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Ahead of the Irish Launch of 2015 UN Volunteers State of the World’s Volunteerism Report tomorrow, Emma Dwyer, Coordinator in Irish Rule of Law International wrote about her experiences with the United Nations Volunteers.
The year that I spent working with the United Nations Development Programme in Malawi as a UN Volunteer was the steepest learning curve a graduate could expect to have – and I loved it. I had heard about the Irish Aid funded UNV programme during my masters in International Relations in UCD and knew that it was the opportunity that I had been working towards for the previous 5 years of studies in UCD and UCC. Working in the field of international development has always been my passion and secretly, or not so secretly, getting back to Africa was a major driving force. I was born in South Africa and by the age of 9 had lived in Zambia, Botswana and Tanzania and despite being a Cork girl through and through I always felt a pull to go back.
I decided to take a year out after my masters and backpacked for five months around India and South East Asia so that, in my mind, I would be able to knuckle down then to my ‘career’ when I got back. Now, anyone who works in development will know that there is no set career path at all to follow and it can be a case of luck or determination but more often a combination of both.
Getting on to the Irish Aid UNV programme in 2011 – now called the UN Youth Programme – was the best start that I could have hoped for. I was one of twelve selected and we were all posted in UN missions around the world, but particularly in countries which were also Irish Aid partner countries and which formed part of Irish Aid’s own international development strategy. There were two of us Irish UNVs in Malawi – myself in UNDP and Cian Doherty in UNAIDS. I am still in contact with my 2011 group, the majority of whom continue to work in the field of development either in Ireland or abroad. If people think Ireland is like a village, then the development and volunteer community is like a housing estate and more than once since we first embarked on the UNV journey have I found myself working with or handing over to UNV friends.
In Malawi I worked in the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office which is exactly what it says on the tin – it is the coordination hub for all of the UN agencies in a given country, and the Resident Coordinator is the representative of the UN in that country. I didn’t know when I started that there were so many UN agencies and in my first week at work I arrived late to a meeting in UNFPA when I was supposed to be in WFP. Figuring out all of the acronyms was also the next major hurdle. What is MNE? Oh sorry, M&E. What is M&E then?
I had the privilege of working with Richard Dictus who was the UN Resident Coordinator during my time in Malawi and who is now the Executive Coordinator of UNV in Bonn. Van Nguyen was my supervisor and I was part of a wonderful team – Van, Priscilla, Tinkhani and Atupele. Priscilla is Malawian and is the same age as I am so for both of us it was our first step towards working in development. We had great craic in and out of the office but we worked hard and worked very well together. Priscilla is now a Programme Analyst with UNDP in Ethiopia. One of the great things about being a UNV is that it gives you an opportunity to work with colleagues and forge friendships with people from all over the world.
2011 was a difficult year in Malawi’s recent history as the country experienced political unrest and an economic crisis with shortages of foreign currency, fuel and electricity being the norm. I recall an afternoon when word went around the office that the fuel station nearby was due to get a delivery so we all jumped into our cars and drove down to join the already significant queue. And we waited. And waited. We sat under a tree and had our team meeting, taking it in turns to move the cars as people gave up and went home. After a few hours we also gave up; there was no fuel that day. Six hours I think was the most I ever queued for fuel – and I was one of the lucky ones. For the general population without personal vehicles no fuel meant no buses and often no way to get to work. Walking and cycling is the main mode of transport in Malawi but with people coming into the city for work, it could be weeks or months before they could get home to visit family. No fuel also meant no way to run the hospital generators when the electricity went out. A colleague of mine was advised to bring a jerrycan of fuel with him to the hospital when his wife went in to have their first child in case there was an emergency and there was no electricity. The tragic deaths then of 20 people in July 2011, when security forces cracked down on anti-government protestors, escalated already rising tensions. During this time Richard Dictus, as the representative of the UN, was involved in emergency talks with government, opposition and civil society leaders to try to manage the building anti-government sentiment. It was an incredible working environment to find myself in and I was acutely aware also of my privileged position as a foreigner in that I could always leave if the situation got too dangerous.
All that considered, Malawi is generally a very safe country to live and work in and is well named ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’. It is a beautiful country and the people are welcoming – they even call their potatoes ‘Irish’ if you go to the local market. I thought the vendors were shouting at me first and couldn’t figure out how they could tell I was Irish – when all they were doing was trying to sell me potatoes.
For my part, I was involved in UN coordination at an operational level – including at one point trying to develop a fuel contingency plan so that UN programmes in rural regions targeting the most vulnerable communities were not overly impacted by fuel shortages – as well as on a ‘thematic’ level such as gender and human rights. Together with a team of colleagues representing different UN agencies in Malawi, we organized a UN Joint Gender Mission to Malawi, the aim of which was to bring experts from UN agencies working in other countries to Malawi to do a study of the challenges facing Malawi’s women and girls in achieving gender equality. Of all the goals which were set out by the Millennium Development Goals, the failure to make significant improvements in those focusing on women’s and girls’ rights threatened to undermine all of the country’s development achievements. This continues to be one of the main challenges faced by Malawi as the international development agenda shifts now to the Sustainable Development Goals.
After my time as a UNV in Malawi I had another opportunity of a different kind when I went to New York to work for Ireland’s Permanent Mission to the UN – where I coincidentally found myself working with one of the UNVs from my 2011 group, Leah Sullivan. Sitting in the UN General Assembly and participating in the discussions and negotiations around the formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals was like watching all of my studies in International Relations and Development Policy play out in front of me. I was also very proud to witness the high regard with which Ireland is held at the UN level and often frustrated that not more people understood or even cared about this back home.
Four years on and Malawi is still a huge part of my life. For the last two years I have been working in Dublin for an organization called Irish Rule of Law International (IRLI). IRLI was established by the Law Society of Ireland and the Bar of Ireland and is founded upon the importance of strengthening the rule of law to achieve sustainable development. Irish volunteer solicitors and barristers, through IRLI, travel to countries around the world working with judges, academics, lawyers, police officers and other stakeholders to advance the collective knowledge of the relationship between human rights, rule of law and development. We currently have programmes in South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania and Myanmar but our main programme is an Access to Justice Programme in Malawi.
We currently have an incredible team of five lawyers working to build capacity in the criminal justice system. Since the programme began in 2011, back when I was in Malawi first and the initial IRLI volunteers were also my friends, 13 lawyers have volunteered for periods of 6-24 months while many more have traveled to facilitate targeted workshops. I am extremely proud of what IRLI is achieving in Malawi with our local partners and the part that I play in the management and oversight of our various programmes. IRLI is still small but we are making a significant impact in the lives of the communities where we have our programmes and that is what I work towards every day.