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Working day and night to advance Asia's environmental goals

September 30, 2020

Seo-Jeong Yoon in front of a mountain and forest landscape in Navilawa village in Fiji
Seo-Jeong Yoon at Navilawa village in Fiji, visiting a GEF project site on resilient agriculture responding to climate change. Photo courtesy of Seo-Jeong Yoon

As a Global Environment Facility Country Officer, Seo-Jeong Yoon helps government officials across Asia and the Pacific plan and advance GEF-supported projects to address environmental degradation and protection. In an interview, she reflected on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected her work across 14 time zones and how growing up in rural South Korea shaped her views about land stewardship.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Before the coronavirus, my job as Country Officer involved frequent travel to Asia and the Pacific where I had opportunities to observe first-hand the impact of GEF-supported projects and programs. The best part of my job was meeting people and seeing how local communities across the region go about their daily lives - and how their efforts to restore and protect nature are yielding results.

I also really enjoy organizing and leading constituency meetings as part of the Country Support Program team. These are small, closed-door gatherings where we review decisions of the GEF Council and discuss their relevance to the Asian and Pacific countries that receive GEF financing for environmental projects. These meetings give me an opportunity to engage with Political Focal Points and Operational Focal Points to learn about the pipeline of projects that countries are planning and facilitate regional program development and knowledge sharing. Typically, these meetings are held in person, but because of the pandemic we’ve shifted to virtual meetings which are held late at night in Washington DC due to the time zone differences. I am proud of the way we have quickly adapted our way of business to keep this work on track.

How else has the COVID-19 outbreak affected your work?

I spend most of my days (and nights) switching between WebEx, Skype, WhatsApp, Teams, and Zoom video calls. We need to stay in touch more than ever, and I have learned to use all available technology to foster this connectivity with colleagues in Washington and partners on the other side of the globe. Here’s my to-do list for tonight: a WebEx call with Indonesia, a Skype chat with Kiribati, and a WhatsApp group with officials from Pacific Small Island Developing States to plan for an upcoming technical workshop.

My calls with country counterparts typically begin in the late afternoon and go into the night, given the time differences. I have young children and, as I am working from home during the pandemic, it is often more convenient to speak with my counterparts in Asia and the Pacific at night when I can be alone and uninterrupted. (On a related note, my helpful daughter just brought me a peanut butter sandwich and two Oreo cookies for lunch - along with a “bill” for $5.62!)

Has anything surprised you about remote work?

I’d like to acknowledge my amazing colleagues, who have adapted so quickly to our changing circumstances. Just today, I received emails from two colleagues who offered to help out with country outreach activities. And when I asked Washington-based colleagues if they could be on standby during a late night virtual meeting with Kiribati technical experts, they immediately agreed. It has been very heartening to see how the team has found ways to keep advancing our Country Support Program – including our Expanded Constituency Workshops, National Dialogues, Constituency Meetings, and regional programming consultations and workshops – even in a time when international travel is not possible. The first virtual GEF Council meeting was a great example of what we can achieve remotely. 

Is there a country in your portfolio that is especially on your mind right now?

Throughout the pandemic I’ve been thinking about Kiribati, a low-lying island nation in the Pacific that faces existential threats from rising seas and other climate-related impacts. I was in the middle of planning a national dialogue for Kiribati when COVID-19 hit. We quickly revised the plan and delivered the event via Skype for 200 stakeholders. In our National Dialogue we discussed some creative solutions to help ensure that the GEF’s funding makes a difference in light of the multiple challenges the country is facing. We will need to be innovative and flexible to help the people of Kiribati. I’m very thankful for many brilliant colleagues who are thinking outside the box about these challenges.

Group photo of Seo-Jeong Yoon with Pacific constituency operational and political focal points
Seo-Jeong Yoon with Operational and Political Focal Points at the Palau Pacific constitutency meeting in May, 2019. Photo courtesy of Seo-Jeong Yoon.

When did you first become interested in environmental issues?

I grew up in a rural farming community in South Korea. I spent my early childhood in a remote village where my relatives lived near a very old Buddhist temple. I remember vividly when we got electricity. My family gathered under a dim light and celebrated by singing. My father would take my brother and me on a hunting trail to collect dead birds at the spots where we had left poisonous berries. When we’d come back home my mother would be waiting with boiling water. First we’d pluck the birds’ feathers, then it was time to make delicious soup. My father would say if you see a huge snake sitting in the bottom of the well, the water is especially clean. These childhood memories are precious to me and I recall them often as a time when my life was in closer balance with nature – and as a reminder that proximity to wildlife can be complex, as many of the traditions I grew up with have since evolved for health and conservation reasons.

In Tonga a few years ago, as part of a 17-country Expanded Constituency Workshop that I organized, our team arranged a group visit to a local pig farm, to a GEF-supported renewable energy project site, and to an agricultural college. There, we observed young Tongan men and women learning how to farm.  I also had a chance to see Tonga’s annual Agriculture and Fisheries Show where I was so impressed by the variety of healthy fruits and vegetables on display. My mother would have been so excited to see it – she used to say that Korea has plenty of water, but not enough good soil and flat land to farm on. Growing up close to the land gave me an appreciation for nature and the importance of taking care of it that continues to inform my life and work.

What makes the GEF a special place to work?

I studied international law in the hopes of working at an international organization so I could help people. Fortunately, I got a job at the World Bank and started my career doing legal work there. Then, I moved to the International Finance Corporation, where I continued legal and policy work with a focus on private sector development. But I couldn’t help feeling that just half of my dream had come true. It was when I joined the GEF that I started feeling I was getting close to the other half of my dream, helping people in a more direct way.

The GEF is the one of the largest financiers of global environmental action and the scope of its portfolio is impressive. At the same time, it is a model of partnership and cooperation that is built upon country ownership. This is the most fundamental principle that governs our operations. I feel blessed to work closely with committed partners across Asia and the Pacific who are focused not only on their own countries’ priorities but on how we can pursue shared goals. If my interactions with focal points and other partners can empower them to make good decisions about how to use GEF funding, I can say I did my small part to help the GEF achieve its mission and put the planet on a more sustainable path.