The good samaritan
The Peak Malaysia celebrates 60 years of UNICEF with a profile on Gaye Phillips, UNICEF Representative to Malaysia and UNICEF’s Special Representative to the Republic of Singapore and Brunei Darussalam for its December 2006 issue. This piece is courtesy of The Peak Malaysia.
Humanitarian Gaye Phillips of UNICEF speaks about her career with the UN agency specially formed for the children of the world. Shanti Ganesan of The Peak is enlightened by her story.
There are only a handful of us who can wholeheartedly say that our careers revolve around doing good for others. One of those people is Gaye Phillips, UNICEF Representative to Malaysia and Special Representative to the Republic of Singapore and Brunei Darussalam. Of course, when you are part of an organisation like UNICEF, being truly passionate about the cause is mandatory. “You can’t work for UNICEF if you don’t believe in it. If you don’t believe that the UN is a useful organisation or are cynical about it, you really can’t join one of its agencies because you’re not going to bring what’s needed,” Phillips says with conviction.
However, the 54-year old Australian didn’t have a clue that working with UNICEF would become her vocation. Having been someone who let life carry her along, Phillips’ life story unfolds remarkably. “Growing up, there wasn’t much pressure on you to be that focused; you were meant to take your time and find your way around,” she smiles.
Perhaps it was this nonchalant approach to life that gave her the time to find her place in the world. She, however, modestly insists that it was all luck. “After graduating in the arts, I found my way into a number of corporate sector companies that weren’t totally satisfying, but taught me good lessons. However, once my son was about three years old and was able to go to preschool, I really started looking at what I seriously wanted to do, and that made me go into public service. I joined the New South Wales state government in various administrative and management positions. And without really planning it, the kind of work that always attracted me was in the area of human rights,” she adds, eyes gleaming.
Moving from education to health in the social services side, Phillips was certainly becoming more and more drawn to community needs. She was involved with the government departments of Technical and Further Education, Corrective Services, Business and Consumer Affairs, the Police Service and the NSW Education and Training Foundation. Evidently, she was an all-rounder, strengthening her foothold in each area of interest. “I’m someone who’s interested in social change. I suppose from that point of view, I was an activist in terms of wanting to see social change, but I did it in a very conservative way. I worked in public service, and working from the inside to bring about social change always seemed like a good idea to me,” she points out.
Nonetheless, in 1992, Phillips life took a different turn. Her mother’s unexpected passing put a stop to her career for a period of time. “When something really major happens in your life, it forces you to stop. It’s one of those moments I suppose people call an epiphany. It’s a moment where the light turns on and you think it’s time for a change. The rhythm of my life had changed because my mum wasn’t in it, and so I thought how come the rest of my life had gone on being the same? You have to really bring it all together again,” she recalls. While Phillips was still recovering from her loss, she was asked to do a three-month consulting project for UNICEF Australia. Her impressive work in the government departments had brought her to the attention of a number of organisations. Subsequently, she was asked to do a communications audit for UNICEF as a consultant. Simultaneously, a request from the police department to write the annual report for its police service also came along. “That was pretty exciting because writing a statutory annual report is a big job, especially for the police service. As both appealed to me, I agreed to do both,” she smiles.
Phillips held down two consultancy jobs at the same time, trying to keep busy to get her mind off the loss of her mother. At the end of the three months, her hard work paid off. Both organisations offered her a full-time job. “Although I was interested in the police service because in terms of social change, it can make an enormous difference and I find them an interesting group of people, UNICEF was very compelling. I joined in 1992 when it was involved in the Somalia incident, which was a massive emergency. It was just terrible, but for me to walk in on my first day and suddenly be thrown into an international emergency was pretty exciting,” she elaborates.
"It was interesting to try to turn things around and make it so that humanity could come together to support a community in trouble."
