UNFPA Conference Volunteering

This is going to be a long one. Also, shout out to fellow PCV Kito for hooking me up with this wonderful opportunity!

Last week, I spent Sunday through Wednesday volunteering at a UNFPA conference on (draw your breath, it’s a real mouthful): Technical Experts and Ministerial Consultations on Strengthening Climate Change Resilience through Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health. It was hosted at one of the super-fancy hotels in Denarau (a disgusting fake tourist island), and I was joining a group of 16 university students from Suva.

It was chaired by several bigwigs, including the Fijian Minister for Health, the UNFPA sub-regional person, and the Princess of Jordan Sarah Zeit, a passionate American who went to the School of Oriental and African Studies and married the Prince of Jordan, and decided to use her newfound celebrity for good. Cool.

Volunteer crew w/ the Princess of Jordan

Mostly, we set up chairs, ran mics, gave away brochures, locked doors, and other small tasks like that. The Princess also had us join in with the discussion groups for the final document, which was pretty cool when you think about it: I’d like to consider myself at least partly responsible for the inclusion of language about breastfeeding on the final document. I was put with a group of old men once, and felt it was my place to remind them to include gender language when they fell back on speaking generally about “people-centered” development. Other volunteers had similar and better contributions.

Our team leader was a little disappointed with us the second day, and it was good to get my ass kicked a little. I had been pretty nervous beforehand, as the person handling my application seemed quite rigid (but turned out to be pretty cool) and I was afraid I’ve become too used to village time, but I did alright.

The conference was the best on the third day: we volunteers were at our best, I had become an excellent mic-runner, we had free mentos, and the Fijian Prime Minister showed up to close the conference with a fiery speech. It was awesome. He finally mentioned what had been mysteriously left out of the conference up until that point: that three of the attending nations (Tuvalu, Kiribati, Republic of the Marshall Islands) are predicted to go down beneath the waves within my lifetime.

The PM called out developed nations for sinking the Pacific (an entirely accurate criticism), especially Australia, who claims to be part of the Pacific but is exporting massive amounts of coal to India with the very lame excuse that if they didn’t do it, someone else would. The PM, Voreqe Bainimarama, came up with a wonderful phrase that I think was under-utilized by the media: he called the stubbornly polluting nations the “coalition of the selfish.” Take that, George Bush’s party! (sidenote: it’s real nice to see Jeb flounder and sink, but I am a little scared of Marco Rubio).

Afterwards, as we were helping to set up the cocktail + dinner area outside, we all got the chance to shake hands with the PM. I took the opportunity to greet him in the traditional Western way – “Mu sa cola vina riki,” rather than the Bauan. He asked where I was from and I told him I’m a PCV in Sabeto. These small interactions, where we PCVs don’t have to do much besides demonstrate a basic yet higher-than-average-foreigner understanding of the culture, are where we get to stand out in comparison to Aus Aid and other development organizations.

There were also a few things largely missing from the experts’ and ministers’ discussions, including a reflection or just rundown of what the Sustainable Development Goals are, or a discussion on what the actual predicted effects of climate change will be. To be fair, I think everyone was largely aware that climate change is bringing higher sea levels, hotter summers and more destructive tropical cyclones, but it would have been nice to have heard that reiterated to the audience of largely health professionals: “cyclones are becoming incredibly destructive, and they are gaining the power to wipe out decades of development.”

It was also interesting to see how people steered towards very general, vague language. There was even briefly an agreed-upon point, that was fortunately removed later, that called on governments to integrate RMNCAH* education into the countries’ syllabus, which means pretty close to nothing. But ultimately, it makes total sense to steer towards general language as a means to paper over differences in opinion on controversial things like abortion that could otherwise sink an agreement.

My gluttonous eyes on Vili's plate
My gluttonous eyes on Vili’s plate

Plus, the Fijian Minister of Health got the conference to name the concluding document “Kaila: the Pacific Call to Action” which was good, because otherwise it would’ve just been awfully boring UN-speak, like “A voice for sustainable development in the Pacific”. Kaila, by the way, means a shout of warning, like “watch out!”.

Working with FNU students was the other major highlight: it was a real pleasure to hang out with peers my age attending university, which is exactly the demographic my social life has been so badly missing over the past year. Some are rather out of touch with rural areas, but it also revealed to me how out of touch I am with urban areas. Some have never been back to their (paternal, of course) villages, and have only lived in Suva. They also didn’t really seem to have a lot of respect for the West, which helped explain why, at the concert I attended last night in Nadi, performers that were deemed too show-offy were harassed with calls of “Suva!” I really liked the students, and I’m looking forward to kicking it with them next week around the swearing-in of the new PC group in Suva, but I’m still a Lautoka boy. #WestSideBestSide

I learned a number of things there. One is that I want to be discussing and working towards the prevention, rather than adaptation aspects of climate change. Meaning helping move the world towards a green, carbon neutral/environmentally sustainable economy, and I will thus not be spending my working life in the Pacific (cheap solar power – weeee! Cyclone resistance – sad.) Simultaneously, climate change work has an inherent urgency that most social activism work doesn’t: at the risk of sounding incredibly dismissive, human societies have been repressive and oppressive since the beginning of time, but we are currently on the edge of making our entire planet uninhabitable, for not just us but nearly everything alive. Another is that I really want to experience an urban lifestyle in Fiji, but I simultaneously need to be further educated on building green economies. So if I could spend more of my second year in Lautoka, or, god forbid, Nadi, that would be absolutely awesome.

As well, when I commented to my parents, whom are both health professionals that attend conferences just like this all the time (except about ophthalmology instead of MCH), about the seeming lack of urgency or passion amongst the technical experts, Dr. Mom made an excellent point, which is that there are three things needed to make a development expert good at these things: 1. Actual technical expertise, of course, 2. Passion or dedication, which doesn’t need to be banner-waving, and 3. Plenty experience on the ground, in the field.

Now, time to do things again. 

*Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health


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