Long-serving U.N.D.P. Manager calls it a day
What started as a teenage fascination with the work of the United Nations turned into a lifelong career for Salā Georgina Bonin (nee Nelson), spanning 25 and a half years.
When Salā retired from her position as Assistant Resident Representative of the Governance and Poverty Reduction Unit at the United Nations Development Programme, U.N.D.P., in Samoa at the end of 2018, she became one of only a handful of Samoans to have worked for the United Nations for the amount of time that she has.
But it’s a dream that started from a young age.
“I became interested in the United Nations since primary school where the U.N. was part of our Social Studies. We learned about the work of the General Assembly and the Security Council to maintain peace in the world. This was so inspiring to me, and I always wanted to work for the U.N. since then,” said Salā.
“Therefore, when I completed my Masters degree studies I applied to an advertisement in the papers for the U.N.D.P. for a position of National Programme Officer in Samoa”.
And the rest, like they say, is history.
Salā is the eldest of 18 children, born to the late Su’a Taito Otto and Mary Therese Nelson of Apia.
She lives with her husband, Mark J. Bonin, at Vaivase-uta and they have two daughters and five grandchildren.
She is an alumna of St Mary’s College, Timaru Girls High, and Otago University (where she got her undergraduate degree in Social Anthropology) as well as the University of New South Wales (where she obtained her graduate Diploma in Applied Science and a Master in Safety Science).
Her work was recently featured in the University of Otago magazine’s 43rd issue.
At the end of her tenure at U.N.D.P., which is one of the UN’s largest funds and programmes operating in over 160 countries as the sustainable human development arm of the U.N. in poverty reduction, environmental protection, and good governance, Salā reminisced about her time at the organization and how it has changed her life.
“My time in the U.N. system, particularly U.N.D.P., has been extremely hectic and inspiring and indeed, humbling. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights 1949 is my mantra and it is the platform for all my work since then. As I’ve seen from my extensive travels around the world, the human condition is basically the same the world over. For example, the challenges for most parents to meet the basic needs of their offspring is the same as we see in our own vicinities,” said Salā.
“It’s troubling and one can only hope that a commitment by each government to the Sustainable Development Goals will alleviate most of the obstacles for ordinary people and enable them to achieve a good quality life, especially for girls and women.”
U.N. and U.N.D.P.
Salā is adamant that the role the U.N., and U.N.D.P., plays in world affairs is even more crucial now than ever before.
“I believe that the U.N. remains absolutely essential and relevant to the world as we know it. The global nature of the U.N’s outreach and preoccupation with normative agenda, that is setting international standards and international goal setting had changed my perspective of the world altogether. The state of the world and its connection to the peoples of Samoa and the Pacific, became less distant and more tangible.”
“We talk about globalization all the time and that reality had affected much of my work in U.N.D.P. these past several years. For example, in response to the launch of the Millennium Declaration in 2000, and its 8 Millennium Development Goals aiming to halve the proportion of the world’s population living under the basic needs poverty line, U.N.D.P. rolled out some key guidelines and specific Trust Funds to assist the four governments covered by the U.N.D.P. office in Apia. I was responsible for their dissemination and socialization.”
This funding was to enable the governments of the Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa and Tokelau, to understand the varied dimensions of poverty and initiate projects to address them.
“My work involved developing those projects and ensuring that they were implemented in a timely manner and within budget allocations. Producing documentaries, consultations, workshops, seminars, using various sporting events and sponsorship of south-south cooperation (i.e. fellowships to other countries of similar development status to learn new skills), were all tools used to spread the messages. Ensuring that the right kind of technical advice and support was made available during the project formulation phase was critical.”
It was also the same case when the M.D.G's ended and its successor, the 2030 Agenda or Sustainable Development Declaration, was adopted in 2016.
“The localization of the S.D.G's and then their socialization in the four countries forms the crux of my work in the organization. The work of the U.N. draws on the multiple skills of its staff and in times of natural disasters, I became primarily engaged in supporting the U.N’s emergency response. This has involved working with multiple U.N. Agencies, regional organizations and donors in Samoa, the Pacific region and internationally.”
“I had also joined the O.C.H.A.-U.N. Disaster Assessment and Coordination roster and U.N.D.P. Early Recovery Advisers SURGE roster, so I have been quite busy in this field of U.N. work over my career. As the U.N.D.P. is a career-oriented organization, there is a huge investment in the development of its staff and learning. It’s a constant obligation and keeps us busy all the time.”
Highlights and Challenges
In a long career like Salā’s, there would inevitably be both highlights and challenging moments.
But the woman who has survived cancer and was instrumental in the setup of the Samoa Qualifications Authority, the Samoa Umbrella for Non-Government Organisation, and the Women in Business Development Inc, has learnt to take them all in her stride.
One career highlight was the production of the single U.N. Development Assistance Framework for the Pacific Region, 2008-2012, which was hailed as a milestone in the U.N. system in the Pacific.
Salā co-chaired the drafting committee with U.N.F.P.A.
“This was quite an honour as I was a National Assistant Resident Representative by then and was coordinating dialogue and inputs from the Joint U.N. Country Team in the Pacific which was about 17 Agencies at the time.”
Another career high was the time she spent in Pakistan for humanitarian work.
