When my fellow interns were getting to know each other and the Oxfam Novib office in The Hague, I was all the way across the Atlantic in Costa Rica. I know, not very professional, right?
Well, I was not in Costa Rica on holidays, although it did feel that way sometimes. Instead, I was following a two–week course that equipped me with a fresh set of tools for changing the world. Reflecting on it now, I cannot imagine a better preparation for Oxfam’s fight against poverty, however brief it was.
Sustainability in Practise
How do we reimagine food, land and urban spaces for a sustainable future? What should solutions to the world’s most pressing social, economic and ecological challenges look like? How do we make sure these solutions include the world’s most vulnerable people? I hoped the Youth Encounter on Sustainability, aptly acronymised to YES, would be a good place to start developing answer to these questions.
The lab was held in Costa Rica. The small Central American country is one of the world’s most sustainable countries and aims to be carbon neutral by 2021. Last year, Costa Rica generated 98,1% of its electricity from renewables. An impressive feat, from which other countries have much to learn, but it also hides other challenges.
For one, Costa Rica’s mobility sector causes traffic jams, air pollution, and an increasing demand for oil. We had the opportunity to discuss these complex and interconnected issues with representatives from the public sector, the private sector and civil society. We learned about what each stakeholder was doing, and what could still be done to alleviate Costa Rica’s most polluting sector.
The YES program also focused on Costa Rica’s land-use sector. We visited smallholder producers of banana’s and cacao, two of the country’s most famous exports. Although multinationals like Dole still hold mainstream monocultures, Costa Rica also has the world’s first carbon neutral coffee.
By looking at complete value chains, we discussed the business models that were granting sustainable smallholder famers access to global markets. We debated the advantages and drawbacks of certifications, and whether there is a future for them.
I am now an educated consumer; curious about the story behind every banana split. I can also better envision a career for myself in sustainable development. But most importantly, I can imagine sustainable agriculture on Curaçao, my corner of the world, where we import almost all our food.
Learning through Diversity
I was drawn to YES partly because of its interdisciplinary and international nature. And as soon as we began I realised these words were not just buzzwords to lure us in. I was part of a very diverse group! We came from 17 countries on 4 continents, and specialise in 13 different disciplines.
Expect chaos? Think again! This diversity prepared me for the coming months at Oxfam in ways I couldn’t have imagined when applying.
At Oxfam, I will be supporting Land Rights Now, an international campaign on Indigenous and Community Land Rights. Although I have discussed this topic academically, I’m from a small island with no indigenous population.
So, when we were allowed to present our personal projects, I pitched this internship, hoping to get a few tips. What I got was more than I was bargaining for: 3 fellow YESers volunteered their expertise. And they are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Venezuela, all countries with sizeable indigenous populations.
Together we discussed the realities of Indigenous peoples on the ground. How should Indigenous stories be communicated to a global audience? And how can this communication translate to a better quality of life?
The insights I received from Mario, Karla and Maria over our three sessions, and the many lessons I learned during YES, allowed me to enter the doors of Oxfam Novib feeling confident on my first day. Even though I had missed the introduction days!
A version of this article was written for the Oxfam Novib Academy Blog, and first appeared there on October 10 2017.