Staff Q&A with Laura Robson, Community Health Programme Coordinator

What is your academic / professional background?

I read Geography at Cambridge University which gave me an interdisciplinary academic background: the course touched on a broad range of subjects from how people interact with the environment to international development theory and practice, popular conceptions of African landscapes and societies, colonial cultures, postcolonial politics and a critical anthropology of ‘development’ interventions.

Having volunteered with a charity called Azafady in Madagascar during my gap year, and after completing a couple of health-focused internships with NGOs in Burkina Faso and Zambia during my long summer breaks while at uni, I graduated and joined Azafady again to support the development of their community health projects.

This took me back to the beautiful southeast coast of Madagascar for two years, where I was based in the small town of Fort Dauphin, working on initiatives ranging from rural sanitation to maternal and child health research. It was a great experience, and led nicely to my current role coordinating BV’s reproductive health programme along the west coast of Madagascar. I’m also starting a part-time Masters in Health, Community and Development at the London School of Economics later this year.

Why do you do what you do?

Because I simply can’t accept that life’s not fair! Growing up in a hectic family with three younger siblings, I always had a very strong sense of fair and unfair, particularly when it came to pudding portions! “That’s not fair”, I would often cry. “Life’s not fair”, was the familiar and frustrating refrain. I couldn’t accept it, won’t accept it, outraged at injustice, now as then.

I love my colleague’s description of BV as a team of professional idealists, and I think that’s really who we are: a group of pragmatic dreamers. Whether it’s small-scale fishers struggling to feed themselves because industrial trawlers are turning the sea into a desert, or women not being able to make fundamental choices about their lives because they can’t access basic health services, I think we’re all motivated by the belief that our world doesn’t have to be this way.

In that sense our work is centred around a commitment to social justice, and in my case it’s about tackling health inequalities as I really feel like this is the key to upholding people’s dignity and enabling each individual to realise their full potential. Knowing that hundreds of thousands of young women just like me in Madagascar simply don’t have access to health services that many of us take for granted, I can’t think of anything else that I’d rather be doing than supporting them to address this issue.

What is the best / worst thing about your job with BV?

There are so many best things… Contributing to a programme that I care passionately about and can see the tangible impact of, being surrounded by inspirational and tirelessly dedicated colleagues, working in an interdisciplinary way combining rigorous research and practical action, being encouraged to take the initiative and get involved with a great variety of things.

After an outreach clinic day with our midwife, also called Laura, and our 4x4 driver, Fisher
After an outreach clinic day with our midwife, also called Laura, and our 4×4 driver, Fisher

The worst thing is always wanting to be in several places at once! This is a really tough one… Luckily my amazing colleagues are very good at keeping me in the loop, sending me WhatsApp photos of what they’re up to, but I often wish that I could just split myself into pieces and be present in London, Tana, Belo and Andava all at the same time!

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The variety… Whether it’s finding behaviour change communication resources for our education specialist, writing an opinion piece on our integrated approach to conservation, presenting the results of our health work at international conferences, creating Open Data Kit forms with decision trees for our community-based distributors of contraceptives, designing a website for the Madagascar Population-Health-Environment (PHE) Network, or researching healthcare needs in the Northern Mozambique Channel to advise a partner, no day is the same with this job!

At the international conference on family planning in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

What is your favourite species and why?

It’s got to be Homo sapiens. The physical and emotional resilience of our species is completely staggering, the breadth and depth of our collective life experiences are just unfathomable, and our capacity for creativity and expression is absolutely breathtaking. All in all I think we’re pretty special!

What would your scientific superpower be?

I would love to be able to teleport myself to different places to overcome the worst thing about my job (above), and more frivolously I was also thinking that the power to turn mangrove mud into chocolate would be pretty neat. Quite random, but I was recently walking through some mangroves near Morondava and perhaps my chocolate mousse craving was getting the better of me as I suddenly started daydreaming about chocolate mud…

What is one of the strangest things that has happened to you while working in this field?

This isn’t exactly strange, but one of the most wonderful, peaceful experiences I’ve had while working in this field was sailing with two fishers between Andavadoaka and Belo in a tiny little pirogue last year. It took a couple of days, the second of which involved seventeen glorious hours at sea: setting off by moonlight under star-filled skies, dozing in the hull of our trusty boat until the sun rose, whizzing along once the wind picked up, being joined by a school of dolphins at one point, soaking up the sun and being swept along with the waves, stopping at a Vezo fishing camp on a remote island for some sweet tea, then finally approaching Belo as the sun set across cloud-dappled skies… Mahafaly be!