Raquel Frederick | Associate Economic Affairs Officer, UN Economic Commission for Africa in Kigali, Rwanda

Welcome to the United Nations Career Journey Podcast where we interview colleagues working for the United Nations all around the world. We explore their career paths, what career satisfaction means to them and how they keep learning and developing on the job.

My name is Kate Doyle and today we will hear from Raquel Frederick of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and she is based in Kigali, Rwanda.

Welcome to the Career Journey Podcast Raquel and thank you for joining for us. It’s a pleasure to meet with you today.

Thank you very much, Kate. It’s my pleasure to join.

So to get started, could you share a little bit about yourself with our listeners?

Absolutely. Hello to everyone listening. As Kate said, I’m Raquel Frederick. I am based in UNECA’s sub regional office for Eastern Africa. And in this office, I provide research and support and technical assistance on a variety of areas, including trade, regional integration, tourism and the blue economy. I’m fairly new to the UN system, having joined only in 2019, through the Young Professionals Programme.

Thank you. You know before I asked you about the start of your career, I wanted to ask you about your home country, because you’re from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which is a very small nation in the Caribbean Sea, near the coast of Venezuela. And I imagine it to be a very beautiful and exotic place and I’m just so curious — what was it like growing up there?

You’re right, it was a very beautiful country, or it is a very beautiful country. In a lot of ways, it was a privilege for me growing up in St. Vincent. It’s a small country — between 100 to 110,000 people. I’m the youngest of three daughters. But because of the sense of community in my country, which is very typical of the Caribbean, I always felt that my family was not just limited to the four walls of my home. I had a religious upbringing. So my family extended into my church community. But even in schools, around the neighborhood, teachers would look out for you and your neighbors would even tell your parents if they see you doing something that you should not be doing.

My parents had very humble beginnings. But by the time I came around, they were closer to middle-class and they worked very hard to provide for their children a better life than they had which really instilled in us the importance of not just community but also of education. This is something that is very common in the Caribbean, the value of an education.

And what are the perceptions of the United Nations in St. Vincent and the Grenadines?

It’s very important and appreciated because agriculture is such a major economic pillar of the country. So the UN has always been seen as a partner in our development. But without a doubt our interest and appreciation not just for what the UN can do for us, but for our place in the UN really peaked over the last few years. At the start of 2020 St. Vincent and the Grenadines joined the Security Council as a non-permanent member. And this was a moment not just to represent ourselves and to represent the Caribbean, but representing small island developing states all around the world.

I was just thinking that you’re from this tiny community. And now you’re working for our global organization, the United Nations. So how did that come about for you?

I moved to the US after my high school education. I moved to study economics at Smith College. And after I worked in Boston for a consulting firm for a number of years. And a certain project that we did was actually looking at the global development landscape. And we were exploring how innovative and data-driven approaches can be used to assist development. And I found that so interesting. But being on that project also made me realize how important it is to have one — people from developing countries in the room when certain decisions are being made. It was underrepresented in that case, but this nudged me to go to grad school in New York for my Master’s in International Development. And while I was there, I had the privilege of interning with an incredible team at UNDP. And there began my real interest in working with the United Nations.

And so you found yourself being drawn to the UN, in part, it sounds like because of the environment you grew up in — from a developing nation that had, I’m sure a range of environmental challenges.

Absolutely, so something that is core to my work right now at the United Nations and what I see potentially being the core to my future work is talking about the vulnerability of small island developing states, of which St. Vincent and the Grenadines is one. So small islands are vulnerable in a lot of ways. We’re vulnerable to economic shocks, global economic shocks. And, of course, top of mind would be climate change and certain environmental disasters that come with climate change. But another difficult time that the country experienced was a volcanic eruption that happened last year. La Soufriere, the volcano that erupted in St. Vincent and the Grenadines is one of two active volcanoes in the country. But the last eruption was more than four decades ago. People hike it regularly — I’ve even done it once myself, and it started erupting in April 2021. And for several weeks, my country was not just dealing with the pandemic and the economic and social fallout from COVID-19, but we also had to deal with a significant eruption of the volcano in our country. Ashfall was everywhere, and this is, again- being such a small country — it impacted everyone everywhere at once — of course to varying degrees. And so even though I was not at home at the time, it was difficult to see places that I that I knew and love looking like a war zone.

