Being a small part of meaningful change and stepping up to the challenge of working unsupervised across a broad range of law is what Sophie Edgen values most about volunteering in the Solomon Islands.
Ms Edgen works in the remote Temotu Province in the eastern Solomon Islands, made up of dozens of scattered islands. As a legal advisor for the Temotu Provincial Government, Ms Edgen says dealing with kastom (customary/traditional law) plays a big part in many legal processes, especially regarding land issues.
“Dealing with kastom issues has added a new dimension to my work,” she says. “So far I have advised on issues including land, elections, forestry, the environment, undersea mining, employment, international maritime law, infrastructure contracts and marine protection.
“My role includes delivering training, developing policies and drafting provincial legislation. I also advise drop-in visitors on personal legal matters when I can,” she says.
Ms Edgen found the position through Volunteer Services Abroad (VSA) and has been on post since June 2010. She says she is passionate about international development and volunteering abroad was a next logical step in her career.
“International development is a long-held passion of mine and I think lawyers are uniquely placed to advocate for the rights of disadvantaged people. I was also looking for a challenge and a chance to do something completely different,” she says.
Before moving to the Solomon Islands, Ms Edgen worked as a legal advisor at the New Zealand Aid Programme in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). However, to work in more direct advocacy roles overseas she needed to develop a slightly different skill set, she says.
“After completing some postgraduate study towards this goal, it was time to gain to some field experience in a developing country. I had worked with VSA while at MFAT and was very impressed with the organisation so I chose to volunteer with them,” she says.
The day-to-day assistance Ms Edgen provides - which is often as simple as writing a letter on someone’s behalf - can make a huge difference she says. The largest and most fulfilling assignment to date was being given delegated authority to represent the national Government over the responsibility of a wrecked vessel at Lata Wharf.
“The Provincial Government has battled for five years to make the owner of a wrecked vessel at Lata Wharf take responsibility for the salvage. This wreck blocks access to the province’s only intact wharf and poses an environmental, health and navigational hazard, not to mention giving tourists arriving by sea a poor first impression of the country. I have been working with provincial and national government officers to pursue this through the courts.
“Although it’s not over yet, if we can do this it will be a huge achievement for the Provincial Government,” she says.
Age and gender are perceived differently in the Solomons which, among other things, makes the culture and working environment unlike that of New Zealand.
There are no women in either the Solomon Islands Parliament or in the Temotu Provincial Government so as a young woman Ms Edgen had to initially work hard to prove herself to her colleagues and establish credibility.
“Life is much more communal than in New Zealand. Everyone knows everyone’s business and privacy is a foreign concept. The upside of this is that resources are shared so no one misses out and people never hesitate to help their neighbours,” says Ms Edgen.
Ms Edgen says the diversity of the work she has been able to do has helped her confidence and abilities grow.
“I have done so many things both professionally and personally that I never thought I would be able to do. I really enjoy working with people who so passionately want to improve the province and seeing the changes they have achieved.
“It has been the most challenging experience of my life but also the most rewarding,” she says.
Legal assignments make up a small but significant part of VSA’s programme. On average, VSA sends three lawyers on assignment each year and in recent years most legal assignments have been based in the Solomon Islands and Bougainville.
Applicants need several years of professional experience. Public sector experience is also useful. To register your interest or to find out more, go to www.vsa.org.nz
This article was published in LawTalk 785, 18 November 2011, page 10.