Experteering Spotlight: Using Technology Skills to Empower Community Development in the Philippines

Petra Barbu

Petra is a content marketer passionate about social enterprise, impact investing, and microfinance.

Brian Finnerty is a tech guru passionate about giving back. We sat down with Brian to learn about his experience Experteering in the Philippines with the Alternative Indigenous Development Foundation Inc., where he used his IT skills to support community development. This project was fully sponsored by the Siemens Stiftung empowering people. Expert Service.

What inspired you to take the leap and go Experteering?

I work in I.T. so I am a big fan of technology – phones that pinpoint your exact location on the earth, key-rings you can call to find your lost keys, cars that can drive themselves to the moon and whatnot. I’m also ashamed that with all these magnificent applications of genius, we still can’t figure out how to alleviate problems like hunger, poverty, etc. Too much time and effort in technology is fixated on making billions of dollars or inventing solutions to problems that don’t exist.

In Ireland I looked for a more socially focused job, but most of the positions in Dublin are in industries like banking, advertising, customer service. So, I decided to seek an opportunity elsewhere…

A rope bridge over a river near AIDFI.
A rope bridge over a river near AIDFI.

What were you doing before going Experteering?

I was contracting for a large multinational company on a multi-platform application to deliver TV content to end-users across a range of devices. Essentially, it was the type of service that allows you to pause your favourite Kardashian show on your TV at home and un-pause it on your iPad later in the day.

The AIDFI staff kitchen
The AIDFI staff kitchen, where workers often congregate and socialize after work.

What did you do on your Experteering trip?

I built a public-facing website and an internal database system for the Alternative Indigenous Development Foundation Inc. AIDFI is an NGO based in the Philippines that specializes in using simple technological solutions to help alleviate poverty in rural communities. Their flagship product is a mechanical ram-pump, which brings running water to communities without it. You can visit the website at https://www.aidfi.org/.

Brian enjoying some of the local Filipino cuisine.
Brian enjoying some of the local Filipino cuisine.

What was the highlight of your Experteering trip?

The highlight was when the website went live. There was a bit of disconnect for the first few weeks between myself and some of the other staff, while they were busy working on real problems and I was banging away at a laptop in the corner. But when the website went live and they could see the pictures of their work and read the stories about themselves, there was a big swell of enthusiasm for the project.

What was one thing you wish you knew before you went volunteering overseas?

How to ask questions.

Filipinos will only answer the exact question that you give them to the best of their knowledge. For example, when I was in the wrong terminal in Manila airport I asked an attendant how to get to terminal 4. He told me there was a shuttle that went from downstairs. He didn’t tell me that downstairs was down several winding stairs or that the shuttle wouldn’t arrive for an hour, minutes before my flight. This sort of miscommunication happened pretty much every time I had to find something out for the first 2 months. Eventually I learned to ask about everything. Where does it go from, how do I get there, when does it leave, how long does it take, does it leave on time, how many stops does it make, how much does it cost, will the driver have change, etc. And then double-check with someone else.

[Editor’s Note: Cross cultural differences are common, and learning to navigate them is the key to a successful Experteering engagement. If you are going Experteering, read our popular article on How to build trust across cultures, and be sure to review our region specific guides for more tips.]

Afterwards I spent 2 months travelling the country on my own, so I think I managed to crack it :)

Experteering can be a great way to travel on a budget, like visiting these scenic island views.
Experteering can be a great way to travel on a budget, like visiting these scenic island views.

What advice do you have for people thinking about Experteering?

Learn the local language. They speak a regional dialect called Illonggo in Bacolod where I was based, a dialect that is not widely spoken elsewhere in the country. As most people have a basic understanding of English, I thought it wouldn’t be worth my while to spend time learning it. But I found that a lot of people were shy about speaking English to me. As a result it was sometimes difficult to socialise with and get to know people.

I think if I spoke even poor Illonggo, people would have been quicker to open up and speak with me. Even if you’re terrible at it, you always have a conversation starter to break the ice with.

[Editor’s Notes: When you work through the MovingWorlds planning process, you’ll have the chance to talk to your local organization about customs and languages you can pick-up in advance.]

A committee meeting within AIDFI.
A committee meeting within AIDFI.

Anything else you want to add?

It’s not always a barrel of laughs. There are always tough days when you are adapting to a new culture whether it’s no running water, ants in your laptop, or mistakenly ordering a plate of deep-fried chicken feet. Overcoming those challenges is just as rewarding as any part of the trip, and is a great way to get a fresh perspective on life.

[Editor’s Note: Indeed, being away from your normal life and working on challenging projects can be tough. Reflecting on your own emotions and learning through your experience is a great way to help get through the challenging times and support your own learning in the process.]

The MovingWorlds team wants to thank Brian for his inspiring work, AIDFI for the incredible work they are doing to support sustainable community development, and the Siemens Stiftung empowering people. Network for its work empowering social enterprises around the world. If you are interested in supporting other empowering people. Network related projects, see our current openings here. If you are interested in using your technology skills, you can see all our projects here.

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