2012 - Maria Cadahia, who was a Spanish-Funded JPO with UNDP, shares with us her experience and insights on her assignment in Montenegro and Papua New Guinea.
My name is Maria Cadahia-Perez and I was born in A Coruña on the North West of Spain 34 years ago. I studied Forestry Engineering at the University of Santiago de Compostela from 1996 to 2001. I complemented my education with a few specialized short courses and three intensive post-degree studies. The last two post-degree courses have been done as part of the first two years of JPO DTTA training budget.
During the last decade I have worked as forestry engineer in Spain and Ecuador; as natural resource management adviser and sustainable development planning specialist in Ecuador and The Philippines; and as environment and climate change UNDP programme analyst in Montenegro and Papua New Guinea. During this period I have worked for the private sector, indigenous communities, NGOs, governments, bilateral and multilateral organizations in different conditions and parts of the globe acquiring a vast professional experience that has helped me to understand international development issues from very different perspectives.
I started my career in international development in July 2003 working for the AECID (Spanish Government Agency for International Development and Cooperation) in Ecuador. Succeeding as a candidate in a special programme of the government of Spain, with the purpose to form young professionals in the area of development, I spent six months in Ecuador, working in a comprehensive rural development project called DRI-Cotacachi. I liked the experience and the job very much and luckily I was offered another job with more responsibilities for the following year.
After two personally and professionally great years in Ecuador I decided to focus my professional career in development. It is very rewarding to work on a job which final aim it is to help people, to provide secure livelihoods, and to enhance people’s quality of live. I made the experience that the poorest people, living with limited resources and sometimes without basic services, are often the most generous and grateful in this world. Sharing life and experiences with them is heart-warming. It has changed my view on life.
I returned to Spain in March 2005 with my first little savings in USD. With the encouragement of a close friend I decided to go to London to learn English. Until that moment, I was unable to speak any other language than Spanish, and I felt the importance of speaking English when working overseas. I worked in a coffee shop in London during the days, from 6-15hrs, and attended English lessons in the afternoon from 16-18hrs –every day, from Monday to Friday.
After six months I was able to write my first CV (with a little help) and I started looking for jobs within the charity sector. Eventually, I applied for voluntary work with VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) - a well-known UK charity - according to my English teacher.
In May 2007 Voluntary Service Overseas sent me to the Philippines to work for a small municipality, Salcedo, in the Eastern Samar Region. I spent eighteen months in the Philippines doing voluntary work and earning a local salary of around 200 EUR monthly.
I lived in a bamboo house 5x5m with electricity and without running water, but with plenty of power cuts, far away from a commercial urban area I was the only foreigner in the municipality and I have to say, that the experience was incredibly challenging for me, especially for the cultural shock and working-living conditions. However, with a lot of perseverance and patience, I was able to gain the confidence of the people. Somehow I also managed to settle in and adjust to a simple life style. The effort was very rewarding: I developed a successful project for the local government, of which I am still very proud.
In February 2008, I was already 30 and fulfilled all the requirements for the JPO programme, so I decided to apply for a position advertised by the government of Spain. At the end of June 2008, after being by myself in Salcedo for a year, my family bought me a plane ticket to visit them. It happened that I was invited to an interview for the JPO programme, to Madrid, during the last days of my holiday in Spain. To be honest prior to that I didn´t know exactly what the UNDP is, what are the areas of work and how important the JPO programme is. Of course I was feeling a bit nervous, but with tons of enthusiasm, positive energy, good fortune, and to my own surprise, I succeeded at the interview. I was offered a JPO post in Montenegro, which I took very happily. And in that moment another stage of my life and my career began.
I would like to say that I like the JPO programme very much, because it offers the possibility of training and helps you to form in the development field from a multilateral organization’s point of view. However, I think the JPO experience can be better or worse depending on the country, the culture, the colleagues, senior managers, your supervisor and, last but not least, your own personal and professional expectations.
