As she bids a "bittersweet" adieu to Maldives, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative Shoko Noda, speaks exclusively to The Edition about her career achievements, her journey in the island nation and what the future may hold.
To many people across the archipelago, Shoko Noda is a familiar face, and perhaps more so, a friend - far from the typical disposition heralded by high profile ambassadors hailing from international organizations.
Her journey began as a researcher in a consultancy firm in her home country Japan, where she worked for two years, before switching her career focus to development and joining the United Nations two decades ago.
This monumental step in her life took Shoko travelling all over the world, providing assistance in one country after another, before arriving at these tropical shores four and a half years ago.
When her career in development began, Shoko was presented with a choice between Romania and Tajikistan for her first major UN project, out of which the at the time, war-torn Tajik nation seemed like an obvious choice for Noda, who prides herself in tackling the most challenging of scenarios.
"[Tajikistan] sounded more challenging and I felt like the UN had more to offer there".
Armed with a major in political science and international relations, Noda did her best to secure a brighter future for every crisis country she was dispatched at. Her efforts took her to Tajikistan, Kosovo, Yugoslavia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Mongolia and Nepal, and with each new endeavour she upped her experience for the next.
Noda opted for countries in "post-crisis states" where she felt like the United Nations could make a real difference. Excited for the challenges that every new country posed, she stepped into every assignment with unshakable determination.
When asked the ways in which each new destination shaped her outlook, she offered up “Congo”, followed by the gleeful admission, “I liked the music there very much!”
Revelling in her experiences abroad, adding to the development challenges she faced, Noda said, “It’s always very exciting to learn about new cultures, new countries, new people."
Speaking of how her tenure in foreign countries changed her overview of her home country, Japan, Noda spoke about how it transformed the way she perceived her native roots.
“I started to appreciate my culture more. You don’t look at your culture objectively, from a distance, when you’re living there.”
As a particular experience that stood out during her UN career, Noda fondly recalled her experience in working in Nepal’s election project. As the Country Director, she worked closely with the Chief Commissioner of the elections, exchanging emails and holding meetings daily.
The situation in Nepal required Noda to make monumental decisions that would directly affect the outcome of the election. Shouldering this responsibility, Noda went forward with the decision of printing ID cards for the election despite the lack of support by the government. The result of Noda’s decisions were successful, with eligible voters showing great passion to exercise their voting rights. Noda recalled that some voters walked for three hours to their polling stations, dressed up for the big day.
“... and the turnover was 80 percent. That is still the highest in Nepal history”, Shoko recalled proudly, and it becomes clearer and clearer how invested she is in the communities within which she chooses to work.
After her successful tenure in Nepal, Noda’s expertise and unparalleled experiences brought her to this island nation where she was met with a unique set of challenges.
Noda stated that her vast array of experiences all over the globe did not fully prepare her for the challenges she faced in the low lying archipelago of Maldives upon taking office in October 2014.
During her four and a half years in the country, Noda shouldered the responsibility of overseeing the UNDP programme, as well as working on areas of political engagement and human rights in addition to coordinating all UN operations. ,
“It required a much more balanced act”.
UN being the only in-residence development partner in Maldives, as its Representative, Noda was required to hold entry points to all parts of the society rather than working with a particular sector. Constantly walking the tightrope of establishing secure relations with both the government and independent organisations, while simultaneously advocating for the core values of the United Nations, Noda described her tenure as “a delicate act”.
Adding to her challenges were the administrative changes that occurred during these four years; including the service of two strikingly different presidencies. "I have seen everything!", Noda exclaimed, describing herself as feeling excited and privileged to have been party to such historical changes.
Conducting her job amid ever-changing tides, in a country saturated with political discord was no easy feat. A testament to her diplomatic abilities, a fact which her colleagues wholeheartedly back-up, is the manner in which she handled the fort with little to no strain in the relationship between the UN and the government.
