By Merran Eby
If there’s anything at all I have learned so far from working at the UN, it is this: you never quite know what is going to happen on a day-to-day basis, but it will always be something interesting.
On my first day working with the UNDP in Hanoi, I had barely settled in at my desk when my supervisor sent over an email with some files she asked me to comment on. (Yes! I get some work right off the bat! Let’s do this!) What I wasn’t expecting was what I was given to review: not a technical report on the progress to date of a project on green chemistry, or the state of biodiversity in Viet Nam (those came later), but extended blueprints for, of all things, a butterfly museum. IDDIP internship log entry, day 1: summoned the inner museologist.
Since then, among the calmer days of compiling reports, writing policy briefs, and updating my ever-growing list of acronyms and initialisms (240 and counting!), my work has also featured, among other things: attending an all-day high-level dialogue on climate change attended by the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) only days after the release of a major report on the impact of a global rise in temperature of 1.5ºC; writing and recording a video script for eventual release on UNDP Viet Nam’s YouTube channel; frequent communal fruit snacking; and… intensive dance practice?
In recent weeks, however, the energies in my little corner of the UN house have been most focused on the UNDP-led Biodiversity Finance (BIOFIN) initiative, of which the first phase has just been completed here in Viet Nam and which in all seriousness I’m so excited to have become involved with.
Briefly: Viet Nam is one of the world’s sixteen most biodiverse countries. About 10% of the world’s species can be found within its mountains, wetlands, forests, and coastlines, even though Viet Nam itself takes up less than 1% of the world’s land area. Recent pressures from an explosion of industrialization and a growing population, however, have led to a rapid degradation of its natural resources due to a myriad of causes—to name a few, deforestation, unchecked aquaculture that has destroyed most of the country’s mangroves, poor management of toxic waste, and unsustainable practices related to Viet Nam’s burgeoning tourist industry.
What BIOFIN does is conduct a comprehensive assessment of a country’s current framework for supporting financing for biodiversity, and then work with governments, international experts, and other stakeholders to figure out ways in which solutions can be developed to either find new sources of funding for biodiversity conservation or reduce costs by finding ways to handle existing funds more efficiently. These can take many forms, such as performance bonds, taxes on non-renewable resources, or setting up the collection of charges in conservation areas from services like diving or camping. The whole affair is a massive undertaking with the potential to provide significant—and urgently needed—assistance in biodiversity finance to both Viet Nam and the 29 other countries taking part in the project to date. Viet Nam has just finished the first phase, as I mentioned, so there has been a recent flurry of report-writing recently as we gather our forces for implementation on a wider scale in the next few years.
As of a few months ago, BIOFIN Viet Nam has also started up two pilot projects, one of which involves results-based budgeting and one of which is the complete refurbishment of an old and outdated nature museum situated in Cuc Phuong National Park, just over 100 km south of Hanoi. Cuc Phuong is the oldest national park in Viet Nam, as well as its first nature reserve, and is home to a wealth of species of flora and fauna—some of which are endemic only to the park—including hundreds of butterflies, of which the museum houses thousands of individual specimens.
When I first arrived, plans for the renovation of the museum were still being developed. My supervisor, aware of my background in the arts, was kind enough to ask me for input—hence my unexpected first assignment. A second draft of the museum plans has been circulated since then, into which some of my suggestions seem to have been incorporated! Whatever else I thought would come from this internship, being able to claim a permanent effect on the design of a nature museum was not among my list of expectations. I am determined not to let this be where my life peaks. Onwards to month 2!
BONUS! Standout non-work event from Month 1:
The weekend of October 20-21, I spent two days up in northern Viet Nam close to the Chinese border to do a bit of trekking around Sapa. The entire northern part of the country, literal mountainsides as far as the eye can see, seems to have been scalloped into carefully manicured rice paddies in what looks like a topographical map come to life. While the town of Sapa itself, admittedly, leaves something to be desired (unless you want to buy a backpack), the scenery is truly nothing short of stunning. Highlights include: a homestay with two very funny sisters from the Black Hmong ethnic minority, hiking across a mountaintop through the clouds, intimate personal experience with the road conditions of northern Vietnamese mountain communities, and dyeing my hands indigo for several days by accident.