Sunday, April 13, 2014

Nations United - Leaders' society

Working in the UN is nothing close to what I have anticipated. Although, it is a tightly connected organization, with very complicated bureaucracy, it is a flexible and task-driven organization. Staff members have the freedom to go in and out whenever they want, as long as they get things DONE. It is a very different working environment, but when you start receiving tasks and assignments, you will get a clear picture that it is in this way, and only this way, that you are able to handle a big workload efficiently, and in a timely manner. Further, the UN compound is open to staff member all day and all night; Monday to Sunday. If your work is not done and the deadline is approaching, you can always come on the weekend at anytime, or stay at work till late hours of the night. Moreover, it is truly a culturally rich and diverse environment in every sense of the word. There is always an art piece in almost every corner of the UN. Each piece sends a message if not messages, and represents a history, a culture, and a civilization. In addition to that, in every organ of the UN, every department, branch, and office, there is a unique atmosphere and culture that is distinct and different from any other place.
 In my first month, and exactly as CAPT Settele anticipated, I have received numerous tasks - most of them given with a deadline that is due yesterday. I am writing this paper on the weekend at my office. It has been a hectic and very busy week; still, nonetheless, it was not without enjoyment and complete satisfaction. I am learning by the day, not only about the UN, its different bodies, branches, and divisions, but also about different member states; specifically those participating in the UN Public Service award.
Our branch brings together different staff members, with different backgrounds. They are very professional, bring so many different ideas and perspectives, and from day one we were introduced to and welcomed by each and every one of them as members of the crew. The nature of my work with such a group and in such an inter-cultural working environment can be summed up in the following: think differently and act as one.
Now, the UN Public Administration Network (UNPAN); sponsored by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA); executed and managed by the Division for Public Administration and Development Management (DPADM), our department, and in partnership with a group of international, regional, and sub-regional institutions devoted to public administration and finance, held last week the 13th session of the UN Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA) at the United Nations Headquarters. Established by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), CEPA is comprised of 24 members who meet annually at the UN Headquarters. It is a body responsible for supporting the work of ECOSOC concerning the promotion and development of public administration and governance among Member States - in connection with the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The Committee also provides guidance and advices to the Division of Public Administration and Development Management (DPADM), including the annual review of its work program, specifically in reviewing nominations and projects of the UN Public Service Award (UNPSA), and particularly focusing on the themes of human capital development, participatory governance, capacity development in crisis and post-conflict countries, and innovations in public administration and governance. CEPA gathers high rank officials, mission delegates, academics, practitioners and policy-makers. In a week of intensive deliberations they give recommendations, reach out to partnerships, provide guidance, and give advice to determine UNPSA winners of this year. In addition they guide and monitor the actual event, which will take place this year in Seoul, S. Korea. This group has at hand all the materials that our entire branch has put together. All of our summaries, evaluations, presentations, and translations will be the main source of information that will determine whether or not a certain country’s initiative will be a winner of UNPSA. It was a very busy week, and we were instructed to be highly prepared mentally, psychologically, and physically. We were at the UN headquarters from 7am to 6pm, and in our offices till late hours of the night. Moreover, each day we had to submit a detailed report about the entire day before the start of the next day. I was assigned the task of writing the long and short version of reports and submitting those before the next day. My supervisor also proposed that I continue and cover the entire event as a reporter. I also helped out with organization, administration, and preparation during the multiple workshops that gathered more than 80 participants representing different countries, organizations, and universities.
These meetings were valuable due to the various contacts I made, great presentations that reflected the weight of knowledge present in our branch and amongst the participants, and the interactions with participants when I got a chance. During these encounters, I realized that being part of the UN gave me the opportunity to do my work and, at the same time, engage in matters that relate to my interests and to my field. I have realized that it is with no doubt that I want to be a member of the UN community, to be surrounded with this type of people at my workplace, and to be in the midst of world affairs.
Now, to the fun part, I have been very lucky to shake hands with the number one person in this global body, Mr. Ban-Ki Mon. My three fellow interns and I have attended the International Women’s Day events. Mrs. Hilary Clinton and the Secretary General were there along with the other factions that the UN blends together at such events: intellectuals, practitioners, and policy makers. Although, it was by mere luck that I was standing in his way out of the conference room, while searching for my friends (who were, as I discovered later, looking for the Secretary General for a hand shake), it means a lot to me to be in that spot at that specific time. I realized that he is not as short as he looks on TV and that I must take advantage of this chance occurrence, and strive to also leave a legacy of mine in this world.
I applied a lot of aspects that I learned from SPIA to my internship, but there are so many things to learn outside of the classroom. I have never been exposed to administration tasks before and this internship definitely taught me how to effectively handle such tasks. I have also learned how to efficiently work under pressure, provide valuable contributions in a timely-manner, and do the work according to my own approaches.  I am truly enjoying every day of the internship. This experience did throw me into the profound workings of the United Nations - in a pool of deals and ideas made by contributions from a diversified group of prominent intellectuals, practitioners, and policy-makers of our times.
I end this post with one more fun meeting. I met the Deputy Ambassador of the Algerian Mission to the United Nations. It was a very pleasant meeting and turned to be very fruitful. His words of wisdom were much needed. It was also gratifying to learn from him about the different ways to develop a broad range of skills to be prepared for any number of subsequent career paths not only with the UN but also with a wide range of organizations worldwide. He, so generously, shared his time with me, and our conversation was both informative and encouraging.

