Nelson Rodrigues, Innovation Specialist, Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia
Tell us a bit about your background.
I’m Portuguese which is the small western most country in Europe. I grew up moving inside Portugal having lived most of the time in the Azores, right in the middle of the Atlantic. I have a degree in Psychology from the Universidade de Evora (great small town in mainland Portugal) , with a specialization in Educational Psychology. Most recently, I completed studies in Development Cooperation and Child Rights from the Instituto Universitario de “Necesidades y Derechos de la Infancia y la Adolescencia” which was created as a partnership between the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and the Spanish UNICEF National Committee.
What do you do?
Right now I’m working in Cambodia, assisting the UNICEF office implementing their Innovation workplan. This has been a very creative process, with a big component of planning and co-creation with the programme sections. This means that I work across the office, with all sections. In Cambodia Country Office, the Innovation process starts out with the definition of a concrete problem or bottleneck being experienced in the programme and then reaching out locally to partners and globally to the Innovation network to understand what exists out there than can help us solve these bottlenecks. Together with the sections a set of 7 (it’s considered a magical number by some!!) programmes that could assist us deliver better results for children were designed and now the office is moving at full speed to the implementation stage. This involves identifying partners, involving government counterparts and developing locally tailored solutions. This year UNICEF Cambodia together with Government counterparts will be strengthening monitoring systems that will contribute directly to improvements in birth registration rates, quality of education and standards of care in alternative care institutions.
What’s your working day like?
In terms of routines, there are only two things that I do every day when I’m in the office: coffee at 9:30am and then again at 2:30pm. Honestly though, I feel there are never two days alike (and it’s great!!). But let’s say I go back to last Monday, I started off the day with a team meeting with the Community Development section to discuss a survey we are conducting to establish a programme baseline to find out if communities and villages have invested in social services and social support activities. For instance, we want to know if the communities have assisted pregnant mothers to visit the health center, if they invest in pre-schools or if there has been any specific support provided to children with disabilities. We’re doing it using mobile devices so the meeting helped me revise and improve the survey after the first field test. Then I moved on to a call with my colleagues in East Asia and the Pacific Region – it’s really great to hear their experiences and I think we have a really interesting and diverse group of great minds in this region! In the afternoon, I worked with a colleague to refine a strategy to support the Ministry of Interior in its efforts to improve birth registration rates using an Interactive Voice Response system and halfway through I went to our own RapidPro platform to programme some of the conversation flows that we’ll use in this programme.
How would you describe your job to a 5-year-old?
For a 5 year old I’d probably say I try to do things that help children feel happy and smile.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
Well, like many other children I had the dream of being an astronaut, then a sailor, fireman, football player… and probably even other things. What I can distinctly remember was growing up seeing the humanitarian fundraising campaigns by UNICEF during the 80’s. This is an important part of my memories and I remember wanting to make it better for the children in these campaigns. I guess that while the other child’s dreams waned away this one stayed with me. So I guess I can say that I wanted to be “UNICEF” when I was a kid.
How/when did you join UNICEF?
The first time I joined UNICEF was in Angola in 2008. I always wanted to work in development, so I was fortunate to be selected as a United Nations Volunteer and based out in Southern Angola in Lubango. It was a life changing experience and I couldn’t possibly have had a best start with UNICEF.
What are the most satisfying parts of your job?
Seeing it work. Seeing a baby being immunized or a mother that can give clean water to her family without having to walk 1 hour to collect a few litres of water. I’ve seen UNICEF in the frontline providing services in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, water pumps built in remote places, children with disabilities attending pre-schools in rural villages or a child getting a birth certificate. What could be more amazing than this?
What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
I think that sometimes there is a natural resistance to new things and innovating can be challenging in an ecosystem that can be considered risk averse. Sometimes this means that I need to really invest my time and energy to demonstrate and advocate for new forms and strategies of achieving results.
What’s your best UNICEF experience/memory?
I honestly have had so many experiences that it is really hard to single one out. But I’ll share one that clearly is among my favourites. It’s the story of Chhorn Nga, a community pre-school educator in Kampong Thom, Cambodia. I visited Chhorn Nga as part of monitoring visits to community pre-schools and was automatically inspired by her story. Having lived through the Pol Pot regime, one of the bloodiest in recent times, she had never had the possibility to attend school. Fast forward to now, she has learned how to read and write and has been selected as an educator or teacher as people call her in the village. She said she couldn’t believe it the first time someone called her teacher, but boy did she take her role seriously! Since taking on the role of teacher she has been able to mobilize her community to expand her classroom by moving an entire wooden structure from one point of the village all the way to her classroom. She was able to fundraise in order to install a clean water point for the students to drink and be able to learn proper hygiene. She starts earlier than expected and finishes sessions after regular schedule. Her class is always full. I find her to be an inspiration and makes me think of the potential individuals have in creating their own story and influencing their communities.
What’s one of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken in your life?
Having my own children. Nothing could have prepared me for the first time I held my daughter in my arms.
What are your passions?
My passion and driver is making “different”, being creative. I love the capacity that humans have to be creative and generate new, different solutions. I could spend days brainstorming, thinking, imagining new things, products, services. Give me a problem and together we’ll find a way to solve it!
What advice would you give others who are seeking a similar job as yours?
Work for people, with people. Learn to listen and understand diversity. Be persistent. Don’t ever give up.
Who do you look towards for inspiration?
My colleagues – every single day, and I have learned so much from them.
My colleagues don’t know that…
Funnily enough, almost none of my colleagues knows I’m a psychologist. Every time I mention that I get a “Really?!?! You’re a psychologist? I didn’t know that…”