Levan BOUADZE: "We always carried our little Georgia with us"

16.01.2022 (Caucasian Journal) Today we are pleased to meet with Mr. Levan BOUADZE  – a Georgian national serving as UNDP Resident Representative at Pacific Office in Fiji, responsible for UN development activities in a vast region consisting of 10 island nations.
With this interview, we continue  to cover various aspects of UNDP activities. Our first UNDP interview was with Resident Representative in Georgia (see here). 

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ:  Dear Mr. Levan, welcome to Caucasian Journal, Happy New Year! According to Georgian tradition, you are our “mekvle” (tracklayer) – the first guest who steps in. You are one of the Georgians who managed to build a successful international career, living far away from your homeland. May I start with a philosophical question: What happens to a Georgian identity after so many years away – is it getting stronger or washes away? Do you still practice traditions such as “mekvle”, for example?

Levan BOUADZE: Thank you, Alexander, for the opportunity to talk to your journal. Thanks for New Year greetings and from my part I also wish you and your readers a great and, importantly, healthy 2022. Sorry, I would not be able to hand sweets and candies virtually, so not a typical mekvle really😄.

It is already 26 years that I have been away from my homeland. Whether this has changed my Georgian identity, not sure if I ever thought about it. Clearly, who I am is firmly rooted in the value system that my (very) Georgian parents instilled on me which, in itself, was nurtured by the culture and traditions I was growing up with. Being away and living and working in foreign countries, certainly enriched my experiences and expanded my horizons, but I do not think that took away who I am. Furthermore, being married to a Georgian wife and having three Georgian kids, we always carried our little Georgia with us wherever we went and kept all our traditions very much alive including that of mekvle.   

AK: In a recent interview, Caucasian Journal spoke to your colleague in Georgia, the UNDP Representative Nick Beresford (link), so our readers have some idea of the United Nations Development Programme’s activities in general. In contrast to Mr. Beresford, however, you are responsible for 10 countries (!), scattered across the Pacific Ocean, including Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Vanuatu, and others. Sounds exotic! How do you manage all this? Can you share some of your daily routine, which must be quite different from usual office work?

LB: Our default operating model in UNDP (or in any other development entity in the UN), is one representation in one country and Nick represents us well in Georgia. Exceptions are in locations where due to the small size of countries this may not be possible, where we have so called Multi Country Offices, and one in the Pacific region I have a huge privilege to head. As you said, we cover 10 countries from our office in Suva, Fiji, which happens to be the largest country in the region. These countries are so-called Small Island Development States (SIDS) that span several million square kilometers of the ocean surface but rather tiny territory and are inhabited by around 2 million people, half of Georgia. These are incredibly beautiful places, a combination of volcanic and atoll islands emerging out of pristine waters of Pacific Ocean.  

In each country we manage development programmes through a combination of local and Fiji-based teams. Before Covid, this involved extensive travel which in the new pandemic reality is no longer possible and most of our work is supported virtually, which creates challenges of its own but that is a new norm we are learning to live with.           

AK:  Speaking about your work, can you name any UNDP’s activity or project in your region, which you consider most substantial? Which have the strongest impact? 

LB: The region is particularly challenging from the development perspective. These are small nations facing daily adversities associated with devastating impacts of climate change along with an array of issues associated with building and sustaining livelihoods in resource constrained locations remote from major markets. Our programme is largely formed by those priorities and in the region has been focusing on building and strengthening resilience of the nations concerns, mitigating and adapting to climate change, supporting state institutions in better governing including through legislation, budgetary processes, digitalization. Lately we have been looking at immense opportunities that exist in terms of sustainably using ocean resources and advancing the blue economy concept. Needless to say, with an onset of the pandemic we refocused some of our usual approaches and tried to find ways for a better recovery, so we do not have to go back to the old inefficient system but rather use the opportunity to, as we call it, build forward better.      

AK:  In your daily work in Fiji or at the headquarters, do you sometimes keep in mind the development needs of Georgia? If yes, can you recall any case involving or affecting our region’s projects? Or, perhaps there are valuable experiences gained by UNDP elsewhere, which might be useful for Georgia?

LB: In my previous role at HQ in New York, I had an oversight role for UNDP’s programmes in Europe and Central Asia, which of course included Georgia. I still continue to remain familiar with development challenges in “our” region and follow what my friends - fellow Resident Representatives - do there. I have perhaps more interest in what Nick and his team are doing considering it is my country and I am a frequent guest to their social media sites. I get particularly excited when I read of their projects in my dad’s region of Racha or my mom’s region of Guria😊.