As this experience continue to be as rewarding, I cannot help but to say that credit must be given to SPIA, to its faculty, staff, professors and students, and to its board. And credit, too, to the Erensel and the Churchill Family for their generosity and support. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Poverty and Social Protection Conference -Bangkok, Thailand

As someone who desires to work in the development field and build a better future, before attending this conference I knew very little about poverty. I have seen poverty in Nepal last summer when I was on my internship, but I never thought about what causes poverty and how pervasive it is. I only wanted to eradicate it.

The 7th Annual Poverty and Social Protection Conference in Bangkok, Thailand was hosted by the Tomorrow people and strove to understand the causes of poverty and critique current social protection schemes in various impoverished nations throughout the world. The location of the conference drew many participants from all South Asian nations, many from sub-Saharan Africa, and a sizable delegation from Indonesia. Representatives from the Americas were represented by delegates from the US, Mexico, Canada, and Columbia. All in all, it was a small conference with about 50 people in attendance.

Bangkok was an interesting choice because it is rapidly developing city with constant high-rise construction reminding me of Miami in the last decade. In some sense, Bangkok has dealt with her own poor, but a closer look can reveal the impact of a rapidly growing city. True to its reputation, a quick walk down the street and you can find knock-off goods, drugs, and more infamously, prostitution. A trip outside the official city limits reveals slums and rural poverty.

The first sessions of the conference followed a theme of identifying the root causes of poverty. The presentations varied based on the societies that were studied, but a couple of common causes were identified. The most common argument for the pervasiveness of poverty was the rapidly growing middle class and the competition for natural resources. It was argued that as more people demand a more diverse diet and access to expensive technologies, the demand for wealth and natural resources increases. Inevitably conflict erupts over the accumulation of wealth and many people loose out. As I sat through these presentations and looked around the room, I could see the delegates from African nations nodding their heads. Many of them have seen first hand what the competition for natural resources and minerals by other nations has cost their countries. 

The second theme common throughout the presentations was that as developing nations become more wealthy and create winners and losers, their nation after an initial boom, (in my own mind I was thinking China) society becomes increasingly stratified and it more difficult for people to rise economically and they become trapped. Loose economic polices usually implemented during the "good times" of economic growth does not effectively address the long-term poor. 

The most interesting session I attended was done by a French economist living in Indonesia and she attempted to count the number of impoverished people living in Indonesia and whether that has changed over pervious decade. This was extremely difficult to do because there are over 18,000 islands in the archipelago. Without going into the details, most of which I don't really remember, I was surprised to find that she said that poverty was on the rise, and the populations at risk (and who deserve the most attention to policy makers) were not the chronic long-term poor, but those just above the poverty line. These people flow in and out of poverty and are most at risk because their economic status is not constant and they do not have the social networks to deal with sudden poverty. She didn't abandon the long-term poor, but argued that policy makers need to focus their energy on the people who don't have to tools to live with being poor. This really challenged my own thinking because many poverty alleviation programs focus on getting people over the poverty line and saying "job well done."

The rest of the conference spoke on many different social protection schemes throughout the world such as cash transfers in Nepal and microcredit in India (conclusions were lukewarm) and effectiveness of government healthcare in Indonesia. Needless to say there was way more information than I could take in. Luckily I got a CD with everyone's presentations and research on it for whoever is interested.

In addition to a wealth of information, I though the conference was well worth it for networking opportunities. I got to interact with people from all over the world who were a mix of academics and development professionals. I got plenty of advice and made a few of strong connections from NGO leaders in Mexico, Indonesia, and Mozambique. Hopefully I can turn these into job prospects, but many of them expressed the desire to hire nationals of the countries they work in especially if they come from societies with many unemployed people which is understandable. However I believe that the conference and my time in Bangkok was well worth it. I have a greater appreciation for the work done by development professionals and the studies by the academics to identify the problems and generate solutions. I am very thankful for the support of SPIA.  

