By: Ambika Opal

This morning I was in a car driving to a meeting at a hotel in Phnom Penh with four of my UNDP colleagues. We had one Cambodian, one Dutch, one Japanese, one Sri Lankan, and one Canadian person. I loved listening to the different accents of the people in the car, and the diverse experiences those accents represent. It is the diversity of people and ideas that I appreciate most here at the United Nations Development Programme.

I’ve been in Phnom Penh for two weeks now, and am beginning to settle into a routine. I get up early to chat with family back home in Canada, then head downstairs to eat a delicious Khmer breakfast cooked by my landlord’s wife. I call a tuktuk using a local ride-hailing app and ride to work, which can take anywhere between 8 and 30 minutes, depending on traffic. Once I arrive, I head into the office, saying suosday (hello) to people I meet along the way to my desk.

My work at UNDP is really fascinating. Most of my time is spent on what I call the ‘indicators project,’ which seeks to answer the question “how do we better measure the impact of UNDP’s projects?” I’m learning that in international development, one of the hardest things to do is to measure how much positive impact a project has on human lives and the environment. Impact can be difficult to measure because it might mean different things to different people (definition), it might not be able to be represented by a number (quantifiability), it might not happen right away (temporality), and it’s hard to determine whether the project made a change or if other factors made the change happen (causality).

A simple example would be a project that seeks to reduce injuries and fatalities from explosive remnants of war, such as mines. The indicators for this goal could be the number of mines removed, square kilometers cleared of mines, and the reduction in injuries/fatalities per year. But what about a project that seeks to help the government develop new laws and policies? We could measure the number of government staff we interact with, but just because we had a meeting or training session doesn’t mean we had a positive impact on lives or the environment. We could measure the impact that the law or policy has once it’s implemented, but it’s impossible to know how much our input influenced the outcome of the policy, and how much was influenced by other factors.

The UNDP already has a detailed system in place called results-based management, which for each project assigns goals, ways to measure the goals’ progress, and creates plans on how to monitor the progress. This system is great, but sometimes it’s still hard to get a clear and concise picture of the development impact. The indicators project that I’m working on will look at the existing system and see what can be tweaked to get a clearer understanding of where UNDP’s successes are.

After work, I usually walk home if it’s not raining, taking in the sights and life of the city. Sights I particularly enjoy are the streets teeming with life, the beautiful flowering trees that line residential streets, and curious street food options. When I get home I’ll usually sit with my landlord for a few minutes, sometimes showing him a couple things on the ukulele, or chatting in broken Khmer with his kids (much to their enjoyment).

I love intercultural experiences because differences are accepted since they are expected — one focuses on the humanity in others rather than appearance or mannerisms. Both my work and home life have been great so far in Phnom Penh, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the experience!