Op-ed by Akiko Fujii, Resident Representative, UNDP Maldives
As I bid farewell to the beautiful people and country of Maldives, I wanted to thank all the partners of UNDP, my friends and colleagues, for the amazing journey I have enjoyed, and also to reflect on some of the things that have caught my attention during my two year stay.
Throughout the world, Maldives is justly famous for its sun-drenched beaches and colourful sea life. For those of us who live here, however, it is so much more! But what exactly is that ‘so much more’?
Many of you may not know what I do in my private time. I am actually an active tennis player who has benefited greatly from the newly renovated tennis courts in Malé. I will always remember the smell of fried chicken from Marrybrown right next to the court, whenever I play tennis in future! I particularly enjoyed watching the talented young players, especially the girls, practicing on the next court. I regret that we never had a chance to play together, but I knew those girls would beat me up in thirty seconds. The sight of them playing gave me great hope for this country’s future. Walking by the beach, I see girls and boys playing other sports, such as football, netball and volleyball. And when I shop in the evenings, I see the youngsters leaving the swimming pool and queuing for Taekwondo across the road. This is a good sign of a vibrant and diverse society.
I also paint (badly), and my work has enabled me to meet many creative people. I see many groups being formed around common interests in music, art, and other creative areas. I love the vivid colours used in traditional crafts such as Liye Laajehun. Their bright colours somehow symbolise the lively nature of people in the Maldives. When I walk on the streets in Malé and Hulhumalé, I see people creatively using the available space with wall paintings. People also innovate, building on traditional art, but creating something new. Cultures are never static. Street corners are transformed, giving the space a special feel, unique to the people who live there. People don't just live there, they own the space with a sense of community.
In 2019, one of my first meetings was the Maldives’ Partnership Forum. I remember the Forum was a big success. Such a refreshing tone and a genuine openness that the entire international community welcomed. We discussed a shared vision of what the country’s sustainable development could look like, and the partnerships that would be needed.
The shared vision was anchored around the concept of the ‘Jazeera Raajje’ (Island Nation). Meaningful decentralization is a priority. I had read the UNDP National Human Development Report 2014 before coming here. Among all inequalities, the gender gap in all spheres of social, economic and particularly political participation in Maldives was most evident. I was excited with the opportunity to support the amendment to the Decentralisation Act, by which, for the first time in Maldives’ history, 33% women’s reserved seats were introduced in the local councils. Despite unfortunate delays due to the COVID pandemic, the local elections were recently completed, and now we have a fresh and energetic new cohort of council members, one third of whom are women!
However, meaningful decentralization cannot stop here. The elected council members have huge responsibilities ahead of them. It must now continue with effective local planning, by engaging with local people. Local planning must be centered around increasing equality with a view to expanding choices for women and young people, who previously may have had only limited outlets for their aspirations and abilities. The same must also be true for people with disabilities. Such local plans should build resilience in harmony with nature. The system surrounding people’s jobs and entire livelihoods must be more resilient to future shocks. The current COVID-19 crisis is not the first, nor will it be the last shock, and the global climate crisis will be increasingly severe.
During my stay in Maldives, I have been amazed by the speed with which the capital Malé and Hulhumalé have become urbanized. Looking at the apartment buildings rapidly growing taller every week, I wonder about the kind of livelihoods opportunities for the people who will live in them. For example, only 3% of the jobs in resorts are currently occupied by Maldivian women. Again, I have met so many talented women and men who would like to develop meaningful careers in the resorts, health and education sectors, and elsewhere. However, the labour ecosystem, including social norms and the various logistical challenges of commuting and family care, need to be addressed. Improvements in working conditions, for both Maldivian and non-Maldivian workers, will make the Maldives’ Future of Work brighter, diverse and more dignifying.
In my work in Maldives, I am very proud to have seen much needed progress in judicial sector reform. UNDP’s work revolves around supporting the government and people in creating a fair and just society, where people have more choices in life without fear of violence and discrimination. In this short period of time, more women have been appointed to high level and significant positions, including in the Supreme Court. Justice sector reform is not only about the system. It's also about the people who work in the system. Diverse judges and administrators in the justice sector will be more responsive to diverse people’s needs, including the needs of victims of violence against women and children, which unfortunately still persists. People depend on the justice sector service to protect their freedom, assets, dignity, often even their lives, all of which are fundamental human rights. I feel optimistic that trust and confidence in the justice system will gradually be earned over the years. But the reforms must not stop here.
Many Maldivians are the first generation to experience urban life, where ‘community disconnection’ and ‘social isolation’ are constant dangers. But city life does not have to mean a lack of community life. A modern city has room for many communities, groups with shared interests, values and goals, amongst which all citizens can find belonging and support. I live in Hulhumalé. It is already full of people, who are making ‘communities’ by playing sports, having swimming lessons, cleaning the streets together. As I said, I personally enjoyed circles of friends by playing tennis and singing music in a ‘band’! They gave me a home away from home. People’s life choices can be expanded by imaginative political leadership, but ordinary people must also act together with a strong sense of purpose, taking responsibility on themselves for building the nation. This is what democracy means.
On a more personal note, I have truly enjoyed the generosity and tremendous friendship extended to me and my husband by so many people here in the Maldives. My only regret is that, because of the pandemic, I have not been able to visit many of your beautiful islands. However, because of the human solidarity I have experienced in combatting the virus, I have learned that the real beauty of the Maldives is not to be found in the sun, sea and sand; it is in you, its people.
I want to thank those who have guided me during my short time here, particularly my colleagues at UNDP Maldives. Wherever I am in the future, I will remain forever a close friend of this wonderful island nation.