Thursday, March 6, 2014

One place, worldly exposure

First and foremost, I’d like to extend my sincerest appreciation to Captain Jim Settele, Peter Fandel, Professor Singleton, and all of SPIA. We the students could not have made it to where we are, without the continued support, assistance and encouragement that we receive from you all. Huge and relentless efforts are made by the captains of our SPIA ship, stirring its wheel, while navigating in the big and open seas of knowledge. You guide us towards a more successful future, marked by SPIA as a milestone. I want to also thank the students of SPIA. We proudly are the engine, the crew, and the driving force of this ship. Moreover, we truly are a family, as we care for each other and support one another. The amount of support I received from this crew; support that took many forms is enormous. They have given me a boost to start the experience ready, and up to the challenge. So thank you my dear SPIA family for being there for me at all times.
Now, on to New York, what a fascinating place, it is complex, diverse, challenging and beautiful, and even though I have only been here for almost two weeks, I have already learned so much. I decided to write this so that I do not forget the details of my first weeks. Only two weeks were enough for me to start writing the thoughts and experiences still fresh in my mind before I get overwhelmed again and forget most of it.
As I approach the beginning of my third week in New York, I have to pause to reflect on what has been an incredible experience in the city. It is a dynamic and cosmopolitan city in every sense of the word. Busy by day and busy at night, it is always in continuous movement. To borrow from Henry Ford in describing New York, “It is a different country. Maybe it ought to have a separate government. Everybody thinks differently, they just don’t know what the hell the rest of the United States is”. And though it is the most famous city in the United States, the “Big Apple” is a place where English-speaking people consist a minority. If you are walking down the street, entering a supermarket or a restaurant your ears are treated to a variety of different accents, dialects and languages. It feels different, not to say weird to some extent, to enter a restaurant and talk to the waiter for about a minute and finally replies “NO English“.
My internship is in the United Nations building 1&2, which is right next to the United Nations Secretariat; the main building, (the place where I thought, and what most people thought, I will be interning in, well, maybe next time, perhaps the next time will be as a staff!) I work in the Public Administration Capacity Branch (PACB), under the division for Public Administration and Development Management (DPADM), and in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). My branch’s main focus includes institutional reconstructing, and human resource development. It manages a variety of activities and events aimed at building public institutions and government’s capacity to promote sustainable development, advance public sector reform and improve service delivery. The division’s training and capacity-building activities promote citizen-oriented governance, based on a set of principles such as transparency, accountability, and civic participation. It also emphasizes innovative approaches to public management, out of which, emerges The United Nations Public Service Award, “the most prestigious international recognition of excellence in public service”, which is the big event that all the division will be working head over heals for, till the announcement of award winners in May.
My first two weeks in the United Nation accompanied a revolution in Ukraine. With the outcome of the “revolution” still unfolding, small demonstrations are taking place, in front of the UN secretariat, shouting “Russia (Putin) hands off Ukraine. This has given me an overwhelming feeling of integration and connectedness to this place. The U.N. ties together different nationalities, backgrounds, races, faiths and politics into the one knot here in New York.
 My experience thus far has been nothing short of amazing; everything seems to almost be perfect. Although, I spent my entire first week waiting for the technician to come and set up my office computer and UN e-mail, it did not hold me back from asking for work, assignments and tasks. During my first week I have received various assignments to do on my laptop, and I feel very proud to say that my documents have been very helpful to my supervisor as well as the other interns who are working on the same project with me. By the end of my first week I have already evaluated my division’s online trainings, some of which were not already put on the website. I was able to give my thoughts, ideas, and suggestions, so as to make them user-friendly and accessible. I was also given access to the public administration nomination’s lists for countries participating in the UN Public Service Award “UNPSA”, I went through all the nominees’ profiles, checked the submission of the documents; analyzed them, organized them, and presented my final evaluation and assessment.
Also, during my first week, my two dear friends, and shining stars of SPIA, Mr. Theodore Wilhite and Mr. Pearce Erensel, jointly brought forth the kind regards of SPIA, accompanied by the precious advice from the Captain. Their visit brought the SPIA warmth to the Maine-like cold of New York, and we could not let that pass without documentation (picture attached).
As always, SPIA continues to set itself apart. I am reminded of this every time I talk to a supervisor or to the other staff members in the division. I am fortunate to have had the good fortune of the Public Service Seminar, as my business cards and the professional trainings of SPIA have truly been beneficial and helped me set myself apart here in New York.

