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The woman on the frontline

15 April 2019

The woman on the frontline

Rima das Pradhan-Blach
Trusted Adviser. Dot Joiner. Facilitator and Technical Adviser.

Rima works predominantly in Fragile and Conflict Affected States (FCAS), helping to match international development funding with local need, and most importantly, delivering  results.

When we caught up with Rima das Pradhan-Blach, it was by Skype from her current home-away-from-home in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

IN: What are you doing in Somaliland right now?

“I have a number of initiatives I am currently working in Somaliland. I have just finished an intense assignment led by the Minister of Planning and National Development where we prioritised the targets in Somaliland’s National Development Plan. This involved working with 54 Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs).

“I am also excited to be part of Phase Two launches of two flagship projects for Somaliland. The Somaliland Development Fund (SDF) Phase II, largely an infrastructure fund financed by the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway Governments. And a renewable energy project Phase II, financed by the UK Government.”

IN: Were you involved with the Phase One projects?

“Yes. I started working in Somaliland in 2012, as a Senior Adviser to the Minister
of Planning and National Development, financed by the Danish Government to set up the first phase of SDF. At $65m, that was one of the most significant investments Somaliland has ever seen.

“It is exciting to see tangible results from these projects – with better roads linking people to markets and services, increased access to urban and rural water. Under SDF I, one of the significant successes was that almost 160 km of roads were rehabilitated.”

IN: What are you hoping to achieve with the new projects?

“With the renewable energy project, we are trying to get the cost of energy down and improve access to cheaper, more reliable and safer energy.

“The cost of energy in Somaliland is one of the highest in the world, and is one of the most significant barriers to private sector development here, as well as access to basic services such as health, education and water.”

IN: It says ‘Trusted Adviser. Dot Joiner. Facilitator and Technical Adviser’ on your business card. What do you actually do?

“I bring together people and institutions.  I deep dive into the needs and priorities of governments, and then link them with donors who have the money. I guess my role is to find ‘best-fit’ solutions.

“The pot of money for development assistance is shrinking. Donors are increasingly under different pressures from headquarters. I understand the ‘pressure points’ for both recipient governments and donors, and then help to problem solve.

“Sometimes I’m working with the government to establish needs and create the strategic plans donors want to see.
At other times, I’m helping the donors to understand the cultural, economic, security or political context, so that they can target their investment in the most effective way.”

“I think of myself as the do-gooder from hell!”

IN: Where does this drive to make things happen come from?

“I grew up in a traditional Newari family, indigenous to the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. I had to fight to be the first female to sit at the dining table with other males – so I learned how to change things from a young age.

“My first real job was organising a delegation of 65 Australian women’s organisations in preparation for the UN’s World Conference on Women and NGO Forum in Beijing in 1995. I found all sorts of creative ways to getting different voices heard, both from Government delegations from the global south, and indigenous and rural populations from Australia.

“I was among the first to use the old dial-up Internet to get direct input from the people
I was representing after each session. I used to call it “e-democracy”. Now, I guess we just call it business as usual, with email and Skype.

“That gave me a taste for it. I think of myself as the ‘do-gooder from hell!’ I’ve been working to help improve lives for people who don’t have much of a voice ever since.”

IN: And does your work often take you to high-risk areas?

“What really interests me is playing a constructive part in helping Fragile States to make sustainable developments for their people – to deliver tangible results. That inevitably takes me to some quite dangerous places.

“I’m not someone to administer projects from afar. I like to roll my sleeves up, sit next to each other, look people in the eye and get things moving.

“Over the last 20 years or so I’ve worked in Somaliland and Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nepal, East Timor, China and in many other parts of Asia and Africa. I’ve been a Country Director for a UN organisation, I’ve worked for the World Bank, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the African Development Bank. I have also carried out many assignments through private consulting firms or my own firm – and this is where Bellwood Prestbury have been amazing.

“Work takes me back and forth between projects in Fragile States and the funding and development bodies in Europe and the US. My actual home is in Copenhagen, but I don’t get there very often!”

“It’s often culturally unusual for a woman to play a senior role. I have to be very sensitive to that.”

IN: Is it unusual for a woman to operate in this kind of role?

“It’s not unusual on the donor side. Women have been taking senior roles in those organisations for many years. But not so many of them venture into the difficult settings of the Fragile State.

“When I’m embedded, working with a government in one of those areas, it’s often culturally unusual for a woman to play a senior role. I have to be very sensitive to that, but I rarely have problems. Luckily, people see I deliver, and they embrace me with open hugs and open arms, even where it is usually uncommon.

“When I visit the development areas in the field, I am often the only woman on site, in the middle of nowhere. Some of the locals working on the project will be amazed to find I am effectively the person in charge. They sometimes break out into giggles and yell out things like – “This is boss lady.”

I think that’s a really good thing, because it nudges women’s rights a tiny step each time. But I have to be really careful not to cause any offence.

“I am always very careful about my own personal safety too. Being situationally aware is number one. Having a powerful local sponsor is essential. Being accompanied by the right people. Having protection in the right areas. Listening to orders from your protection team about whether it’s a ‘go or no go’ is a must. It’s all just part of getting things done in vulnerable places.

IN: You’ve been doing this a long time. Have things changed much over that time?

“Yes and no. I think most of the projects I have worked on have made a genuinely positive difference for the communities involved. I think that today, projects are more likely to be focused on outcomes for ordinary people and are therefore much more likely to hit home.

“The thing that hasn’t changed as much as I would like is that we don’t seem to be any nearer having a global framework for investing in Fragile States. It’s almost like we have to start again, every time. And it takes a long time to get all the pieces lined up.

“I guess that keeps me busy, but I would much rather see shorter development cycles, so the people who need it see the benefits faster. I might even get to spend a bit more time at home in Copenhagen.”

Flexible protection at the drop of a hat

Because Rima works for lots of different agencies and on lots of different projects, it’s not easy for her to know where she needs to be, or when.

To add further complication, sometimes the agency she is working for will provide insurance protection; other times she is expected to provide her own cover.

Rima uses Bellwood Prestbury’s flexible high-risk Personal Accident insurance and sometimes specialist covers.

“Bellwood are always incredibly responsive. I just email or call, and they organise cover almost immediately. I would really struggle to do what I do – safely and confidently – without them.”

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