And what is it like today? I mean, is it the St Vincent Grenadines that you remember? Or is it permanently changed?

From the videos that I’m seeing it’s somewhat back to normal in the southern parts of the island. In the northern parts the rebuilding will definitely take a lot more effort because it was not just ashfall that they experienced. It would have been lava flows, as well. So there are many, many people who are still without homes and trying to rebuild.

That sounds really hard for your countrymen to go through and I certainly hope that no other environmental shocks strike during this whole process of re-building. Raquel, let’s shift now and talk about your current role in Kigali where you’re an Economic Affairs Officer. Could you tell us about your responsibilities and what your average day looks like?

So at the core of my work, as I mentioned, I contribute to our research on trade and regional integration, and most recently, primarily the blue economy. So in addition to producing my own research, I have been supervising the research of a team of consultants. I’ve been liaising with government officials and other organizations doing similar work in the region, I have been presenting our work proposing budgets and activities and so on. It’s difficult to describe a typical day. Since we got back to the office after working remotely for over a year, I usually come in between 8:30 and 9:00 — it’s a very short walk from my apartment. And I take some time to go through and respond to emails. And I usually have a checklist of what I need to do and what I would like to do to complete the day. And of course, I don’t need to tell you that those are two very different lists. Because our office tends to receive a lot of ad hoc and urgent requests from our headquarters that tend to take priority. But I would say that my research work takes up maybe 30–40% of my time. But otherwise, I am developing presentations and speeches and country profiles, assessments. And these are all things that are very standard with being a P2 — an Associate Economic Affairs officer in the UN system.

And could you share with our listeners what you mean by the blue economy?

The blue economy in in the broadest sense describes any economic activity that takes place within or around the natural water bodies. But the blue economy, especially in eastern Africa, does not just include the ocean, but includes the inland water bodies, the rivers and the lakes, within the continent. So the activities that I’m talking about, it includes fishing, tourism, maritime transport…it includes aquatic renewable energy, and so on. But the blue economy thinks about all of those things in this multi-sectoral fashion.

You have about two and a half years of UN experience so far. What do you like about the organization and what has been challenging for you?

In terms of what I like about the United Nations, three things come to mind immediately. First, the United Nations is an organization where you can think global but act local. And I know that this was a catchphrase for climate work, but it applies to many corners of the organization that I have experienced. So for example, we have these big global sustainable development global goals that we’re all working towards as a planet, but different priorities and different strategies make sense at the national level. And so while the UN at times could be a behemoth, there is appreciation for local impact and local relevance.

So this is a bit connected to the second thing that I like about the UN. It’s the commitment to accountability and performance reviews. So even though the reporting can at times gets a bit tedious, I do value the opportunity that we have to assess our impact and to course correct if need be. So for example, at the ECA (Economic Commission for Africa) there are these quarterly review meetings where the whole house gets together: the headquarters, the sub regional offices, every single division…and we have to all present on what we have been able to achieve, well, first of what we planned to achieve what we have been able to achieve, and what we may be finding challenging.

And the third thing that I like about the institution is, I guess it’s more at a personal level — I appreciate the opportunities for continuous learning, and even the encouragement for continuous learning. Even last year, I took three months of French classes, I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m extremely proficient in French, but at least it got me to be a little bit more confident when I have to participate in some conversations with Francophone countries.

