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FEATURE STORYMarch 1, 2023

Alessandra Mel, Papua New Guinea: Passionate, Adaptive, Resilient

Alessandra Mel

World Bank, 2023

Each year for International Women’s Day, the World Bank meets women across East Asia Pacific who are challenging, creating, and leading the way in their fields. 

Alessandra Mel is a Papua New Guinean development professional with the Pacific Community (SPC), an accredited partnership broker, and a single mother. Determined to contribute to positive change in her community, Alessandra describes herself as a work in progress. While she insists she goes about it quietly, she does so with passion, adaptiveness, and resilience.

What inspired you to enter the field you're in now, especially working in partnerships?

It started in 2017 when I started doing my honours thesis with the Centre for Social and Creative Media at the University of Goroka. I started my journey there, learning how to use mobile technology to evaluate a documentary film about HIV/AIDS advocacy and whether it was a useful way of disseminating information. It sparked from there, seeing how people were eager for information. If you tailor information, people want to have access to it. Whether they use it and how it impacts their lives depends on the funding capacity to return and keep that relationship going. I could only do so much as a student and was determined to enter the development sector.

This year’s UN theme for International Women’s Day is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.’ How can digital technology and innovation deliver greater gender equality?

For digital technology to deliver innovation, and gender equality, there need to be more strategic partnerships. You've got institutions built that all have a stake, whether it's the private sector, civil society, NGOs, donors, or government. They all have roles to play, and they need to be able to come together to do that. They each have to invest a bit of it into ensuring that you can use digital, like technology, and innovation, to deliver gender equality. 

The private sector is churning numbers; people continue consuming information and content. CSOs and NGOs are sharing stories. We still have many confused and hurt by access to the digital space. Strategic partnerships can create value add for all stakeholders – both government and non-government. Strategic partnerships can create those channels for people to connect and see the value of working together. It must be a collaborative effort to achieve the vision of ‘innovation and technology for gender equality’.

What does your profession mean to you? 

I was so hungry to get my accreditation as a partnership broker. I saw its value in the field, going out and facilitating partnerships and discussions and learning firsthand from amazing mentors who guided me every step of the way. I realized I could have this as more than just a work experience; I could do something more with it. I'm passionate, adaptive, and resilient, but I do it very quietly. I'm a single mom who had kids without being married traditionally or by the church. Those are biases that can challenge me. As a partnership broker, you learn how to be able to know how to manage yourself, especially for being able to come into a space and meet people where they need to act to bring everyone to acknowledge each other's needs so that they can work together.

A challenge with being a Pacific Islander and a partnership broker is the call to stand in the in-between. There is a lot of discussion in development about decolonizing and localizing. How do I, as a Pacific Islander, adjust myself so that I can be present in aiding partners to establish new value in what each partner brings and to do development sustainably? In the Pacific, while we don't want to really see the big players come in and make so much noise claiming that they've got all the answers, at the same time, don’t we want to hear from ourselves as well? How are we building more people like us who are passionate about wanting to be in the middle, to be border crossers, but within their own setting? 

I am humbled to be part of an alliance of Pacific Islanders raising other Pacific Islanders. Donors and development partners should continue to build local capacity to undergo this training. You can only do development right by the recipient if they are able to cross over and check their own biases. That would enable people to realize that this is a career path. Sustainable Development Goal 17 is about partnerships. How are we actively contributing to ensure this SDG can also be progressed?

What were some of the challenges you faced as a leader, and what did you learn from them?

The greatest challenge is yourself and what you allow to be the loudest thing inside your mind. That starts to dictate how you exist and what you do. You don't need people to scream at you or to fill you with how they see the world or how they see you should be living your life. I think for me, that was the biggest challenge; you have to know how to win at the end of the day. Every single day is different. You have to claim the day and choose to do better for yourself. Connect to your values and your ‘why’: Why do I do this? Why do I want to be in this profession? If you are unsure how to answer these questions, work on how to answer them. So, then it builds your strength to do what you need to do. I recall an African proverb shared by a PNG woman leader, Luania Temu, who shared, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.’ 

In your various roles, how have you seen equality evolve in your field?

In my brokering experience at the Australia-Pacific Training Coalition, we brought in Australian expatriate staff to work with Papua New Guineans based in different settings. To create a middle ground, we had to build each stakeholder into becoming familiar with the culture and the context. You need to know what you're stepping into to ensure equality can be built. 

As facilitators, we had to provide that level of ‘seeing, sensing and knowing’ into the way we planned and worked to introduce into those conversations: how we're going to work within the partnership framework, to see women represented, and to be respectful of one another to strengthen this throughout the life of their partnership.

What do you think needs to be done to ensure more women are in leadership roles?

There are notable shifts in social thinking and ways of being about women's leading role in their spaces of influence. Before, the medium for women to be vocal was limited by print and broadcast media. Now look at the digital space; we are seeing more women who look like us and who do come from our Pacific region speaking and sharing their stories, 

My position on this would be to ask, how can these be amplified so these lessons can influence policies and become institutionalized? I commend and celebrate the women leaders today in my country. They are creatively using their personal digital spaces and technology to share their stories, advocate and be champions for the digital natives watching us closely. I want to encourage these Pawa Meris (Powerful Women) to keep sending out these messages and pushing against the barriers. What we may not be able to fully accomplish in our generation can and will be achieved in our children's future. 

What advice would you give Pacific women still studying or early in their careers?

You are where you are meant to be! Believe in yourself. See, know, and honor your value. Nurture your mind with positive things because our Pacific ways can at times make keeping above water a bit tough. Be open to seeking help and guidance; we are all in it together, lean out, reach out, and know we are here to help one another.

The most valuable lesson is remembering self-care. You must know you are important to yourself. Make time to appreciate yourself. Mental health is vital, so do not keep silent; speak out. Let us not be biased and negative towards one another. 

**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group.



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