Day Eight in Timor-Leste
“That was a long day,” said Sophie wearily as she flopped into the taxi. We were heading back to Sakura Tower, our curiously Japanese hotel in central Dili, after a beachside dinner and a marathon afternoon meeting with Ba Futuru. Though a fair amount of her fatigue can be attributed to the jumbo-sized pizzas we wolfed down (our working lunch of potato chips and peanut butter didn’t quite cut it), she was dead right - the day was a long one, and at that stage, it wasn’t even close to being over.
It started on Atauro Island. We woke up before 7am - I wish I could say we rose gently with the sunrise, but it was much less romantic and much more bladder-related, due to the dehydrating Timorese sun - and while I swam, poured coffee, and read my book, the other guys raked back over every page of minutes from four full days of evaluation, preparing a presentation for the afternoon’s debrief with Ba Futuru: the final piece of this trip’s evaluation.
Let the record show at this point that while Jackson, Woodrow and I filmed in the sweaty schoolyard over the weekend, those guys working this morning has their own time off, all coconuts and beach walks on Sunday - so, my comparatively leisurely morning today wasn’t that indulgent (right?).
Breakfast started at 7am, and our boat left Atauro at 9:30am - so Sophie, Geordie and Inika pulled out about two hours’ worth of work before we even left the island - and then after our boat trip, a taxi back to Sakura, and a quick trip to the minimart for snacks, they were straight back in front of their computers, continuing to piece together every theme, fragment, quote and insight they’d pulled from hours of interviews, focus groups, tours and observations. Another two hours, and then time for a taxi again: we raced to Ba Futuru to make it for our 2pm meeting, with Inika balancing two laptops on her lap (appropriate) while she finished the final slides of the powerpoint. Presentation done, we began the meeting.
A quick tangent for some background on your author. I’ve volunteered at Oaktree for almost four years now - and have worked as Live Below the Line’s communications director for about a year - and though I’ve learned a bit about international development from being a member of an anti-poverty organisation, I’m definitely no expert. The people I’m in Timor with - Sophie, Geordie, and Inika - are all members of Oaktree’s international engagement team, which, as its name suggests, manages the work Oaktree does internationally, including the partnership with Ba Futuru. Monitoring and evaluation is something very familiar to their team (we visit each international partner roughly once a year for a trip like this, so there are teams popping off every few months), but it’s incredibly alien to me. So, I’m going to describe their final debrief with Ba Futuru, but please bear with me if it’s lacking expertise.
Around a large table sat Geordie, me, Sophie, Inika, Sierra, who’s Ba Futuru’s co-founder, Joe, Bano and Nina, who work on Quality Education, and Judit, who’s QE’s project lead and Oaktree’s key Ba Futuru contact. Inika opened the meeting by explaining is purpose - to run though what we’ve learned over the past week-and-a-bit, and to make general initial suggestions before she and Sophie write their formal evaluation report - and then reminded us of the evaluation schedule and the theoretical approach taken in conducting the evaluation (I felt intimidated at this point - I’d never even heard of “participatory learning” before this trip, and now we were discussing its theoretical roots).
She broke the debrief into two main sections, which are the key areas of Ba Futuru’s High Schools Transformation Project that they’re taking forward into QE: teacher training and governance training. Inika facilitated group discussion on each of those topics for over an hour - letting each staff member make comments and suggestions, allowing Geordie and Sophie to pop in with ideas from Oaktree, and maintaining a controlled chat that kept my minute-taking fingers working hard.
She then went into the key learnings from the evaluation, again broken into those two areas, and opened the discussion, which lead to a fascinating, frenzied chat about what the second and third years of QE could involve, with Sierra, Judit, Geordie and Sophie volleying ideas from all corners of the table. At that point I was reminded again of what Geordie and I have been trying to untangle over the last few days - this is what we mean when we describe this relationship as a partnership. A little buzzing warmth seeing our team of nine people working together - all respectful and energised and fierce - to refine this project and make sure it’s the best it can be.
We finished the debrief with a chat about the nature of partnership and how we can continue to work well with Ba Futuru over the next two-and-a-half years and into the future, and then said a final thank you and goodbye before heading off.
But, of course, that wasn’t the end.
Two pizzas (and a tempeh stir-fry for coeliac Inika) later, we were again in a taxi back to Sakura, Sophie with the swollen belly and the head full of meeting prep. Though we’ve finished the evaluation, these guys have two full days of meetings tomorrow and Friday, with NGOs and government departments here in Dili. As I write this, they’re preparing for their 9am start, and Geordie’s just instructed a 10pm hard stop for tonight’s work - which is still two hours away.
To say I’m pretty impressed would be a huge understatement. Not only have these guys slogged out four days in schools, a day of meetings last week, and today’s marathon, all in the Dili humidity, while pulling together a complicated evaluation debrief plan across two hostels and three taxi trips - they’ve done it all with this incredible level of professionalism, grace and humour that I’ve rarely seen in any work, not just Oaktree. It’s likely I’m biased here - and I have never seen an evaluation before (there’s every chance they screwed it up completely) - but from the energy in Sierra’s eyes as they volleyed ideas; to the warmth in Nina’s hugs as she said a last goodbye; to Judit’s faux-stern (but quite serious) instruction to Sophie and Inika that they must stay on at Oaktree for the next evaluation; and the delicious deliberate awkwardness of Geordie and Bano’s goodbye handshake-hug hybrid; you don’t have to be a development expert to see a mutually beneficial partnership flourishing. Warm, respectful, and connected. These guys are even better evaluators than they are pizza-eaters - and trust me, that’s saying something.