Facilitating self-sufficiency and resilience in Tokelau

12 June 2018
UN Volunteer Thibault Le Pivain, UNDP Multi-Country Office in Samoa
When I began my UNV assignment in September last year, I knew little of Tokelau, the island nation I would grow to love. My UNV posting gave me the daunting task of serving as the focal point for the development of programmes with the United Nations in Tokelau.
Thibault le Pivain (left) with UNDP Resident Coordinator for Samoa, Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau Simona Marinescu (right) en route to Tokelau.
Thibault le Pivain (left) with UN Resident Coordinator in Samoa/UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau, Dr Simona Marinescu (right), en route to Tokelau.
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During the last eight months I have divided my time working at the United Nations Development Programme Multi-Country Office in Samoa and at the Tokelau Apia Liaison Office.

I have also travelled to Tokelau to monitor projects and attend national events. Travel to these atolls, as I have come to understand, is no mean feat. Indeed, the 24-hour boat-journey across some of the remote parts of the Pacific is a prerequisite to understanding the isolation faced by the people of Tokelau and the unique model of resilience they have developed.

Two weeks ago, I completed my fifth trip to the archipelago as part of the United Nations and Council of Regional Organizations in the Pacific (UN-CROP) mission to Tokelau (29 April – 4 May 2018).

I jointly organized and facilitated this mission with the UN Resident Coordinator Office. This was the first such joint trip ever and the second for the UN in eight years.

The three atolls of Tokelau named Fakaofo, Nukunonu and Atafu are among the most remote locales on earth, the closest atoll only reachable by a one-day boat voyage from Apia once a week.

My role is to facilitate the work of the UN in Tokelau and assist the nation to become self-sufficient in its energy and resource needs; strengthen climate change adaptation and mitigation capacities, and support strong, locally-relevant systems of governance and livelihoods that secure a resilient future for a population increasingly exposed to fragility and aid reliance.

At the project level, this requires supporting the design, implementation and evaluation of UN activities to be undertaken in Tokelau.

It means assisting colleagues who have technical expertise in programming to match their work with the context of the atolls and the needs of the people.

Also, it requires diverse multi-stakeholder coordination to blend priorities and imperatives of various groups, including UN technical experts in regional hubs, the UN Resident Coordinator, donors and consultants, and present them to the Tokelau Apia Liaison Office and the three Village Councils of Elders based on the three remote atolls for validation and action.

While this mandate is challenging, it is stimulating to take part in the development of a small nation, where projects have a visible impact on the lives of the 1,500 inhabitants, some of whom I have come to know very well.

It has been personally and professionally rewarding to take part in the transformation of a small but vibrant, innovative and wise nation and stand with these great people in their audacity to defy limitations and uncertainty.

Left: Thibault Le Pivain and other UN Volunteers serving in the Pacific.  Right: Thibault Le Pivain was chosen by the Tokelau Government as a flag bearer for independence day in Samoa. (UNV, 2018)

This month of May has been particularly active regarding our work in Tokelau. As noted above, the UN-CROP delegation led by the UN Resident Coordinator, Dr Simona Marinescu, visited Tokelau forging new areas of partnership under a common framework of ‘Delivering as One’.

The mission was also an opportunity to tailor the projects funded by the UNDP-Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme to Tokelau’s context.

A Memorandum of Agreement was signed for the Waste to Energy Project that aims to transform the pigsty wastes into biogas for cooking.  

We undertook a final Vulnerability Reduction Assessment as well for the Keyhole Gardens Project. It appeared that 90 youth managed keyhole gardens in 30 households of Tokelau, creating a self-sustainable, diverse and controllable source of food for the atolls.

The Terminal Evaluation of the UNDP Tokelau Energy Sector Support (TESS) project was finalized upon the return of the mission. The evaluation concluded that the project was crucial to Tokelau becoming the first nation in the world to source all its electricity needs from solar power.

Finally, consultations with the three Village Councils of Elders to discuss the approval of the UNDP Good Governance Project are scheduled for the end of the month.

Good Governance is a topic of particular importance to Tokelau, given its unique political structure mixing democratic values with traditional practices. The system in place is decentralized and relatively new.

Although the administration of Tokelau is a joint responsibility with New Zealand, the executive and legislative powers are formally delegated to the three Village Councils of Elders as the highest local authority.

The success of the project depends on the understanding by all stakeholders of the unique history and culture of the atolls; hence, the need for thorough consultation at the village level to develop local ownership in the project.

We are currently looking at hiring three national volunteers. The idea is to have a focal point on each of the atolls reporting to the UN and to the Village Councils of Elders.

I have met with the youth groups and found interest among young people willing to contribute to the development of their own island.  We trust the volunteers can foster the UN presence in Tokelau while developing local human capacity.

Reflecting on my assignment, I can definitely state that I am lucky to have an assignment that allows me to interact on a daily basis with a diverse array of people involved in projects from various fields but committed to improving the lives of the tremendously challenged people of Tokelau.

For a young professional relatively new within the UN system, it has been an unrivalled opportunity to understand the day-to-day realities of UN procedures and development practices.

Acting as a volunteer has helped me to engage on the ground, making myself available for the missions in the archipelago and able to reach out to the Tokelauans in a direct and effective way.

At some point, introducing myself as a volunteer also made me more accessible when representing the UN in Tokelau, especially to the youth community. But what I have valued the most from my UNV assignment are the bonds I have created with the people of Tokelau.

The people of Tokelau live in the most beautifully isolated place I have seen. I have come to understand their vision of the world that does force me to question many of my own assumptions.

It has been personally and professionally rewarding to take part in the transformation of a small but vibrant, innovative and wise nation and stand with these great people in their audacity to defy limitations and uncertainty.

The view in Tokelau during the UN-CROP mission in May 2018. (UNV, 2018)