From 'spokesperson' to Programme Manager: Looking back on 19 years with VVOB in Kenya

Van 'Woordvoerder' tot Programme Manager: een terugblik op 19 jaar bij VVOB in Kenia

End of 2013 VVOB's operations in Kenya come to an end; after 25 years. Mid-2013, the Healthy Learning Programme and the ICT Integration in Education Programme were already successfully handed over to the partners. In "From 'spokesperson' to Programme Manager" Lut Laenen looks back on 19 years with VVOB in Kenya.

Lut Laenen moved to Nairobi, Kenya in 1986 when her husband John started a consultancy firm that mainly delivered services to international development agencies. Lut will stay in Kenya after her work for VVOB comes to an end and she will look for a new job where she can use the experience she gained at VVOB.

We wish her all the best and thank her for the many years of boundless commitment to the Vision and Mission of our organisation!

VVOB? Never heard of…

It started in July 1994, after a call from a friend who worked at the Belgian Embassy in Nairobi: “VVOB is urgently looking for a representative, someone who can work from home”. That sounded great, as I was looking for a job I could combine with a young family.

I must admit that I had not heard about VVOB before then. And there was no option of a quick search, in those pre-internet days. But soon, after some enquiries, I realised that several of my Flemish acquaintances in Kenya were actually ‘VVOB-volunteers’. And I also found out that some friends from the early eighties (when I was still living in Belgium) had taken on overseas assignments through VVOB – without telling me the name of that agency! So, indirectly, VVOB was not completely new to me.

I must say that we have come a long way since then in terms of organisational profiling and external communication as well as staff identifying themselves strongly with VVOB.

So, I applied and was hired after a few faxed communications and telephone calls. Quite different from the rigourous selection process that I went through a number of years later, when VVOB started to make sure that all its employees were meeting the recruitment standards of the Flemish Government.

Expats in the early days

In the early years, I was VVOB's ‘spokesperson’. My main task was to support the VVOB ‘expats’: sort out work permits, liaise with local institutions, help them settle in... And, not to forget, to report to head office: monthly reports, quarterly reports, annual reports, not only from me, but also from the cooperants! So, think twice if you are complaining about current requirements for reporting!

In the first 15 years or so, since it was founded in 1982, VVOB worked with governments in developing countries to provide staff such as teachers, lecturers, scientists, doctors... to fill human resource gaps, albeit temporary. These people really were volunteers, mostly newly graduated, working for a basic local salary, living in government houses, with a rather small topping-up and insurance provided by VVOB. They relied on their technical expertise and enthusiasm, since they did not bring funds for equipment or operational expenses. Neither did they come with pre-written targets or logframes (those came only in the late 1990s…). Although many looked at this form of development cooperation as substitution, I am convinced that many of the VVOB staff made a difference in the institutions they were seconded to.


December 1995: after signing an agreement with the International Lifestock Research Institute in Nairobi, which VVOB provided researchers for in the 90’s. From left to right: Jacques Lenvain (VVOB Desk Officer for Kenya in Brussels), Hank Fitzhugh (Director General ILRI), Lut Laenen, Inspector Baeten (member of the VVOB Board of Directors).

The birth of a VVOB representative

A milestone in the evolution of VVOB was 1996, when VVOB became employer and no longer relied on the partner governments for salaries and housing. The effect was that more experienced staff could be attracted (which was also a request from the partner governments), and some money was put aside for ‘logistical support’ (books, small equipment…).

Over the next ten years, there was the shift towards a project approach. With funds to be accounted for, the mechanisms of logframes, agreed plans of work, monitoring and evaluation, bookkeeping... started to creep in and then increased.

And with all these changes, my responsibilities also evolved. I got more involved in discussing and following-up with the various partner organisations such as National Museums of Kenya, The Technical Teacher Training College, The Kenya Polytechnic, Kenya Medical Training College,... together with the VVOB staff. In all this, I was now the ‘VVOB representative’.

Diverse tasks

Through annual in-service seminars, VVOB gave me the chance to expand my skills set: writing logframes, conducting evaluation and function meetings with staff, project and programme management…

I also learned a lot through interacting with the VVOB experts, by attending their in-service-trainings for Kenyan colleagues ranging from entomology, ornithology, clinical medicine, GIS, museology, natural history, agroforestry, ICT... And I had the pleasure of accompanying the ‘scientific advisors’ on their annual follow-up visit. These were experts from Flemish Universities, the Tervuren Museum, the Institute for Tropical Medicine, etc. giving technical support to VVOB. I remember looking out for pyrethrum flowers (a mosquito deterrent) en route to visit two of our doctors in a remote district hospital. Erwin Vanden Ende wanted a photo for his training course in Tropical Medicine. Fortunately, we found some, as I had no idea when they were in bloom.

Another role again

And then, in 2007, came the challenge of moving from project to programme approach. This meant again a shift in responsibilities: working with a mixed team of local and international staff, interacting with higher levels of government, an increased budget… to implement an ambitious programme. And we did it!

I am looking back at nearly 20 years of sharing and learning, taking on so many roles. More than the technical aspects of the job, I have enjoyed and will continue to cherish the human contact.

Keep in touch!

Lut Laenen
Programme Manager, VVOB Kenya