On assignment with CESO in La Paz – Bolivia

The last two weeks of January I was working in Bolivia, as a Volunteer Advisor (VA) with the Canadian Executive Service Organization (CESO). I was there assisting the Municipality of La Paz with some conflict management and communication challenges they are facing.

The work

My work with the Municipality was right up my alley. I enjoy strategic planning and analysis; interviewing, situation assessments, and making sense of complex interactions and relationships. I’ve being doing this type of work for decades, in one form or another. When the client I’m working with is fully involved and committed to the process, as was the case in Bolivia, the work is especially rewarding.


with Glenda (client manager)

Working overseas, effectively, requires significant collaboration and coordination. For my assignment, that included me interacting with: CESO head office, CESO’s travel agent, CESO’s representative (Carlos) in the host country (Bolivia), the client manager (Glenda), client staff and local agencies, a translator (Marie, Spanish-English), other VA’s operating in the host country, current and past.

The assignment was professionally managed by CESO. This was my first time working with a dedicated translator. The host language is Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish (though I did learn a few words, courtesy of Google Translate). Marie (my translator) was exceptional. I interviewed approximately 20 people. Her translations were fluid and seamless (to me). I trusted the integrity of her translation. The work flowed, efficiently and effectively.

Marie and Carlos

Marie and Carlos

I’ve been on previous CESO assignments (e.g., Tanzania, Philippines). With each assignment I go on, I find CESO continually improves their processes. It’s a journey, though. Each assignment is different. The volunteer advisors (generally, older professionals, still working (like me) or recently retired) are diverse. The cultural and physical locations are diverse. Getting everyone on the same communication page is no mean feat. Process and constructive on-the-ground relationships are keys to success.

La Paz impressions 

This was my first time in Bolivia; a land-locked country in the middle of South America. The terrain ranges from Andes Mountains and high plateaus to the Amazon rain forest.

The people I interacted with on a regular basis were friendly, accepting, and smart.

La Paz is a city of a million people, the defacto capital of Bolivia. El Alto, an adjacent city, also of a million citizens, sits directly above La Paz, on a plateau.

One Sunday morning, I walked the city streets from La Paz to El Alto, an elevation gain of 500 metres. I was sucking air, to say the least. La Paz is the highest capital city in the world at close to 4,000 metres elevation. Victoria, where I live, is at sea level!

Walking around La Paz, one is ever witness to two worlds, one of tradition, dating back centuries, the other of modernity, mobile phones et al. 80% of Bolivians are on Facebook.

Transportation in La Paz is an adventure. Taxis, micro and mini buses are ubiquitous. Driving is not for the feint of heart. A nifty short cut to traffic crawl/mayhem is the public Teleferico, the world’s largest network of urban gondolas. It’s impressive infrastructure. It’s built by Doppelmayr, an Austrian-Swiss company. It’s new. It’s being expanded.

Teleferico - document

Teleferico in La Paz

Bolivia has one of the lowest GDPs in South America. That said, the future is wide open. Of course, politics is always at play. The mediator in me senses, though, a local thirst for more conciliatory, less power-based, governance.

My time in La Paz preceded the country’s major carnival, in early February. Performers and musicians were everywhere, rehearsing for the main event.

Prepping for carnival

La Paz parade (one of many!)

Timing is everything… like watching this street busker juggle knives, while traffic is stopped for a red light!:

La Paz busker

La Paz busker

Foreign “help”

Historically, the field of international development aid does not have a glowing track record.

Nevertheless, my experience, on whole, is one of a win-win-win growth; for the client, for CESO (and Canada), and personally.

One of the CESO features I particulary appreciate is that all their assignments include a requirement that the work also advances gender (women) participation, and environmental sustainability.

Helping other countries is a dynamic activity. There is no magic formula. What’s your experience?



  1. What a fantastic experience. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thanks Vern. It was a great experience. And I know that you, as much as anyone, understands and appreciates the value of cross-culture interaction.

  3. Grant Lee says

    In a word, your assignment was… Breathless! Perhaps, in a word, our assignments in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania were… Exotic.

  4. Breathless and exotic. Grant – vivid descriptives – you are truly a marketing pro! 🙂


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