UNDP Internship in PNG

By Elizabeth Minchew

Fletcher has afforded me more experiential learning opportunities than I ever anticipated, and a summer internship in Papua New Guinea with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) country office has been by far my most impactful experience yet. As I sit in the airport in Hue, Vietnam making a roundabout return trip from Port Moresby, PNG back to Boston for my fall semester of year two in the MALD program, I am humbled by the progress I have made these past three months in expanding both my skillset and my personal development.

First things first – how did I end up in Port Moresby, PNG?

Through a series of discussions and meetings with CIERP faculty and staff, I demonstrated my interest in working with UNDP through a brand new agreement spearheaded through CIERP’s Climate Policy Lab (CPL). CPL seeks to work directly with governments, providing academic support in climate policy development. Since UNDP has a robust climate portfolio (both for adaptation and mitigation), sending interns to country offices to work on specific projects was one of the first forays of CPL and UNDP’s partnership. I was lucky to receive an offer, and when it was in PNG, I immediately accepted.

In all honesty, I had to do a Google search to see what I had gotten into. Through later conversations with other foreigners working in PNG (at various institutions including Oxford Business Group, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and UN staff) this seems to be a common theme. It seems that I was not alone in my ignorance of PNG.

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However, this is part of the reason I have chosen to pursue a career in international development and climate policy. In order to effect positive change in both of these fields, it’s vital to diversify your personal experience. While daunting, I was eager to see what these three months had in store for me.

It went by all too quickly. My first task was to familiarize myself with two main projects: a soon to be completed Adaptation Fund (AF) project and a Green Climate Fund proposal that would build upon the AF progress in improving climate adaptation efforts across the country while adding a vital component – climate information services and early warning systems. The UN is known to be a bureaucratic beast, and when combined with the PNG government, which at only 42 years of age since Australian independence, is one of the youngest nations in the world. I had a lot to learn in a short amount of time. Thankfully, UNDP staff are a tight-knit community, and I had tremendous experience and resources at my fingertips. However, the bigger challenge was to figure out how PNG worked, and this proved to be a much more complicated task (I still have a lot of questions).

As soon as I had a grasp on the locations, names, cultural differences, political irregularities, key players (both international and domestic), and basic structure of provincial governments – it was time to leave. However, since doing is learning, I suppose I learned quite a lot. The basics are as follows: PNG occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and traces its history to 60,000 years ago when people first migrated from the Australian continent. As someone interested in agricultural development, I was impressed when I learned that Neolithic gardening (aka agriculture) was being practiced at the same time as the dawn of agriculture in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Over these 60,000 or so years, PNG and its combination of Melanesian and non-Melanesian populations were exposed to a series of European visitors, including (in no particular order) the Portuguese, Spanish, Germans, Dutch, British, and of course 60 years of Australian administration. PNG saw a considerable amount of action during WW2 as well, where Australians and Japanese met in aerial and terrestrial combat. Sunken planes, moss-covered artillery, and underground bunkers and tunnels are evidence to this.

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PNG eventually gained independence from Australia in 1975. There is a lot more to say here, but suffice it to say that this provides a bit of context for why the political system is so incredibly complicated. Worth mentioning is that there are over 850 known languages spoken in an unknown number of customary communities, which for all intents and purposes are tribal and exceptionally diverse even in small areas. There remain many unidentified human, flora, and fauna populations. Final point worth mentioning is PNG’s fast growing mining and resource sectors. Inhospitable terrain makes the majority of the country non-traversable by vehicles, and air transport (helicopters and small planes) are the only ways to reach many communities, particularly in the highland areas.

This information took me about three months to fully grasp, and as mentioned before, I still have a lot of questions! The point is, I was able to work in one of the most interesting and challenging countries in the world for both economic development and environmental conservation and management alongside some very talented and knowledgeable practitioners. I spent most of my time with the adaptation team, but also worked closely with the disaster risk reduction and management team as well as the Ministry of Environment’s Climate Change and Development Authority. A constant stream of UN’s ubiquitous consultants provided experts in specific fields with whom I could converse with openly about my concerns and observations for PNG’s future. I have made lasting relationships with these people, and have become a better development and climate policy practitioner for it.

My major takeaway from this summer experience is that if you want to work in anything related to development or environmental policy, you have to constantly ask questions. More importantly, you have to ask questions that you might assume have obvious answers. For example, I asked one colleague why PNG was investing millions of dollars into building a structure that will act as the centerpiece for the 2018 Asian Pacific Economic Committee (APEC) meeting hosted by Port Moresby . . . on reclaimed land (i.e., land build upon dredged sand and poured concrete jutting into the Coral Sea). Yes, it’s beautiful, but is it sustainable? Was it a good investment decision? Why did they build it on land that is highly vulnerable to sea level rise, erosion, and “severe weather” events? Obvious questions, right? The answers I received to this one question (and I asked a lot of different people) revealed to me the immense complexity of development and environmental policy, and the political and economic challenges faced by PNG as it expands its export of natural resources and works towards becoming a formidable player in the Asian Pacific region.

Asking this question gave me some answers, or at least some insight, into how to best create a proposal to the GCF for climate information and EWS. Data is trendy these days, and in high demand for a country like PNG with low governmental capacity to collect, collate, and convert data into useful products (like EWS). It’s now time to board my flight to Ho Chi Minh City, which is good, because otherwise I could keep writing more about PNG and my summer experience. Suffice it to say that this experience afforded to me by CIERP, CPL, UNDP, and the people and government of PNG has been incredibly formative for me, and will continue to play a large role as I head into my final year at Fletcher, and what I hope to be the beginning of a long career trying to figure out why PNG is building a lakotoi-shaped building on reclaimed land in the middle of the Coral Sea.

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