By Markus Hellborg

Hello, suosday, and goddag from Sweden! If someone would have asked me a year ago how I imagined beginning my professional career, I do not think my answer would have been ‘I will be working from my home town, Stockholm, doing an internship for UNDP Cambodia, while reporting to the UN Association in Canada in Ottawa’. When I learned that this would be my working arrangement between September and March, I did not know what to expect. However, one thing is clear – so far, it has been a fantastic and educational experience.

Over the past few decades, Cambodia has experienced tremendous economic growth and multidimensional development. Millions of people have been pulled out of extreme poverty, gender inequality has decreased steadily, and more vulnerable people are covered by social protection programmes. In many ways, Cambodia’s development is a success story.

Although COVID-19’s epidemiological impact has been relatively limited in Cambodia, with 0 deaths and under 300 reported cases, the socio-economic consequences are jeopardising the developmental gains of the past decades. Economic growth is expected to contract from 6.5 percent to -4.1 percent, unemployment rates are surging, and poverty rates are expected to double to 17.6 percent. That is roughly 1.5 million people falling into poverty as a direct economic impact of the pandemic. Additionally, people returning to the countryside to find economic opportunities are putting a strain on the environment and natural resources. Clearly, the effects of the pandemic pose challenges throughout all levels of society, and its consequences are likely to stick with us for a long time.

In my work with the Results-based Management Unit, one of my many tasks is to oversee the results of UNDP Cambodia’s response to the pandemic. Our work includes things like expanding the country’s social insurance registry to mitigate the socio-economic impact on vulnerable populations, inform economic stimulus packages, and countering the spread of misinformation about the pandemic. At the centre of our work is the mantra ‘build back better’. We invest heavily in environmental projects that prioritise the transition to a circular economy and tackle deforestation in Cambodia. We also expand employment opportunities for women and seek to diversify the economy to make it more resilient to external shocks.

As always, a major challenge in international development is to measure, monitor, and evaluate the impact of our interventions. Understanding the effectiveness of our interventions against the current pandemic is no different. We must base our strategies on sound, context-specific data so that we can ensure that our strategy helps those who need it the most.

But how can we deal with data and interventions in an unprecedented context? How can we ensure that there is a causal link between our projects and the data produced? How do we deal with issues stemming from the pandemic that are not quantifiable? How do we construct indicators that capture the many effects of our projects, and how can we account for unintended consequences? These are the type of issues that we deal with on a daily basis, and it is truly fascinating.

Working remotely from a different continent can pose many challenges, especially when being completely new to an organisation. Any questions I may have in the afternoon will get a reply the following day. Not having casual conversations with coworkers in the office makes it difficult to learn about their perspectives on the challenges we are facing. Nevertheless, my supervisor and co-workers are extremely helpful in regards to keeping me involved. I get to meet with them through Zoom almost every day, attend meetings about new projects, and monthly management meetings. These interactions are invaluable, and I learn so much from hearing my colleagues analysing different problems and coming up with solutions to some of the most pressing issues in the country.

So far, the placement exceeds all expectations. More than anything, I am proud of working for an organisation that aims to build a better future and help those worst affected by the pandemic.