Forging stronger links in an international chain

Rob Harris, Asia-Pacific Projects Officer – why clear communication is key…

Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI’s) work in Cambodia is going through something of a growth spurt at the moment, thanks to some new funding secured within the last year.

While great for FFI, this does mean that we need to make sure that our colleagues in Cambodia have enough support to deliver what we have now promised to donors, and much background work is needed to make the country programme function effectively and ensure that field conservation projects have a big impact.

So, in a bid to provide this support and foster a healthy exchange of knowledge, FFI’s Cambodia Country Representative – Vathana – visited our UK office in Cambridge, while I made my way to Phnom Penh for a month to work with colleagues on some of the operational and logistical points that must underpin the rapid development of the programme.

Although not designed as a “cultural exchange” (in fact, the two trips were – on paper at least – unrelated), I think both Vathana and myself learned a lot from immersing ourselves in a different environment, and we have each brought home with us a greater understanding of how to build strong working relationships across our international team.

While Vathana’s stint in the UK benefited him through improving his English and helping him link up with FFI’s various teams and potential collaborators, working with colleagues in Cambodia enriched my understanding of cross-cultural working relationships and encouraged me to examine the way I communicate with others.

When poring over the minutiae of the Cambodia programme’s health and safety policy (which is used by dozens of people whose first language is not English), the need for clear articulation became evident. I think international organisations often don’t realise that inappropriate and complex language can alienate people, so this is something that requires a lot of consideration.

Morning in Phnom Penh (credit: Rob Harris)

Morning in Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh is a great city to spend time in. A big learning curve for Vathana while he was in the UK were the differences in food, transport, and certainly weather. I too had to adjust to the Cambodian climate, especially as I had left the UK following a shockingly cold February weekend in the UK, when I found crystallised ice in my hair after a 10-minute cycle ride.

Whereas Vathana started commuting by bike for the first time whilst in Cambridge, in Phnom Penh I missed my bike, but managed to borrow one on occasion and brave the crazy traffic.

When it came to food, Vathana confronted haggis and I started to enjoy Cambodian buffet-style meals, where you pick raw ingredients and cook soups yourself in a vat of bubbling water on your table.

Vathana definitely trumped me on the language front, by improving his pronunciation and expanding his vocabulary, while I struggled with the Khmer alphabet and had to rely on the good English skills of those around me.

One thing offices have in common the world over is the abundance of snacks. Whether it is gorgeous dried fruit brought back to the Cambridge office by FFI’s Eurasia team, or buckets of sugar cane juice and fresh pineapple from a Phnom Penh market, we never seem to go hungry!

Tuy (‘Vathana’) Sereivathana, Cambodia Country Representative – putting faces to names in Cambridge…

After receiving awards two years in a row, I was recently promoted as a FFI Country Representative in Cambodia. This meant that my English and leadership skills had to be improved as soon as possible to fit to my new tasks. An idea from Dr Tony Whitten (FFI’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director) was to immerse me in an English environment in order to improve my English faster.

So, on 5 December, I travelled to Cambridge and planned to stay in the UK for three months. The idea was for me to improve my English and learn about management and governance from the Cambridge team.

Cambridge - River Cam (credit: Ruth Wilson).

The River Cam in Cambridge.

At the beginning of my time in the UK, I had to learn some new things and adapt to life in Cambridge (such as walking or using a bike to get around, as well as different food, sleeping hours…and so on). Even though I spent many years living in Minsk (Belarus – then part of the Soviet Union), which also has cold winter temperatures, sometimes I felt bored in the winter time in Cambridge.

Each day I got to know people better, especially my colleagues in the FFI office – they were very kind and friendly to me.

Vathana receives a Cambridge University T-shirt for his birthday.

I remember well that when I was bored or stressed or homesick, I went to work in the Communications office – they worked hard but were funny. It was also lovely when colleagues in the Asia-Pacific and Communications offices called me “Uncle Elephant” or “Wat-na” because I felt like Khmer close friends of mine were calling me.

I stayed at Tony Whitten’s house and appreciated the family very much. He, his wife and sons tried to help me improve my English. Tony selected BBC channels with very good programmes for me to focus on English. Even when we spent the day in London, Tony would explain to me the story of the buildings, the river and the bridges.

They tried to correct my pronunciation (in particular words that end with an ‘s’ sound) – I have a lot of good memories from living in their house.

Moreover, I enjoyed studying English with my two teachers – one weekend, one of them went to a bookstore to pick up important books for me to read and take home.

Vathana receives his English certificate.

Other nice memories from my trip include the week I spent living with Aldrin Mallari (FFI’s Conservation Capacity Programme Director), as well as a big snowfall, a lunch with haggis, and an evening in London to see the Lion King musical.

Over Christmas and New Year’s Day, I celebrated with Ally (FFI’s Communications Manager) Alison (Governance and Facilities Coordinator) and Esther (Senior Programme Manager for Conservation Science). It was very nice – good food and nice talk. They made me feel like family.

Nearly three months in Cambridge but many memories. I miss my friends there.

Back in FFI’s Cambodia office, people have said that my English has improved a lot – especially the pronunciation. I hope they are right!

I would like to thank all of my friends in the UK for their kindness and help, and also my team in Cambodia for working hard and helping with my work during my absence from the office.