A fly on the wall of Papua New Guinea

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For Roy and some of his colleagues these runs were not just about keeping fit, but also a chance to mix, integrate and support local community life.

  • By Joel Hambly


Departing for Papua New Guinea, a second year Edinburgh University student, with an opportunity to shadow the UN Resident Coordinator in the country for ten days, I felt a mixture of excitement and curiosity. In researching for my visit, a Facebook page popped up called: “PNG the land of the unexpected!” So that’s what I was expecting. It didn’t disappoint.

I knew little about PNG, beyond the headlines about violence and safety concerns. I learnt that around 40% of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day (the global ‘income poverty line’). But I was surprised to learn it is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries, with over 850 indigenous languages!

I was based in Port Moresby at the UN office shadowing UN Resident Coordinator Roy Trivedy, who is responsible for coordinating the work of 14 UN agencies located in country (plus 5 non resident agencies supporting work in the country). He represents the UN Secretary General in the country and is also the Representative for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). As Resident Coordinator (RC), Roy also has responsibilities as the UN officer in charge of Security and Humanitarian issues. So it a complex role involving a range of functions.

The purpose of my trip was to learn about the UN system, through shadowing Roy and gaining an understanding of the role of the UN RC, as well as getting a glimpse into the life of a UN employee.

My time in PNG was supposed to kick off with an ambitiously early start – I had agreed to go a running club with Roy and his colleague from the UN at 6 am. They made it, I didn’t. Not a good start Joel.

For Roy and some of his colleagues these runs were not just about keeping fit, but also a chance to mix, integrate and support local community life.

They are members of Port Moresby Road Runners Group, where “almost 70 percent are young unemployed people”. Roy believes that for these youth “the weekly races represent hope, well-being and improved prospects for the runners”. Really did feel guilty about not going now!

The UN staff are a very friendly and diverse group: a mix of Papua New Guinean and international staff from countries from Italy to Tajikistan. Although this diversity and world experience is one of the comparative advantages of the United Nations, attracting qualified and highly motivated local staff is believed to be a vital part of the changes that the UN is seeking to support in the country.

Working to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (Global Goals) to improve the standard of living and quality of life for citizens in PNG is a key aim along with giving practical support to help the government to become more capable, efficient and accountable. To do this, Roy and his staff work together to foster cooperation and improve coordination and dialogue at local, community and national level. Close collaboration and input with local and foreign governments, a wide range of partners and diplomatic community is a daily part of the work.

Promoting engagement and the Global Goals through practical projects and constant advocacy through the media is also a vital role for all the UN agencies. Social media, through Facebook and Twitter, is one platform they use to stay relevant, relatable and connected to people especially youth.

I accompanied Roy to the ‘FM 100 Radio’ station, and in his interview there he talked about what Papua New Guinea needs to do to achieve the SDGs by 2030. He emphasized the need to invest in safety, security and peace for all citizens (the country has a reputation for law and order problems), to create decent work for all, support training and education, to steward PNG’s rich environmental resources, to invest in gender equality and improve healthcare. What I noted was that he used practical examples of how these things could be achieved citing things that were already happening in the country or elsewhere which could be scaled-up.

There was also significant media coverage for a blood drive I attended at a high school we attended. In Papua New Guinea there is a serious shortage of blood in all 35 major and district hospitals in the country. Creating a significant buzz was the attendance of PNG’s equivalent of Justin Bieber and the local rugby champions — the famous PNG Hunters. I was intrigued to learn about the huge popularity of Rugby League in Papua New Guinea.

 Although a country of 1,400 islands, 1000 ethnic groups and over 800 different languages they all share a common love and passion for Rugby League, which is helping to unite a diverse nation.

Roy explained that the UN agencies want to harness this growing popularity to help achieve their important development goals. I am excited by this concept of sport as a vehicle for social change. He explained how sports activities could be used to teach many life skills that help with: better health, improved teamwork and resilience. It also enhances enrolment in education, school attendance and academic performance for girls and boys, including children with disabilities.

Another initiative that I found interesting was the UN international day of Yoga. In 2015 the UN General Assembly recognised Yoga as a simple way to help promote better health and unite communities.

Around 10,000 people turned up in Port Moresby to support this event on Sunday morning.

Being relatively inexperienced in the field of Yoga I lowered the standard dramatically and had to bow out before I embarrassed myself too much!

The UN agencies also supported World Refugee Day while I was there and the theme was ‘PNG Welcomes Refugees’. I thought this was an important sentiment to promote, with the staggering numbers of refugees and displaced people around the world due to conflicts, persecution and wars. I was humbled to learn that every day that nearly 34,000 people are forcibly displaced from their homes. It is a huge challenge for the UNHCR and other agencies. I also noticed some of the professional and personal challenges felt by the international staff. In a country like Papua New Guinea, you can often feel isolated due to the high crime rates in many parts of the country. All staff stressed the importance to keep fit and keep doing activities outside of the office hours. This in particular is encouraged by Sukhrob (UNDP Deputy Resident Representative). He plays a key role in the office not only in his work, but also ensuring that outside of the office UN staff remain fit, healthy and motivated in a difficult environment.

Although my stay here was short, I have learnt some valuable life lessons, which I hope I can apply to my life going forward. The importance of investing in relationships — keeping with in touch with friends both new and old. I hope to do this with regard to many of the people I’ve met during my time in Papua New Guinea. I have also realized the importance of communication (written and verbal) in a stressful work environment — it is important to let others know how you are feeling and where you are with your work. I also noted the need to be prepared for meetings — researching the details and making sure you are fully aware of the issues. The importance of leadership and constantly setting an example to your staff and those around you. Your actions inside and outside of the workplace reflect this and people really notice. Most importantly however, this experience has begun a process of reflection about what I want to do in the future.

In Papua New Guinea in particular, I saw first hand some of the stresses and anxiety, which comes with poverty, insecurity and vulnerability. I believe that this contributes to some of the violence and crime in the country. Looking forward, I hope to train in ways to help individuals cope with these types of issues.

I did not expect to feel such a connection to the UN and Papua New Guinea during my short stay. Leaving after ten days seemed a great shame, as I felt I still had so much to learn. I feel very grateful to have had this opportunity. There are wonderful memories I will never forget, and experiences I certainly did not expect.