In terms of how experiences are shared globally, it is UNDP’s strongest advantage to have offices in more than 130 countries, where we have been around 40-50 years and amassed the huge knowledge how to address different development challenges which we share among ourselves. We also have global expertise which we can deploy on short notice between our different locations. So, in some ways both Georgia and Pacific offices, we all benefit from that common knowledge and experiences, even if there has not been direct exchange between us of late.        

AK:  Your professional experience is quite unique. It would be great if you could share some of your impressions from the Pacific islands – the people’s mentality, traditions, modern trends. In comparison with your home country, what is especially contrasting, or common? 

LB: In broad terms, along ethnic, linguistic, cultural and geographical lines the Pacific region is divided in three groups: Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia. Most nations obtained independence relatively recently around 30-50 years ago and have made much progress since in building their statehood despite challenges along the way. In our region we have countries with a population of around 10 thousand people just to emphasize how hard the state building process might be in a permanent lack of capacity to man institutions. 

All these nations are extremely proud of their identity, their heroic history of survival in the middle of the ocean, their determination to continue to live on their islands despite a growing threat to their livelihoods due to water level rise from climate change. Comparing to my country, we have different set of challenges of course but I see some similarities in how we are attached to where we are from. We are also similar in terms of how we embrace our guests and I have always felt very welcome here. Last, but not least, we share a rugby passion with Fijians, Tongans and Samoans. In my time here, Georgia played with Fiji three times already. No luck yet but each time we are getting better against magnificent Flying Fijians, who play one of the most beautiful Rugby in the world.    

There is no alternative to good education, and as long as it is assured, I am sure we can move mountains.

AK:  You are one of the Georgians who managed to make a professional career of a high international caliber. In Caucasian Journal, we seek to cover the cases when people, ideas, or technologies from our region reach the international level. I wish there were more cases like this, but they are still quite few. What can be done to raise the global awareness of Georgia and the “competitiveness” of its products and people? 

LB: I think considering the size of our country, we have something to offer. It is not uncommon to see Georgians doing well in the academia, business, culture, social life at the global level. There are plenty of names that I can think of without even resorting to Google search which is inspiring. I am thrilled to see the Georgian youth are doing way better than, say, our generation, as they have been given more opportunities, they speak foreign languages and more of them study abroad. There is no alternative to good education, and as long as it is assured, I am sure we can move mountains.  

AK:  Can you share with us some highlights of your professional growth, interesting adventures, funny situations that you have lived through? What features of your character helped you in being successful?

LB: I have not really dwelled much on my past. I think I have been largely lucky to be given the opportunity especially in a time when Georgia was not in the right place. I recall we were just coming out a civil war, when the British Government awarded me a scholarship that catapulted me from the desperation and hopelessness in an university in the UK. That was a truly life changing experience that eventually put me to an international career path in the UN, and if it is any measure of success, then I would say my recipe is a mix of both luck and hard work, you need both. It is my 7th duty station, each of them being unique and memorable in many ways. In all places I have lived, I kept some part of me and with each I remained engaged in my own personal way.

AK:  Let’s imagine you are the decision-maker for Georgia or our region in general, and you can implement any initiative. What would be your three first decrees about? 

LB: Given my development background, I look at issues from the perspective of a sustainable balance between human development and resources our planet is willing to provide, which is not endless. We are scratching much surface there and I do not think we have gone much beyond recognizing the problem as multiple negotiations at the global level can attest. This comes with a huge policy agenda at the country level and if I were in the seat of policy making, I would look at options of how we can make energy transition to more greener sources, place a value on scare resources to promote their sustainable use, provide space for digital transformation, etc. I see lots of opportunities there, especially in countries with fairly developed human resources but not necessarily endowed with natural resources, such as Georgia. Competitiveness of countries shortly will largely be defined by how advanced they will be in terms of embracing modern greener technologies, so it would be a mistake to miss that train.    

We are a European nation, although we had been left out of it for a long time... Yes, it may take much time but nothing will reverse the trend. 

AK:  Georgians identify themselves strongly with Europe and the West in general. That’s a very valuable asset, but must be handled with much care, otherwise this resource might evaporate. How do you assess the EU and NATO’s attitude to Georgia (and vice versa), and the progress of European integration of Georgia? 

LB: I really think it is not a matter of choice, Europe is just our identity and destiny. We are a European nation, although we had been left out of it for a long time. It is a matter of time when it is institutionally formalized, and yes it may take much time but nothing will reverse the trend. 

AK:  If there is anything that you would like to add for our readers, the floor is yours.

LB: Again, I would like to use the opportunity to wish a happy new year to all my fellow Georgians! I just want to urge them to be serious about vaccinating themselves to reverse the unfortunate trend of Covid hospitalization and death. Everyone has a role to play to stop lethal consequences of the virus. In fact it is everyone’s duty and I think it will be a game changer in 2022.  

AK: Thank you very much!

LB: You are most welcome!

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