Each major change came with its vast array of unique complications and Noda stated that the strongest challenge was, "maintaining a balanced act in keeping the engagement open to all partners". She emphasised on the importance and delicacy of having a political dialogue on both sides of the issue, without crossing any lines.
"The recent state of emergency [especially] posed a lot of challenges".
Above all, Noda focused on working for improvement in various sectors of Maldives without leaving any important areas out of the conversation. Development, human rights, politics, gender issues, climate change and governance were all crucial areas that required Noda’s expertise, and she catered to every sector with equal passion and importance.
Noda recalled the 2018 presidential elections and described the efforts of the country as a whole as impressive, even comparing the passions shown by Maldivians to her fond memories of the Nepal election.
Some Maldivians stood in voting queues for over eight hours to cast their ballots in the presidential elections. “I was so impressed", she said about the vigour shown by the community to exercise their right to vote.
Summing up her experiences in the island nation, despite, or perhaps even because of, all the obstacles, Noda stated that her work in Maldives “was the best assignment” thus far.
Weighing the state of the country at the beginning of her tenure to its current situation, Noda said that she was leaving the Maldives “more hopeful” than she had found it.
Thrilled with the conversations circulating around topics such as single-use plastics, she spoke fondly of Save The Beach, an NGO close to her heart, and its efforts to raise awareness on environmental issues and initiating clean-ups in various parts of the country.
“Many are joining their mission of cleaning the environment and reducing plastic use”.
She is also pleased to see that more people, especially the youth, engaging in conversation about issues facing the country in various areas, such as gender discrimination and plastic pollution. Noting that such narratives propelled many towards positive action to overcome development challenges faced by the community, she remained staunchly positive about the future of the country.
“When I think of four years ago not many talked about single-use plastics”, she recalled, impressed with the amount of change that has come about over the years.
Noda even highlighted the MeToo movement, that set the ball rolling about sexual and physical abuse faced by women in the society and its presence in Maldives as well. Recent years have seen women coming forward with their stories and experiences to educate the community on the injustices faced by women in domestic settings, workplaces and everywhere in between.
During her stay in the Maldives, Noda exercised her love for writing, penning articles about various topics, hoping to raise public awareness while setting a strong example for others to follow. It was also a way to address all the issues she wanted to speak about on a more engaging platform more accessible to the public and common people.
“I wanted to speak with my own voice”, Noda said and eyes suddenly winkling, "I do enjoy writing too!"
Her efforts to not leave any focus area out of the conversation inspired many to speak up about their personal experiences related to many areas in which the Maldives needed improvement.
“Compared to before, people are more aware about development challenges, and speaking up and taking action”, In light of these changes, Noda announced, “It’s a start and we need to accelerate”.
A self-professed feminist, Shoko Noda has always been highly vocal about gender inequality issues. During her time in the Maldives, as a foreigner, Noda had the privilege of presenting her ideas in Maldivian society more so than she did in Japan.
“I could afford to be more vocal about the issues because of the post”, she said.
As the conversation teetered more towards the status of women in Maldives, Noda expressed grave disappointment in the lack of female representation achieved in 2019's parliamentary elections, where only four women secured seats out of 87 constituencies, a step backwards compared to previous terms.
“I want to see more women in parliament,” Shoko declared, speaking of how the mindsets of voters needed to change in order to the same opportunities to women, as are granted to men.
Since female representation had gone down in parliament, Noda said that it was time for society to consider fighting on setting a quota for such cases. The UN Representative also spoke about establishing quota back in 2016, amid heated debates within the parliament before the equality bill was voted out. At the time, the parliament consisted of only five female MPs who advocated loudly for women to be granted equal chances in the political sphere as well as in their homes and daily lives.
Noda, on various occasions, fought to pave ways to establish a quota, stating that it was critical in closing the gender discrimination gap in political posts where males dominate by an overwhelming amount.
