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Rod Abson - Unit Manager of Environment Education, World Organization of the Scout Movement, Geneva, Switzerland

Rod Abson
'I don't think I could have predicted where i have been or what i have done, so it's a matter of making the most of the experiences and seeing where things can take you.'

From the jungles of Thailand to the royal palaces of Saudi Arabia, Rod's passion for the environment has jetted his career across the globe. Rod talks about his career after being an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development (AYAD) and has plenty of stories to tell about how a job can really shape your world.



How did you become involved with AYAD?

When I was in my mid-20s, I'd finished my Master's then worked for a few years. I was looking for an opportunity to work overseas in a meaningful way. I heard about the AYAD Program and it seemed to fit perfectly what I wanted to do. I submitted my application for a position in Bangkok, was accepted, completed the Pre-departure Training in Canberra, had my injections and I was on my way to Thailand.

What was your role as an AYAD?

I was a program development officer working with WildAid in Thailand. WildAid is an NGO focused on preventing illegal trade in wildlife across South-East Asia. They have since changed their name from WildAid to PeunPa.

What projects were you involved in with WildAid?

I supported the 'Surviving Together' community outreach projects, which involved working with some of the more remote villages that were dependent on poaching as a means of income. We helped establish alternative sources of income, such as mushroom barns, organic vegetable farming and installing bio-digesters for cooking. I helped to establish funding support by writing project proposals and reporting to donors in support of the community outreach projects, and I supported the rangers that patrolled the forests. As part of the Association of South-East Asian Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN WEN), I also helped with a training course for authorities in the Philippines focusing on environmental crime.

What's the biggest misconception about the wildlife trade?

That one or two animals taken from the wild don't matter. When you see a cute baby monkey or colourful parrot in a cage that has been illegally taken from the wild, there are many ripple effects on the environment and people within a potentially worldwide network.

An animal taken from the wild will often have other members of their family killed or injured, causing stresses on the local population to be able to survive. The animal in captivity usually does not live for more than one or two years and could potentially spread diseases to humans. Trade in animal parts can be linked across continents and be involved in supporting other illegal activities. So, for many reasons, one or two animals that you may see in the illegal wildlife trade really do matter.

What does your current job with the Scouts involve?

I develop environmental education programs for Scouting at the world level. This involves working with colleagues and Scout volunteers at world, regional and national level to put these programs into practice. I also act as the first point of contact for Scouting at the world level, sharing stories of best practice examples, responding to enquiries from National Scout Organizations and providing input into the environmental dimensions of our major events or special projects. I also represent the World Organization of the Scout Movement (WOSM) in its activities with partner organisations, such as the United Nations Environment Programme.

When you develop educational programs for people in different countries, are there any key cultural differences you have to keep in mind?

The world is a diverse place, particularly when you consider the different natural environments of different countries. One of the really interesting parts of my job is identifying elements of our programs that can be consistently applied throughout the world, such as the need to have access to clean water and clean air, caring for the habitats of plants and animals, and preparing people for natural disasters. These subjects can be addressed in many ways to suit different environmental, economic and cultural needs.

Culturally speaking, it certainly helps if you have had some experience with the country you're dealing with, either through visiting the country, knowing someone from that country or doing some research into how things are managed in that part of the world. There isn't one model that works for the whole world, which recognises the diversity of ways we live in this world and how the 'Game of Scouting' is played. It's certainly an interesting job when you bring together 28 million members from 215 countries and territories and manage to work together!

What's an average day like for you in the office?

Like many people, email is an important communication tool for me and I could get messages from quite literally any country in the world. This is one of the most interesting parts of the job and it's very rewarding if I can help people develop environmental education programs, or connect with people in other countries to work on a project or showcase their work to the wider world. I often write articles on current environmental opportunities for young people so that the information can go onto the World Scouting website or into publications of partner organisations.