In terms of what has been challenging. Of course, I’m only two years in. But the UN is a large institution. And in addition to learning what you need to do for your job, there is a bit of a steep learning curve to knowing the intricacies of the UN system, and where I fit into it. And I’m not just talking about the organigram. It’s really learning the culture…the hierarchies. But I believe that this will be a challenge for me that would — and it has — diminished over time and will continue to diminish.

And have there been other learning or development activities that you’ve tried recently? I think you mentioned career coaching at one point.

So in the last two years, of course, a lot of people around the world have been thinking deeply about work and about their relationship with work, whether it’s the work life balance, or their career trajectories… it was the same for me. And so I have a friend who has a psychology practice back at home in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and she is incredible at her job. And so I had a few sessions with her last year. This was a time when my responsibilities at work were increasing and I was debating in my head my own future career path. There were many things that stuck out to me from our conversations. But one thing that I cannot get out of my head was when she asked about, I guess what the ethos is of my work. And what my sacred work was. And I won’t necessarily answer that here. But it often helps me to sit and reset and think about the big picture. So within my work, I always question why am I doing this? Does it truly contribute to the impact that I want to see? And it’s not always easy to make that connection with some of my assignments that I’m given. But at least now that I know what I’m looking for, I try to make sure that I can achieve some balance professionally. So I ensure that at least in all the things that I do, I have some things that drive me and give me passion.

And is that what the career coach meant by sacred work? Which — I love that term, by the way.

It’s the work that is passion — at least that’s my interpretation of it and how she explained it to me — it’s the work that that you find passion in. The work that will get you up in the morning the work that you can justify or feel — at least from me — results in impacts, real impacts in the communities that we’re trying to serve.

Do you see yourself staying in the UN Secretariat, or moving to another organization, perhaps in the UN system?

So it’s funny that you, we talked a little bit about me being part of the Young Professionals Programme. And I am now participating in my first Managed Reassignment process, or MRP. And I’m feeling a bit of excitement, for sure. But there’s a bit of nerves in the process. So it still blows my mind that in three to four months, I could be based in a different duty station… in a different country, maybe even in a different continent. And so, a lot of these conversations have helped me to be open to an excited for this new challenge, but still under the UN system. So this is something that appeals to me about being within the UN system: knowing that professionally, I can contribute to development efforts anywhere in the world and with each posting, I can learn I can grow and I can share lessons with other regions.

In a few months’ time you could be far from Kigali, where you’ve spent the last two plus years, what are some things you’ll miss about your current city?

It has been quite a pleasure living in Kigali. Of course, the people I have found the people to be very friendly and very accommodating. And always really interested to hear about where I came from. And that’s something that, you know, a lot of people haven’t, in Kigali, or in Rwanda generally have not heard about St. Vincent and Grenadines. So it’s been a pleasure to, to share that with them. Another thing that I love about Kigali is that it’s just a very safe and generally calm city. Not just that people are friendly, but crime is just generally low. And being a woman living alone in an unfamiliar city, you know, you always have to have your guard up. And I’m certainly more relaxed here in Kigali than I would be in other places. That’s something that depending on where I move to, I’m certainly going to miss. I also like the accessibility to other East African cities. I have been able to travel a bit on mission. And also, as you know, COVID restrictions were lightened, I was able to travel for pleasure to other countries within the region. And that’s something that I’m going to miss — really being able to travel around East Africa. From the perspective of a development professional, Rwanda is an excellent country to learn from…really learn from their homegrown approaches to development. And this is something that I’m going to miss observing while being here. Of course, I can still follow Rwanda’s amazing trajectory from afar. But it’s been a pleasure being here and witnessing it firsthand.

Being open to where the journey leads, finding your sacred work, enjoying the beautiful country of Rwanda. It has been a pleasure to speak with you, Raquel. And I want to thank you again for your time today.

You’re welcome, you’re very welcome.

And thank you to our listeners as well. If you liked this episode, please share it with your friends and colleagues and make sure to tune in for the next one.

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