To conclude, I am more than happy to reflect and share my experience with SPIA, and I hope you enjoyed reading this blog as much I enjoyed writing it. There will be more to come in the next weeks or two. As for now, I will continue to live and love my experience. One last thing, I was in touch with the Algerian mission to the UN and I will be meeting with them by the end of this week. I spoke with the minister of the mission himself. He suggested we grab a coffee outside of the work environment “just to chat”, and welcomed me to visit the mission (which is couple of blocks away from my office). I look forward to the meeting, and I will of course keep you updated.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Revitalizing Kindergartens with Mercy Corps

By Guoyan Zhu
Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China

Happy New Year of the Horse!  As the two-week Spring Festival concludes, I wanted to thank Mr. Bill Farrell, Capt. Jim Settele, and SPIA donors for giving me such a great opportunity to work for Mercy Corps.  Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to intern at Mercy Corps’ headquarters in Portland, OR in June or continue my Mercy Corps experience here in Chengdu, China.

Mercy Corps China has gradually grown since I arrived last summer.  Along with the three existing programs (poverty relief, revitalizing kindergartens, and comfort for kids), Mercy Corps has recently partnered with Apple, Inc. and Shell to assist disaster relief efforts and projects to stimulate economic activity in rural areas of Sichuan Province.  As with all its other projects, Mercy Corps’ philosophy is to listen to the perspectives and priorities of the local communities in order to innovatively effect long-term, sustainable, and meaningful change in people’s lives.

After a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan Province in April 2013, Mercy Corps began planning for recovery even as disaster relief efforts were still underway.  One of its initiatives is the Revitalizing Kindergartens Program.  Kindergartens are pre-existing social organizations that provide critical support for children and their families in the aftermath of disaster.  Kindergartens provide vulnerable children an education and safe place to play, giving their parents piece of mind as they commence the process of rebuilding their lives.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Global Ethics Forum/Bounds of Ethics, Bangalore, India 2014


Traveling to India is no short feat. It takes hours of patience, sitting, eating airplane food, finding new terminals, attempting to connect to random WiFis, and skill. After having one of the most pleasant trips
Enjoying a Dosa
(via Emirates, I highly recommend them!), I finally found myself back at Bangaluru International Airport, surrounded by kurthas, screaming babies, bangles, staring men, and armed police forces. You know, the usual.  After what seemed like an eternity, I finally made it through customs with no trouble and headed to the front of the airport.

Coming back to India is not at all what I expected. I expected to experience a sort of adjustment time, a period of culture shock, getting used to the noise, the smells, the staring people. But it was honestly as if I had never left (I studied abroad in Bangalore in the Fall of 2012). I stepped onto the street and instantly felt at home. Seeing the familiar sights of my beloved Bangalore, smelling the quite awful smells, seeing the people, the traffic, the weather, it was all just as I had left it. Bargaining for rickshaws hadn’t changed a bit, either, and I have consistently gotten fair prices, which is marvelous because usually non-Indians get terrible deals.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Thanksgiving in Chile

The conference in Viña Del Mar was an amazing experience because of the diverse backgrounds of each presenter.  We were among the few native English speakers in attendance with people coming from Germany, Spain, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and many other countries.  It was refreshing to hear the views of professors and professionals from around the world.  This led to much more lively conversations during coffee breaks and lunch time as each individual had a unique perspective on the issues surrounding natural resources and development. 

There were two speakers in particular whose presentations I will remember for the rest of my life.  Mary C. Comerio from the University of California at Berkley gave a presentation on the second day of the conference regarding disasters, ecosystems, and development.  Professor Comerio’s expertise, including disaster recovery, housing impacts in disasters, loss modeling, and performance based design, were exemplified during her presentation.  Furthermore, she was closely involved in the recovery following the 2010 Chile earthquake, and her first hand experience gave her presentation more life and credibility.  In her presentation titled resilience, recovery and community renewal, professor Comerio highlighted some key aspects of recovery following disasters.  Some characteristics of a resilient community include good governance, risk assessment, knowledge and education, risk management, and disaster preparedness and response.   However, one of the most interesting points that professor Comerio brought up was the two paradigms of resilience she has encountered.  The first was called engineering resilience which focuses on efficiency, constancy, and predictability.  The other was called ecological resilience, which focuses on persistence, change, and unpredictability.  The latter was a more recent paradigm that is defined as the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change.  This model acknowledges the idea that some things cannot be fail safe, but one can make an effort to create an environment that is more likely to at least safely fail.  Mary Comerio concludes that engineering is necessary to recovery but that it is not enough.  There needs to be pre-disaster mitigation policy regarding things like building codes but there also needs to be post disaster recovery planning.  She puts a large emphasis on planning as being just as important as building “safe buildings” as a form of mitigation.