Clearly, the Somalia incident was a horrendous catastrophe, and the information that Phillips had to communicate to the general public was in a very raw form that was often traumatising. But she thought that is was important to communicate the humanity of these children – that they were not just victims or objects of sadness, but real children. “It was interesting to try to turn things around and make it so that humanity could come together to support a community in trouble. It was a terrible situation, but that’s what really made me choose UNICEF. So I did and stayed on, gradually becoming more senior, until I became Executive Director in 1996,” she proudly states. And more than anything, she wanted to build UNICEF into something more substantial. At the time she joined, it was a very small organisation that wasn’t raising very much money, had about three staff and didn’t really have much of a profile in Australia. “By 2002, we became a multimillion-dollar organisation with about 22 committed staff. In government funds, I was raising about AUD40 million a year and, from the general public, about AUD 12 million,” she beams.
Over the years, surely there have been moments in Phillips’ career that have left a mark on her memory. And one of those moments was when she did something for the indigenous people of Australia. “Although Australia has been one of the fortunate countries that hasn’t had to be a beneficiary of UNICEF, it doesn’t mean it is perfect. No country is,” she says. There’s no arguing when she asserts that it’s not possible to have a perfect world, and there will be someone or a group of people who aren’t doing as well as others. In Australia, she says “it was definitely the indigenous Australians. Now, here I was working for the world’s children, and in my own country, there were still Aboriginal women, children and men who were living in third-world conditions. Of course, the point is that UNICEF cannot spend money in rich countries because we’re here to help the poorest of the poor, and governments are meant to be the first responsible for their countries’ children. But I felt more and more that UNICEF could bring lessons learnt globally because we work in so many countries. So it took about five years to work something out. We did a lot of research, planning and talking,” the humanitarian explains about her efforts. Phillips also approached political parties and many community groups and NGOs. In the end, she set up a company within UNICEF Australia and called it UNICEF Health Incorporated. “We borrowed the UNICEF model, and I was proud that it was set up and is still continuing till today. It was a big thing to do for me. Perhaps a small thing, but big for one person to do,” she reminisces.
The other wonderful memory with UNICEF was when Phillips was supporting water projects in Cambodia. With both government funds plus private donations, she was able to give quite a lot of money to the UNICEF office in Cambodia to run basic health care programs, and often it was to store clean water. “We always wanted to choose programs that weren’t popular with other people. We were helping this one tiny village in Anlong Veng, and I actually went on a trip to where our funds had been spent. What we did was put up the only water pump in the whole village. After a long journey, we finally reached the village and were led to the guesthouse. And then twilight arrived, along came these kids with their mums. At first, they were shy, but after a little while, someone pumped the water and it splashed – it was like a television show. I thought wow this is pretty wonderful and, if I did nothing else before I died, I’d be happy that I’d done this. I would know I’d done something right. And for me, it was a privilege to see the result of what I had done,” she says, fulfilled.
Today, Phillips resides in Malaysia as she was transferred here in 2003. She’s done her part for the country though Malaysia has been a different challenge altogether. While it is not a fully developed country like Australia, nor an underdeveloped country like Cambodia, it’s somewhere in the middle. “It’s a middle-income country, so the focus is different. Now, HIV/AIDS is generally our main focus. How we do it in terms of its progress will change. The other major focus is working with any group that’s marginalised. However, the 9th Malaysia Plan identifies these groups: the indigenous groups, people in remote areas and very poor children. So we’re asking the government how we can support it in this. The Malaysian government has enormous capacity, but all UNICEF can do is say that we’ve got experience from outside and, if you like any of these ideas, you’re welcome to them,” she notes.
Phillips is also interested in working with NGOs and the government to look more carefully at what violence means in Malaysia and how to address it. “So, even though you don’t need water pumps, we support some of these issues that are in some ways tougher than water pumps. Usually in countries that are developed, finding that one thing we can do is pretty challenging, but we’re ready to fight the fight,” she smiles.
And while she is all geared up to do what’s best for the children of the world, I think we should count our blessings that there are people like her who put the needs of others before her own.