for caregivers in orphanages, where many of the children have disabilities.

How did you obtain your first development role? Did you apply for it, and if so how many applications did you submit to get in? Was the role paid or unpaid?

I applied for it, went through the interview process, and in retrospect was very fortunate to get it. After doing this job, I struggled to get my second. I did over 65 job applications, had about three interviews, and couldn’t find a role that suited me. Much of this has to do with the fact that there are very few disability jobs internationally, due to a lack of focus and funding in this field. In the end, to get this second role, I moved to Cambodia, connected with some existing contacts that I had made in China and within a few weeks had been offered a job. To me, getting into a country and finding a job is a much more sensible approach than going through the application process.

Do you consider field experience important for working in development?

Definitely. It is important, though I think there is not enough emphasis put on domestic experience generally. But I would say, and this is a huge generalisation, that experience in the right area trumps a Masters of International Development.

Did you have experience in the field before obtaining your first paid development role?

Yes and no. I had some volunteer experience, I had lived in China, though not worked, and I had a bit of domestic experience as well.

How important do you consider networking to being successful in your field?

It is the number one thing you can do to get a job. If you apply for a job through the normal channels, you are just one number amongst many – but if you go to a country, make yourself useful and known, you are more than just a number. Having now been on the other side of the table as a recruiter, and seeing how difficult it is when you are overwhelmed with applications, you need every possible advantage you have to become a human being to recruiters, not just another number.

What do you see as the main advantages and disadvantages of the work you’re engaged in?

A year and a half ago, I founded OIC Cambodia, with the help of Cambodian and Australian colleagues. The project is set up to address the lack of speech therapy in Cambodia, a vital service for hundreds of thousands of people in Cambodia. Working with OIC has taught me so much about how development can work, and how it often fails to work. Simply put, there are needs in the world that are being addressed, and there are those that are being forgotten. The need we are addressing affects 1 in 25 Cambodian people and yet, there is not one single Cambodian university-trained speech therapist. Amongst the hundreds of millions of aid money coming in to Cambodia, how could this be possible?

I think that a huge advantage of tackling this issue is the ability to see real results, without the problems of working in large organisations where politics and donor priorities can often obscure the real reason of why you’re doing something. The main disadvantage is, of course, that doing something that has been unaddressed for such a long time is difficult. But that’s what makes it worth it.

What advice would you give to somebody interested in pursuing a career in international development similar to yours?

I think the key thing is to think about what it is that you are adding to the sector. I’m dismayed when I hear young people, including students, ask questions such as “what sectors in the future will have the most available jobs and enable me to get into development?”. Getting into international development is competitive, yes. But the pertinent question should be more “what is it that I can offer, and what’s going to get me up in the morning every day?”. If someone is just looking to get a foot in the door, without truly knowing why they’re doing it, they won’t last too long. Not only that, the world needs more people who are able to think critically and ask the key questions “why are we doing this?” and “how best to do this?”.

First Published in DevQuest.