Development Work: Why “Heart” Matters

“The floods came and I moved the children to the second floor of the boarding house. We had heard that aid was on its way. We waited for two weeks, but it never came. Who will help us?”

Many people ask me if I am going to return to serve with the United Nations (UN) after I complete my education at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP). My answer is, overwhelmingly, a “yes.”

I often recall this conversation (quoted above) I had with the headmaster of a school in the interior of Sarawak during a mission that I helped to coordinate, which was aimed at equipping rural communities with basic emergency first response skills. As with many of the poorest of the poor, the indigenous communities in Sarawak, who live in the margins of the state’s rivers and forests, are desperately trying to adapt to effects of environmental degradation and climate change. They see that annual floods are getting more and more severe, but know very little as to how they should cope. We saw this as an opportunity to build the resilience of riverine communities to prepare for emergencies.

During this trip, the headmaster told me about the sense of hopelessness and helplessness that overcame him as he struggled to keep the children under his watch safe. With the severe weather, the rivers had become unnavigable, effectively cutting off the school from the nearest clinic and town. This is one of many conversations that I have shared with the communities I worked with during my years with UNDP, which has enriched my life and imbued it with new perspectives.

Giving a presentation on rivers to primary school children in Kuching, Sarawak

We often think of the UN as this giant, multilateral mechanism where power relations are played out on the international stage. In many ways, this view is accurate. But the mandate of the UN extends far beyond that. Far away from the media spotlight, hundreds of thousands of men and women are working each day, even as volunteers, to try and “make the world a better place,” so to speak, and in doing so, are impacting the lives and livelihoods of people like you and me. It is in the work of the UN’s specialised development agencies that I have seen how much difference the organisation can make in protecting the rights of the poorest and most vulnerable in society. I am often told that it should be the job of governments to step in to help the weakest. However, in reality, we know that governments, whether as a result of policy failure, institutional weaknesses or neglect, simply do not. This is where I feel that the UN’s most urgent priority lies, that is, in bridging the gap between where we are today and where we want to be in the future.

I was fortunate enough to enter UNDP at a time where the organization was expanding its programme in terms of scope and reach. It was a very exciting time for all of us, though we often worked around the clock (contributing to the pre-mature greying of my hair I suppose). As we here at LKYSPP discuss the importance of leadership, I see myself benefitting immensely from the supervision and guidance of the UNDP Resident Representative at that time. He believed in the value of “being in the field” to inform our work at the policy level. Although I was based in Kuala Lumpur, I frequently travelled to visit our project sites scattered around the country. My trips took me to some of the most remote areas in Malaysia, often taking a flight, a big boat, a small boat and a jeep to get to my destination. It was a sharp learning curve for me, but I gained from being involved in a diverse range of projects from energy and the environment to HIV/AIDS to women’s rights.

Sharing a story on climate change with UNDP National Goodwill Ambassador, Datuk Nicol David

One of the advantages of working with UNDP is being part of a global network. Through the organization’s internal communications network, we frequently shared lessons learned from the programmes that we were running between country offices and provided feedback on initiatives that were being proposed. I met colleagues from all corners of the world through workshops, trainings and meetings. Certainly, I gained tremendously from the great support and cross-cultural experience of being a part of an international organization.

During my first few missions, I was completely exhausted by the time I arrived at the site. I realized very early on that you need an immense amount of energy to work in development and to do it well. Energy bars help, as does lots of water. But it was in the field that I truly fell in love with development work, with its various challenges, its fluid and contextual nature, and the many overlapping layers of issues that make a career in development so rich. One of the most important lessons I learned was the value of indigenous knowledge. I am constantly amazed by the communities that I encounter in my work – their spirit to survive, how their core value of living in harmony with nature somehow seems “right” today when we think about how unsustainable society has become, and their colourful and distinct cultures and histories. My view may be biased, but to me, the best policies are not drawn up by a suit sitting in some ivory tower far away. Wonderful ideas can trickle up from below, and if given a chance, can provide indispensable insight for policy at the national, regional and international levels.

Learning about measuring biodiversity at the Gombak Forest Reserve with UNDP National Goodwill Ambassador, Datuk Nicol David

Although I looked forward to coming to work every day, I nonetheless faced ethical dilemmas and conflicts of interest that I had to struggle with. Working in development requires close cooperation with governments, who ultimately have jurisdiction over the populations within their borders. But my background as an activist did not necessarily sit well with my role in having to negotiate or to persuade government counterparts. I recall an instance when an implementing partner asked me, “Is there a way that we can remove the word ‘poor’ from the report?”

Similarly, there were times that it was very difficult for me to maintain objectivity in my work and in presenting both sides of the story. One example was after my last visit to the Penan settlement in Asap, where I saw the sadness in the eyes of a community that had been forced to abandon their traditional way of life, only to find themselves in deeper poverty. It is difficult when one feels passionately about one’s work, to accept the reality that at the end of the day, the UN is only as strong as its member states want it to be. Like all UN agencies, the mandate of UNDP is limited. There is much that can be achieved, but much more that we can do. On balance, however, working in development in the context of a highly sensitive culture, has helped me to become more nuanced in thinking about issues and to appreciate the small victories in life, even in the midst of enormous challenges.

Youth at World Environment Day 2008

The youth today hold not only the key to shaping the future but are valuable resources in their own right. We are the first generation that has the resources and the capacity to end poverty. Being at LKYSPP is perhaps a first step for many of us to “be the change we want to see in the world”, through gaining a better understanding about the challenges of our time. The UN needs the ideas and talents of today’s youth, whether it is through volunteering in the community or actively crafting policy. We read every day about how the action of ordinary people can lay the foundations for long-term peace in countries utterly devastated by natural disasters, conflict, abject poverty, and oppressive rule. It is about harnessing one of humanity’s greatest assets – the human spirit – as a force to serve others in their hour of need and to help shape a world where everyone can live in peace, freedom and harmony. It is an amazing prospect. This is our chance.

– by Lilei Chow

Lilei Chow (MPP 09-11) served as a Communications Officer of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Malaysia Office from 2007 to 2009.

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