Lisa Byrne shares their experience of UN Volunteering (UNV) in Laos.

Lisa Byrne (far right) and a UXO Lao bomb clearance team (credit UXO Lao)

My role as Programme and Reporting Specialist with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Laos began in February 2018. At first I was quite nervous about this new venture as it was very far from home and I had never been to South East Asia before. However, any nervousness I felt was outweighed by the hope that I might contribute in some way to people less fortunate than ourselves in Ireland. I have never regretted my decision.

Not many people know that Laos is, per capita, the most heavily bombed country in the world.  My role involved supporting UNDP and the Laos Government to implement and manage donor-funded projects to clear contaminated land and educate local people about the horrific dangers associated with unexploded bombs. While it sounds quite daunting, I was lucky to work in a very safe and welcoming country which I now consider as my second home.

Most of the time I was based at the Laos Government office in Vientiane where I worked on building the capacity of my Programme Office teammates and ensured project deliverables were achieved in line with donor contributions. However, I also travelled frequently to heavily-bombed remote provinces monitoring and evaluating project activities and even had the opportunity to detonate a cluster of unexploded bombs! Time and time again whenever we met with local residents who were sharing their stories of how bomb contamination had affected their lives, we were welcomed into their homes with open arms and the brightest of smiles. On many occasions, they shared some of their traditional delicacies and often held small Buddhist baci ceremonies for us! I felt I had truly immersed in Lao culture and formed lifetime friendships with many Laotians.

Lisa Byrne examining various types of cluster munitions (credit UXO Lao)

Although my contract was to serve as a UN Volunteer supported by Irish Aid for one year, I jumped at the chance to extend it for an additional year and a half. The whole experience hugely exceeded my expectations. I have learned so much about beautiful Laos and its tragic history, acquired a basic proficiency in Laotian, made friends from countries across the globe and travelled widely in the East.

For those who are interested in volunteering abroad and completing a UNV assignment, I would highly recommend checking out the UNV website and also the Department of Foreign Affairs vacancies as they often list Irish Aid funded roles. Volunteering is an opportunity not to be missed!