Samir Ashraf and Alison Hamburg were in Vientianne,Lao, to assist with one of AGENDA’s Partners LDPA (Lao Disabled People’s Association) for two weeks, from 7 to 21 January 2013. Their visit is part of the arrangement between AGENDA and School of Interational Public Affairs of the Columbia University, New York, United States of America.

They shared their stories with AGENDA.

Samir Ashraf

Samir and Alison helped LDPA to write their research report

My involvement with the AGENDA project began two months ago as part of a Columbia University team that is tasked with assessing the capacity of partner disability organizations (DPOs). Initially, I knew the scope of my team’s project and the goals of AGENDA, but had little grasp of the nature of partner DPOs outside of anecdotal information and completed AGENDA country reports. Thus, when I learned that I would travel to Lao PDR to work with the Lao Disabled People’s Association (LDPA) I was excited at the opportunity and curious about what I would experience.

In preparation for my trip I tried to not have expectations, for fear of imposing my own preconceived notions on a situation I had yet to experience and also to avoid being let down or overwhelmed. I was also conscious of not equating my experience in Laos with my other professional and volunteer experiences in less developed countries. Thus, my first impression of the LDPA was more cultural than professional. I felt very welcome by the staff at the LDPA and also felt the traditional Lao warmth, hospitality, and humility.

I also soon found out that the LDPA does an impressive amount of work given the size of the organization. AGENDA is only one of an array of initiatives and projects the LDPA has undertaken and I was struck by the grassroots nature of the work the LDPA does coupled with the amount of partners they have at the government and NGO level. They seem to be adept at advocating for the rights of disabled persons at the level of policy design but also, for example, disseminate information on service access to disabled persons in rural areas.

My two week stay with the LDPA is now over, and outside the takeaways for our team’s project, I have personally gained an appreciation for the valuable work the LDPA does in promoting the rights of persons with disabilities. Also, I have seen how, by linking election access and participation issues with the rights of persons with disabilities, the AGENDA project can provide another avenue for advocating for the rights of minority populations.

Alison Hamburg and Samir Asraf with LDPA

Alison Hamburg

I first became involved with the AGENDA project as part of my final project for my Master’s degree in Public Administration at Columbia University in New York City. From a list of more than 20 possible organizations, I chose to work with the AGENDA project because of its focus on building the capacity of local organizations to carry out research about the rights of persons with disabilities. I believe that training community organizations how to collect, analyze and report on data can be a powerful way to strengthen their advocacy work, and I was interested in learning about how the AGENDA project partnered with local DPOs.

When I found out I would be traveling to Laos to work with the Lao Disabled People’s Association (LDPA) for two weeks, I was immediately excited. I looked forward to understanding more about the challenges and barriers facing persons with disabilities in Laos, and seeing firsthand how a local Lao organization worked to address these challenges. I had also never been to Southeast Asia before, so this promised to be a new experience.

On our first day at the LDPA office we were introduced to the two primary staff members working on the AGENDA project. We discussed our expectations and what we hoped to achieve during our time working together. Over the two weeks, we worked to polish the LDPA’s country report, and we also gained a deeper understanding of LDPA’s experience participating in the AGENDA project. I was especially pleased to learn about how the interviews and focus group discussions that LDPA carried out for the AGENDA project will be useful to the organization’s broader work to promote good practices for persons with disabilities.

Now, at the end of our time in Laos, it’s hard to believe that two weeks have come and gone. At the same time, I have grown accustomed to my daily routine at the LDPA office, and as we head back from warm, sunny Vientiane to cold, snowy New York, I know will miss it here. My time in Laos has been very rewarding, and I feel lucky to have had the chance to work with LDPA on this important project.