Another incredible speaker was Dr. Udo Nehran who focused on ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction and the possibility for new and innovative approaches for higher education.  Dr. Nehran focused on the use of landscape development and ecosystem management to mitigate disaster costs.  However the most impressive part of this presentation was the effort of Dr. Nehren and his team to reach out to educators and others involved in higher education to bring back the information he shared with us.  He did this by providing resources like textbooks, online course material, and other avenues that could help spread the information he provided.  He even provided many of those who were listening with a business card that contained more than 50 hours of interactive teaching materials on its attached USB device.


Outside of the conference, navigating Chile and interacting with the Chileans was a whole other learning experience.  Using my broken Spanish along with Brett’s amazing ability to speak “Brettish” fluently, we were able to overcome many of the language barriers we encountered.  This made for an interesting moment anytime we would order food hoping to get something along the lines we were picturing.  Although we missed out on enjoying Thanksgiving with our families we did run into an unlikely friend who helped us put together an amazing dinner that brought together many different cultures.  One of our mutual friends from Dickinson College was in Santiago teaching English to young Chileans.  On Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, on the top floor of an apartment building in Santiago, Chile, young adults ranging from Chile, Argentina, France, Australia, and the US got together to celebrate Thanksgiving together.  We each wrote on a piece of paper what we would like to give thanks for and then read it aloud.  Some of us could only speak in our native language using hand gestures to try and communicate what we meant, while others would translate what they could in an effort to bring everyone together.  What we soon realized was that laughter is a universal language as the room began to fill with a chorus of different dialects, languages, and accents.  All I could think of was that this event truly encompassed what Thanksgiving is all about. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

“50 years on-wards: Enhancing the role of the Diaspora in Kenya’s future Development “

On December 13th to 15th I attended a conference in Crystal City, Virginia by the Embassy of Kenya.  The conference was celebrating 50 years of Kenya’s independence and discussing Kenya’s future and the role of its citizens in the diaspora. The conference brought together Kenyans in the US as well as business and government officials from Kenya to network and build on the knowledge about Kenya’s development and standing in the world. The conference begun on Friday with a reception to celebrate Jamuhuri Day (Kenya’s Independence Day which is on December 12th). On arrival at the reception guests were greeted by Ambassador Jean N. Kamau, Charge d’Affaires of the Kenyan Mission in Washington D.C, the Defense Attaché Col. Hesbon Malweyi and the deputy permanent representative of the Kenya Mission to the United Nations in New York Koki Muli Grignon. The dress code was military service uniform or national attire; this gave for a colorful event as Kenya has a unique culture with over 42 tribes. The evening started out with mixers and playing the full national Anthems of Kenya and the US. The welcome address was by Amb. Kamau who invited the chief guest of honor, the first Kenyan Ambassador to the US Amb. Burudi Nabwera, to speak. Amb. Nabwera recalled that 50 years ago to the date he made the same trip from Kenya to the US to serve a dual role as the Ambassador of the Kenya Mission in the US in Washington D.C and the United Nations, his appointment having being between December 17th 1963-September 30th 1970. The rest of the night was filled with Kenyan food, music and dances. I was able to interact with former ambassadors from the US to Kenya, Kenyan business and government officials and took the time to learn about the three Kenya Missions in the US and their different functions.

The conference began on Saturday December 14th with remarks from the lead sponsors who were executive officers from Kenyan banks and GE Africa.  This session was very educational as it provided information on the history and future of banking in Kenya. Most of the large banks in Kenya were not indigenous to Kenya, they started as banks from other countries but have now transformed into Kenyan owned banks such as Bank of India which is now Kenya Commercial Bank.  Kenya’s vision 2030 is a broad framework on development that hopes to build Kenya into an industrializing middle income country through increase in investments to the country. One of the goals is to make Nairobi a financial capital in the region, and so it made sense that this session focused on how financial services are transforming not only Kenya but East Africa. Kenyan banks have been able to penetrate the East African market making it the only country in the region to offer regional financial services from South Sudan to Burundi. East Africa is harmonizing to create a gateway to a quarter billion people with rising exportable talent and a culture of leapfrogging technology and innovation. This makes it possible for the services offered by the financial sector to cross national borders and closer to unifying the region into a monetary union. Something that stood out to me about this session is that when I was growing up most executive leadership positions were run by foreigners whereas now that is not the case. It was inspiring to see the shift towards Africans for Africa.