Critical Development Studies, Coffee Villages, and Lao PDR: An Undergraduate Experience in an International Development Studies Co-op

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Editor’s Note: Combining the disciplines of economics, political science, geography, and other social sciences, an international development degree is both rigorous and deeply rooted in theory. The International Development Studies Program Co-op at the University of Toronto Scarborough provides undergraduate students with a unique opportunity to bridge theory and practice through an 8-12 month work placement in the international development field. This article is part 2 of a 2 part series written by students currently on their co-op placements.

Sabaidee! In this article, I recount my experience as a student from a Canadian institute, working abroad, as a part of my undergraduate co-op work placement. I capture my journey to the field of development studies, the reality of the classroom in critical development studies, my work with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and life in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR).

Why International Development?

Growing up in two very different contexts has made me deeply curious about the world around me. I was born in India but grew up 8,000 km away, in South Africa, often called the “Rainbow Nation” due to its diverse population and cultural heritage. At the time, this up-bringing made me interrogate ideas of development with simple questions like “Why are people in some parts of the world afforded so many more privileges than others?”

Later, at university I would come to learn that we – the people from the so-called developing world – in fact formed the global majority.

When the time came to choose what I wanted to do with my life (dramatic, I know, but relatable to anyone that graduates high school and has the opportunity to choose what’s next), I was teeming with varied interests. Only one thing seemed certain, and has remained so through the test of time: my passion for people.

I knew that I wanted to do something that would help me find a way to make life a little easier for others. Equipped with exposure to Model United Nations conferences where we discussed world politics and global issues, a curiosity to learn more about different cultures, and a desire to see more of our world – the guiding principles behind my pursuit of international development studies (IDS) became increasingly apparent. It was these factors that formed the basis behind my passion for seeking justice and prosperity for humanity, and ultimately, international development.

An image of the sunset I took during my first mission to Xam Neua, Houaphanh Province, Lao PDR where the UNODC supported Vanmai Coffee Cooperative is based.

In the classroom or theory theory theory

The first three years of IDS at the University of Toronto (UofT) were challenging – for good reason. Not only does the rigor of university classes here challenge students in ways previously unimagined, but we are also confronted with the devastating histories of colonial extraction and plunder that explain a lot of why the world is the way it is today.

At the Department of Global Development Studies, we take pride in the fact that we learn about development through a critical lens. This is important because historically, a lot of development assistance has led to unintended negative consequences that effect the local politics and reality of these economies.

For example, ivory tower-esque conditions set by Global North aid donors, or top-down development projects which do not recognize the reality of people on the ground at the grassroots level have, and thereby, continue failing to make any positive impact. Instead, these efforts end up regressing the context in which they operate, only to further magnify the locales’ historical oppression and desolation.

Amongst all of the history, geography, and theory in the classroom, comes the co-op element of the IDS program. The IDS co-op program at UofT is one the longest running of its kind. Now having studied in this discipline and had the chance to work in the field, I am greatly cognizant of the incredible value there is in gaining real-world experience in the development sector which complements ones’ theoretical foundation.

This dual experience helps us as development practitioners understand: a) What it means to work in the development sector, and b) Experience what that looks like. Development studies is a relatively new and continually evolving discipline with a variety of career trajectories that stem from it. Therefore, the opportunity to understand what your own role in the world of development can look like, greatly alleviates a lot of uncertainty that comes with wanting to be in a field like this.

A rainbow shines in the background of one of the villages that are a part of the Alternative Development project in Lao PDR.

Alternative Development & the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime

As part of my co-op placement, I am working with UNODC in Lao PDR. UNODC has numerous programmatic themes under its mandate. Alternative Development (AD) is one such programmatic area which operates between the nexus of drugs, agriculture, and development. At UNODC, we believe that illicit drug supply can be successfully reduced through poverty reduction within a framework of sustainable development. AD means giving farmers the opportunity to grow economically viable and legal alternatives to drugs.

Our work in AD focuses on helping communities at risk of opium poppy cultivation transition to growing coffee instead of opium, so that they can lead sustainable livelihoods free from poverty. There are a variety of AD projects across the globe ranging from Afghanistan, Columbia, Bolivia, Myanmar and Lao PDR – to name a few.

In Lao PDR, this is done through UNODC’s support of the farmer owned and led cooperative – the Vanmai Coffee Cooperative (Vanmai Coffee). Today, over 600 households in Houaphanh Province, across 600 hectares of land, are a part of the Vanmai Coffee Cooperative in the north-east of Lao PDR. Not only is the cooperative Fairtrade certified, but it has signed a long-term commercial trade agreement with an international coffee roaster and as of today, is on track to export four containers of coffee beans to the international market – all in addition to having established national sales channels.

Participants of the village level meeting in Phongsaly Province, Lao PDR settle in before the proceedings of the meeting to discuss the AD project in the province begins.

My specific role in this project spans a variety of different areas including, project implementation, monitoring, communication, donor report writing, as well as working on the project’s operations like procurements, capacity building, etc. As a newly incumbent worker in the development sector, I feel extremely lucky to have such a supportive team that has patiently taught me about all of the different elements that come together to help run a successful development intervention that is led by the community. I now further see and appreciate the importance of building capacity on the ground and helping people stand on their own feet rather than walking for them. And finally, I have been able to hone my passion for people and meaningfully work towards it.

Life in Lao PDR

At present, I am writing to you from sunny Vientiane – the capital city of Lao PDR. Lao PDR is a small country located between Thailand in the West, Vietnam in the East, Cambodia in the South and China to the North. During my last few months in the country, I have come to increasingly appreciate its lively night markets, sticky rice, streets lined with sizzling grills, smiling locals, and its generally calm and laid-back tempo.

Here, you will often find karaoke music filling the air or groups of people huddled around tables and chairs outside their homes or at restaurants across the streets, enjoying a glass of beerlao. It is all of these things and so much more that I have grown to hold very close to my heart. I really have found my home here and the thought of leaving is saddening.

Two children looking onwards from atop the mountain of which their parents’ coffee plantation nursery sits in Phongsaly Province, Lao PDR.

Gratitude & Full Circle-ness

I think the only way to end this in the right way is by expressing the constant gratitude I feel whenever I reflect on this journey. To have the chance to study at an esteemed Canadian institution as someone from the global South is indeed a privilege. To further complement that with my dream as a high school student to work with the United Nations (UN), and then see it materialize, makes me immensely appreciative of the cards I have been dealt.

My first introduction to the UN was through participating at my high school’s Model United Nations. In grade nine, I was assigned to be the delegate of Mexico for UNODC meaning that it was my role to represent Mexico and its interests in terms of the proposed agenda for the committee. The details of that conference are still etched in my memory vividly.

Today, I get to sit at the UNODC office in real life. Eight years and a full circle moment later – I couldn’t be more grateful. If there’s one thing you take from all of this, I hope it is to dream big and put your heart into all you do, because often, life has a way of coming full-circle.

Feature Image: The view of surrounding plantations of rice and other crops from one of the Vanmai Coffee Cooperative’s villages. Photo by author.
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Arushi Dahiya

Arushi Dahiya is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto in the Specialist International/Global Development Co-operative program with a double minor in Political Science and Socio-cultural Anthropology. Currently, she is on her Co-op placement, living and working with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Vientiane, Laos.

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