I left the Philippines just three weeks before joining UNDP Montenegro as a JPO, in January 2009. Montenegro has been my first duty station. And I have to say, that I faced many challenges there at the professional and personal level. Especially challenging was the interaction with the local people due to the language barrier and the cultural differences. Next to my work there was not much time anyway to get to know people and make friends. However, I decided to take Serbian language lessons to make my life easier and to meet some people in the same circumstances as me. There, I finally made some friends outside of work. To have more of a social life in the city made my life in Podgorica easier and nicer.
At the end of my second year in Montenegro, I learned that the Spanish government would co-sponsor a third year in the JPO programme. Therefore, I put all my efforts into finding a new country office willing to have me during my last year as a JPO. Through our intranet, I looked for country offices with higher budgets and strong environmental programmes, looking for JPOs. I wrote to at least twenty-five duty stations including those in conflicted countries like Sudan and Afghanistan. Many offices, didn´t want to pay anything for a JPO, other offices were interested but it took them too long to decide and to formalise. It was the country office in Papua New Guinea, with the fastest and most serious response. I was reassigned under a 70-30% cost-sharing agreement. I returned to Spain for Christmas 2010 and I went to Papua New Guinea in the middle of January 2011.
Papua New Guinea
My second duty station (Papua New Guinea) has been very different from the first one in Montenegro. In Papua New Guinea I faced different challenges than in Montenegro. Papua New Guinea has security problems, high costs of living, poor local services and a lack of local capacity at all levels. The country office has a lot of work to do and low capacities, therefore from the first moment I arrived in the country, I have been given plenty of work to do and was entrusted with responsibilities which were big for “only” being a JPO.
Local people in Papua New Guinea are very warm and their hospitality is huge. They easily make you feel part of their society very soon -at least in my experience. Due to the security issues, the international community is also looking after you very well and you easily make friends and find your little family in the country. What I found hardest in Papua New Guinea is the lack of freedom due to the security situation. The cost of doing anything in the country (including housing and food), even counting with a UN salary, and the poor accessibility of services (health, transport, leisure, etc.) also make your time in the country more difficult. Local capacities are small and the needs in the country are huge. The duty station has plenty of work; therefore it is difficult to have a work-life balance. However, as a JPO you feel that you can contribute a lot and are meaningful to the team’s work at the office and the development of the country.
While I was in Papua New Guinea I was a very lucky JPO, because I got a great supervisor, Ms Gwen Maru (the E&E Team Leader). She was my immediate boss, my colleague, my mentor and even one of my closest friends in the country. Thanks to her, and with the support of the senior management, I learnt a lot and I was taking on high responsibilities in the country office.
The atmosphere in the office was very good, a great group of professionals sharing everything and all of them very motivated and compromised with the development work. My stay in Papua New Guinea during the first year was so good, that my office decided to extend my JPO contract 100% fully funded by the office for another year. During the second year, the situation in the office changed, we had a reduction in personnel, therefore everybody’s work load increased quite a bit to keep the office running. National elections in the country complicated programme implementations and to make things worse, I broke an ankle, which put me on sick leave the last three months of my JPO contract. I had a complicated injury (fracture in my ferula bone complicated with a Deep Vein Thrombosis) and for first time in my live I had to be on sick leave for more than 2 days at a time and be medically evacuated from a country. It has been quite an experience, especially in a place very far away from home, but I am recovering well now. I am feeling sad that this happened in the most inconvenient moment of my JPO assignment, when my office needed me the most, with exciting implementations ahead and a new government in place. But, that’s life - we have to face all the new challenges that interfere in our day to day activities with a positive attitude.
I spent almost 10 days in Port Moresby, 7 days in Singapore and 62 days in A Coruna (Spain) under sick leave. And I am very thankful to the UNDP for allowing me to return to my duty station during the last week of my contract. Of course with medical authorization and discharged from my sick leave. Still weakened, but independent enough to walk without crutches, I went to Papua New Guinea to solve all my personal affairs before the end of my contract just 10 days later. I am happy I was able to say goodbye to most of my colleagues and friends in person and to thank everybody for great experience in the country. I have learnt a lot, and also contributed to the country office work, especially the E&E unit. I also discovered new work paths I would like to take up in the near future. Therefore, once I am again physically in good shape, I will carry on working in sustainable development, environment and climate change programmes in some part of the globe. I hope one day in Africa - one of my dreams.