Timor volunteering leads to
earthquake response role

Leadership Network member Dana MacDiarmid says a degree of serendipity played a role in her moving to Timor-Leste to take up a role with Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA).
Group of people in Timor Leste

Dana MacDiarmid (standing second from right) with the Empreza Di'ak team and former Timor-Leste president Dr Jose Ramos-Horta

In 2014, Dana, who had previously worked in a number of volunteer roles, was living in Canada and struggling to find meaningful work when she was visited by a cousin who had been working in aid and development for over 20 years, including a stint as an election supervisor in Timor-Leste.

“Over lunch, we discussed volunteering again and it suddenly felt like exactly the right time. I went home and checked VSA’s website that day and happened to see what felt like the perfect role for me! I applied on the spot and was shortlisted for an interview a couple of months later.”

In the intervening months between returning to New Zealand and being offered the role, Dana took part in the Asia New Zealand Foundation offshore forum in Vietnam. "...the timing of this [attending the offshore forum] was serendipitous and the people I met and conversations I had really helped to confirm that living and working in Asia was something that was calling to me."

Her year-long VSA role was as a communications and marketing advisor with a grassroots Timorese NGO, Empreza Di’ak (meaning ‘good business’), which uses the power of social enterprise to empower remote and impoverished communities and women that are victims of gender-based violence.

She describes Timor-Leste as a “nascent, fascinating, welcoming country”.

“It’s all too easy to forget that it’s only been an independent nation for 14 years, after about 25 years of occupation and conflict, and Portuguese colonisation prior to that (not to mention the Japanese and Dutch ‘visits’). 

One project she was part of provided Dana the opportunity to work with a remote village on Atauro Island – a 1-3 hour boat ride from Dili followed by a 3-4 hour challenging drive into the mountains.

LN member with group in timor leste

Dana with colleagues and the ladies from the Atauro Island project

She says the people there had identified a business idea to make and sell traditional clay pots (sanan rai), which had previously been a local industry and respected art form, but had dropped out of favour as imported goods came with the Portuguese and then the Indonesians.

“When we started working with them, only two women in their 90s still knew how to make these hand-crafted pots. With support from Empreza Di’ak around supply chain development, financial training, and provision of access to market there are now over 20 women with the skills and knowledge to make sanan rai and they are accessing an additional income stream substantially different from their mainstay of subsistence farming and basic local trade.”

Since April, Dana has been working as an emergency management adviser with the National Planning team at the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM). 

Since last week's 7.8 magnitude earthquake near Kaikoura, she has been based in the National Crisis Management Centre underneath Parliament as part of a response team helping to coordinate relief efforts.

Among other tasks, the team she’s in is helping to arrange delivery of supplies, sourcing staff for the emergency response and prioritising requests for helicopters.

“It's a challenging, intense, charged atmosphere, involving long hours and hard work, but the people involved are dedicated and passionate and it's an honour to work alongside so many incredible people,” Dana says.

She believes her experience volunteering in Timor-Leste played a big part in getting the job.

“I firmly believe that the transferable skills that I developed and honed working in Timor as a volunteer, and then on contract at the NZ Embassy in Dili, are what helped me secure my current role.

Dana in a boat on the water

Dana travelled to ten of Timor's 13 districts during her time in the country

Dana says although it's useful to have some work experience before taking on a VSA opportunity, VSA is trying to encourage more young people to become volunteers. 

"I strongly recommend anyone in their mid-late 20s or 30s to consider volunteering with VSA, as it can be such a transformative, rewarding, and genuinely life-changing opportunity. And, I may be biased, but I’d definitely recommend Timor-Leste as a first-choice volunteering and/or travel destination!"