By Maureen Mayne, (MA '05)
Seven months ago, I realized my dream: to work for the United Nations. Seven months and three days ago, I was accepted as a project manager for the governance area in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Latin America is characterized by fragile democratic institutions. The region has a recent history of dictatorial political systems, instability and economic crisis. Although most countries succeeded in their transition towards democratic institutions and principles, a lot still has to be done. Indeed, having fair and transparent elections is not enough to call a political system a democracy. Yes, the region has successfully attained what has been called 'electoral democracies'. But it is insufficient. Constructing efficient political systems is a tough enterprise that involves working on numerous facets of democracy.
Nowadays, the political systems in Latin America suffer from a disconnection between the State and citizens who tend to use extra-institutional means to express their demands. The consequences are quite damaging for the functioning and maturation of democracy. The political parties are often quite weak; they lack credibility and struggle to relay successfully the needs of the voters, who do not trust their representatives. Thus, young democracies are ill-armed to face new challenges such as inequality, the impacts of globalization, development of indigenous rights, environmental issues, etc.
To me, democracy is not a panacea; it's a constant re-definition of constructive relationships. It is a necessary framework in which efforts to understand the needs and constraints of groups and individuals should lead to a stronger democracy. A confident democracy does not fear differences, it embraces and grows from them. My philosophy is that what democracies should fear foremost is indifference and apathy -- indifference from the State regarding citizens' well-being, indifference from a civil society that is unable to properly relay the concerns of a country, indifference and resignation from citizens that have lost hope for a better regime.
If I had to put that in 'conres' jargon, which I love to do for any kind of situation, I would probably say that democracies are peaceful conflict management, conflict prevention and conflict resolution systems. A good democracy searches for win/win situations. By responding in an efficient and timely manner to citizens' demands, democracies consolidate themselves and gain credibility. Citizens' democracies are based on a constant dialogue between the government and the people. To me, democracy is probably the best conflict resolution instrument human beings have created.
At the UN, our programs aim to strengthen democracy by investigating the weaknesses of its institutions and by contributing, through our projects, to the better functioning of governments in their relations to the civil society and citizens. Latin America needs new bonds between government and citizens and renewed relationships based on trust, understanding and dialogue.
From a personal point of view, more than anything, I am learning. I am learning that, to make the world better, you have to convince people that what you are doing is right and helpful, as well as efficient. It is not enough to have good ideas. And forget about being a 'peace and love hippie'. You need credibility, strategies and results. You need to show that your moral values are actually 'marketable'. You can be an idealist, but you cannot be a good idealist if you are not also quite realist and pragmatic in the objectives you set in your projects. Then, you have to question yourself and your work, all the time.
I have had three major realizations since I started my job: First, that while my Master's degree is crucial for me to do my job, I have to reinvent everything when confronted with reality, like the limitations of bureaucracy or financial resources. Second, out of the dozen internships one has to work at in order to prove oneself, it is thanks to a good internship that I applied for the position I now occupy. Thus, it is important to value internships although they can be frustrating. Last, there are two qualities that I have found extremely important: being adaptable and self-reflective. If you can adapt to people, cultures, organizational structures, urgencies, workload and if you can regularly ask yourself and people around you what you did well and what you should improve, then you will progressively feel more comfortable dealing with new situations.
When I was in high school, I had to write next to my senior photo a proverb that would best describe my philosophy of life. Without giving it much attention, I rapidly scratched a cheesy sentence. I did not realize that in this moment of perplexity and scepticism, I would actually write the rule I have followed since then. I know it is cheesy, but I have assumed it. I had written: "Always hope, never regret".
Maureen graduated from CRI with her Master's degree in 2005. She currently works at the United Nations Development Program, Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean as a governance project manager. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.