“I was one of the first ever teams of UNDP SURGE Early Recovery Advisers back in 2005, to be deployed to Pakistan following the devasting earthquake disaster that claimed over 7,000 lives. I worked in the UNDP Country Office in Islamabad for two and a half months, mainly involved in developing proposals for the various emergency funding windows, and the design of early recovery interventions.”
The Secretary General convened two international appeals for this disaster, one of them being in Islamabad, for which Salā and her team worked tirelessly on with many a sleepless night to prepare for.
Salā was also deployed in 2017 to the Turks and Caicos Islands, TCI, for six weeks following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, as an UNDP SURGE Early Recovery Adviser.
“As such, I was solely responsible for the design and development of UNDP’s support to early recovery in consultation with the government and the UK government, noting that TCI is a territory of the UK.”
“I am very proud of the development of many key projects for the governments we serve.”
Key Success Stories
Salā lists the following as some of her key contributions.
“Deepening people’s understanding about the term ‘poverty’ relative to Samoa. I have been constant in working with UNDP technical advisers to provide the empirical and qualitative evidence to the Samoa government through, for example, poverty analysis of Household, Income & Expenditure Surveys (HIES), which have provided the basic needs poverty line, for government to use in the measurement of vulnerability and poverty in Samoa.”
“These were difficult concepts to believe in at the start, however, the Government of Samoa’s sign on to the MDGs and SDGs, which both place poverty eradication as their overall goal, is a sign of some measure of agreement. I am very happy to have contributed to this dialogue and understanding.”
Other notable achievements include the constitutional development of Tokelau and the establishment of its first compendium of laws, production of its Constitution and national icons and symbols such as its flag and national anthem.
Others include the establishment of the first Government ICT Authority in the Cook Islands, and the production of Samoa’s first Trade, Commerce and Manufacturing Sector Plan, 2012-2016.
The mainstreaming of special needs children into the main education system in Samoa, as well as early childhood education becoming more streamlined under MESC, is another highlight.
“The Augmenting Institutions for General Attainment (AIGA) project was the first ‘donor’ project with MESC at the time, and I enjoyed working closely with the MESC management and curriculum officers on the project which was implemented in the late 90s.”
Salā also considers the development of a web App prototype, based on open-source software to allow the Samoa Government to upload performance indicators for the SDGs so that it is easier to track and report progress as another high point.
The App, known as SADATA, is also being used by the government to track and report on the implementation of the various human rights Treaties and Conventions that Samoa has signed on to and is obligated to report on to the Universal Periodic Review.
Other Pacific Island countries are now following this model in the region and internationally.
But that’s not all.
“The political empowerment of women and gender equality have been cornerstones of my work and I was very happy when the Parliament endorsed the 10% constitutional amendment in 2013. Although it would be hard to attribute this solely to our advocacy from the UN/UNDP side, I am sure some of it would have had some effect, in particular MDG 3 which focused on Gender Equality and raising the level of women MPs in the countries we serve.”
Salā had also worked with the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development on youth unemployment and entrepreneurship through the One UN Youth Employment Programme, YEP.
“When I joined the UNDP office in 1993, there was no Resident Representative, nor was there a UN Resident Coordinator as the concept had not yet been developed. However, since then, there have been eight RR/RCs, including our current RR a.i., Charles Chauvel. The different management styles and their varying levels of understanding of UNDP, programmatically and operationally, due to some RR/RCs coming from different UN agencies with little to no experience of UNDP, was challenging. This would influence the level of staff morale and the relationships with the four governments served by the Multi Country Office. As a Programme Manager, it was very important to strike a balance between bringing new ideas and resources to make some of the local ideas work.”
Another challenge that Salā attests to is the constant changing and shifting of UNDP operational tools.
“This meant that UNDP staff were tied up with learning new systems at the expense of conceptualizing, designing and consulting on good, new pipeline projects and programmes.”
Another major change happening now is the separation of the UN Resident Coordinator in a country office from the Resident Representative of UNDP.
“The delinking of UNDP from the UNRC system that is currently being implemented is going to be a challenge to both the UNDP and UN Development Operations Coordination Office and I pray that all falls into place efficiently and effectively.”
As this chapter of her life comes to an end at UNDP, Salā is looking forward to doing other personal projects that she’s been planning to do, as well as continuing her passion for humanitarian work.
“For now, I would like to focus on family projects and to ensure I improve the lives of the vulnerable members in my family via the development of a strong business that would give all of them employment. Spending more quality time with my children and grandchildren is something that I also look forward to, in particular, helping them to do well academically.”
But with the wealth of institutional knowledge and experience she possesses, Salā still has a lot to offer in terms of advisory roles or consultancies not only in the UN system, but also in Government and civil society.
“Some consultancies would also be welcome to keep me in touch with the various disciplines that I have expertise in,” said Salā.
The beauty of her current situation is that anything truly is possible.
As a long-serving member of the UN, Salā has some pearls of wisdom for anyone who is interested in taking up a career with the organization.
“When you enter the UN/UNDP, do so with the expectation to serve others. Working for the UN will certainly not make one rich, so it is not a matter of an attractive pay package or extensive travel opportunities. All these must be anchored on a single premise, which is to serve others and make a real improvement in their lives, and to Leave No-One Behind (SDGs).”
The young girl who long ago dreamed of a career in one of the world’s most influential organizations went right ahead and did just that, and positively impacted many lives in the process.