Dubbing the quota a sensitive issue, Noda admitted that the probability of change was more likely to be reeled in after a few more generations.
"The youth are much more open to breaking stereotypes", she said, expressing concern that their voices were not heard by those in power and that adequate space was not allocated to the younger generations, even though they make up a significant portion of the population.
“A lot of young people are not represented, but I hope the younger generation, both men and women, will break the ceiling - and also the walls - together.”
Wide eyed and voice thick with inspiration, Noda earnestly relayed an incident which occurred on International Women’s Day of 2017, where she met with girls from Aminiya School. Amidst questions of what the students wanted to be when they grew up, one girl confidently declared “I want to become the Minister of Defence!”. Noda described the moment as a monumental one in her career.
So pivotal was the event that when Mariya Ahmed Didi was appointed as the first female Minister of Defence and National Security in President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s administration, Noda and her team made efforts to find the girl, albeit in vain.
The incident proves not only that the Maldivian youth have begun to aim higher where discrimination due to gender roles are concerned but that women can fill leadership positions and do so well. Noda herself, at least to this writer, is a prime example of how women can succeed in positions that require tough calls to be made each and every day.
“Be confident of your potential”, she offered to all aspiring youngsters with big dreams. According to Noda, leaders do not have to fit a certain type of mould. Leaders can be of all different kinds, and everyone is allowed to find their own style of leadership which they are comfortable with.
"Former President Nasheed and current President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih have very different leadership styles" she offered in illustration, "... and both work”.
Noda advised women in power to support their female counterparts, to ensure that the lower ranked female colleagues got chances to speak in meetings, and encourage them to be opinionated. As gender roles in society sometimes do not allow females the amount of chances that are offered to man, Noda noted that it was of utmost importance for women to build each other up, instead of competing amongst themselves and tearing each other down.
After nearly five years, Noda has assuredly, fallen in love with Maldives.
“This is the longest period I have lived in another country", Noda said, “I feel like I’m leaving home.”
With a sigh, Noda said she is sure to miss everything about Maldives. The list of things she will miss the most include her colleagues, the ocean view, the dive spots and jogging in the morning in Hulhumale'.
Speaking more of what will be lacking with her departure, Shoko said, “the cuisine here is so good”, admitting that she ate ‘mashuni’, a breakfast dish featuring coconut and fish, almost on a daily basis.
Perhaps inspired by breakfasts with colleagues, Noda elaborated on how much the circle at UNDP would be missed as most of her hours and days were spent with them. Over the years, she grew to love every member of her team, crediting all accomplishments to their collective efforts.
In fact, Noda did not seem the least bit worried about how her departure would affect the UN operations, such was her confidence that the team will move forward and achieve further greatness.
Noda struggled to find a word that sums up her experiences in Maldives, finally settling with “fantastic”, although she suspects her vocabulary may be too limited to truly convey what she felt for the country.
A fan of the underwater spectacles Maldives is famous for, Shoko successfully reached over 100 dives during her time in residence. At present, she is looking forward to logging in a couple more dives over the few days she has left before her departure, scheduled early May, shortly her last day in office on the April 30.
Certainly a bit blue over the prospect of leaving, Noda nevertheless remains enthusiastic and excited for her next project in New Delhi, India.
Displaying some of the optimism she is known for she said, “I’d like to follow what my heart tells me. For now, I would like to focus on India, and keep my options open.”
And yet, her plans for the future are far from set in stone. Like many of us, the pursuit of happiness is a top priority. Noda, an animal-lover, jokingly added, “I may even start some organizations to support cats.”
No matter what the future holds, however, Noda is adamant that she will not stay away forever.
After all, one particular checkbox on her bucket list remains unticked, as she has not yet encountered a whale shark, one of the most magnificent, regular inhabitants of these warm waters.
On that note, with a decidedly merry grin spreading across her face, she offered to readers of The Edition that, if nothing else, "... whale sharks are inviting me to come back!"