We have an Environment Education Task Team made up of volunteers from several countries, so supporting the work of this team, by preparing for meeting and putting together documents, is very important. Making plans towards future events, such as a jamboree or conference, takes high priority. Working with colleagues of the World Scout Bureau, either in Geneva or in the regional offices around the world, is a big part of my day-to-day work. On an average day, I may also be out on a mission, where I travel to meet representatives from a National Scout Organization to develop projects, or I may be representing WOSM at international environmental events of partner organisations. Keeping on top of the office work, preparations for the missions and keeping track of the Unit's long-term objectives requires good time management skills and flexibility.

What qualifications do you have?

I have a Bachelor of Arts in Nature Tourism from La Trobe University and a Masters of Environmental Management from the University of Tasmania.

Are your qualifications essential to your work?

Yes, having environmental qualifications certainly helps me understand the background of environmental issues. I'm able to discuss with people what they are focusing on and how this can be further developed. We have a broad range of focal areas within the environment education field and, depending on which country we are working with, it's important to have a good understanding of a wide range of environmental topics to suit their needs. The useful skills gained from these qualifications, such as research and writing skills, interpretation and educational program development, help create meaningful resources for people who may not have environmental qualifications themselves, but have an interest in enhancing this part of their youth program.

Have you always been environmentally conscious?

I grew up in Belgrave in eastern Melbourne, surrounded by large trees, creeks, birds and possums, which I think had an influence on my interest in nature. Through my Scouting experiences I was able to see many places around Australia which helped establish an interest in the broader environment. When choosing my university course, I wanted to study something that interested me and that I saw was a meaningful field of work to get into.

Do you have a good work-life balance?

I try to, but there is certainly a need to be flexible, especially when Scouting is largely dependent on volunteer support. Working hours are often longer, there are weekend meetings or times when I am away from home for many days at a time due to the work schedule.

I try to make the most of being based in another country, and enjoy travelling and travel writing. Switzerland has some amazing landscapes to explore and I've been able to try activities, like snowshoeing, that are not easily accessible in Australia. Hanging out with friends and catching up with people from home helps me relax.

Do you speak any languages other than English?

I have some basic French and have picked up a few words of Thai whilst in Thailand. I'm also trying to learn Korean. I'm certainly at the lower end of the spectrum and it is one of the most challenging parts of living in another country.

Have you ever encountered language barriers during your postings?

When you are not able to do even the most simple tasks, such as doing the shopping or getting directions, because you can't speak the language, it can be very difficult. Those old charades moves come in pretty handy at times!

Do you have any funny stories from your experiences?

One of the most extraordinary experiences I had was when I was invited to an International Scout Peace Event held by the Saudi Arabia Scout Association. We were staying in tents, enjoying learning more about Saudi Arabia, when my friend Abdullah told us that the next day we were to go to the capital, Riyadh, where we would be representing Scouting to the King of Saudi Arabia!

The next day we took the Crown Prince's royal plane to Riyadh. Then, with a convoy of six black Mercedes, we were taken to one of the palaces. We stayed there for three days and visited the King and Crown Prince in each of their palaces, surrounded by white marble, gold, large paintings and significant security teams. It was quite surreal! We then took the plane back to Jubail where we were back in our tents with the brown blankets in the desert camp. The whole thing was most unexpected and added a completely different dimension to an already fascinating cultural journey.

What do you miss most about Australia?

There are many things I miss about Australia, especially my family and seeing my nephews and niece grow up; the Australian bush with its fascinating scenery, plants and wildlife; and not being able to watch a live game of footy, particularly as my team, Geelong, is going so well!

What have you found is the hardest thing to adjust to in a new country?

Moving away from family and friends is one of the more difficult aspects and also having to start all over again. Suddenly, simple tasks such as where to go shopping, have to be learnt again. Orienting myself to a new city and settling in to the way things are done in that part of the world can be challenging. There are many rewards to living and working in a new country, it provides a more in-depth experience of the place and also provides you with a base to explore other countries in the region.

What are your plans for the future?

We have some exciting programs that we are about to launch for World Scouting and the Environment and I'm looking forward to supporting the uptake of these in the National Scout Organizations and working with other partners.

I would like to continue working in the international environmental field and I think it's important to be open to opportunities. Looking back over the past few years, I don't think I could have predicted where I have been or what I have done, so it's a matter of making the most of the experiences and seeing where things can take you.

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