Published on 5th August 2015
When people think about Volunteer Service Abroad they may think that it’s been around a long time (more than 50 years), it’s sent a lot of Kiwis overseas, (close to 4000), Sir Edmund Hillary was a big influence (founding president) – but they don’t necessarily think about the law.
However there’s been a quiet revolution going on as young, and not so young, lawyers have partnered up with provincial and central governments in the Pacific. They have been helping strengthen one of the big game changers in struggling economies – governance.
Thirty-two-year-old Melanie Phillips is one of those Kiwi lawyers. She took on the 26th legal adviser assignment in the Solomon Islands in 2012, becoming the latest in a long line of New Zealand’s legal professionals to work alongside people in Melanesia. When her assignment ended early last year, she stayed on in Honiara at the request of the government there.
Mel says in the Solomons she has given advice and drafted orders suspending two members of parliament. A very rare occurrence in New Zealand. “I am now working on the review of governance structures, discussing issues of national identity in a post-colonial society. You get to be privy to some fascinating conversations about what it means to be who you are and how you express this,” she says.
Mel says the move has made her a better lawyer because she now understands justice, as opposed to just the law. “I meet so many people who want to do this kind of work but aren’t willing, or are unable, to take time out of their professional career,” she says.
And what about only getting a local wage while on assignment? Mel has a clear message. “Volunteering opens up whole new career opportunities; if you want to do development work, just suck it up and take the pay hit – it will repay you 100 times over.”
There is a conflicted view of the Pacific Islands: holiday destinations, lazy days on palm-fringed beaches. Yet people in places like the Solomon Islands struggle with lack of educational opportunities, employment, healthcare and, in some areas, the legacy of past conflicts and instability. For Mel these deep complexities have been equally challenging and enlightening. “Cultural differences are one of the things that I see New Zealanders struggle with the most. In the Solomon Islands, people are very quiet, intelligent, and discreet.” She says it takes time to build trust. “The impermanence of life is also a real wake-up call. I have been to more funerals in the last year than in the previous thirty and the pragmatism with which people accept death is eye opening.”
Mel believes her time with VSA has progressed her career, her understanding of her world and her comprehension of what drives us all. “As a friend said to me recently at one funeral – hemi path blo iumi everiwan (it is the path we must all follow). It teaches you to make the most of what you have and not sweat the small stuff. After all, we are all on the same path.”
For more information about volunteering with VSA in fields ranging from legal to finance to marketing to agribusiness, go to our vacancies page. VSA volunteers get flights, accommodation, insurance, visas and a living allowance covered. Most assignments are between six months and two years, with a few shorter.