Rima Das Pradhan-Blach, International Affairs and Legal Consultant, joins Adwiti Subba Haffner in an inspiring interview as she talks about her intellectually demanding and at times dangerous profession. Her refreshingly bold approach towards life has helped her reach great heights and I am proud to let you know that she is from Darjeeling! Read the interview and get INSPIRED!
Das Studio is a well known landmark and anybody who has visited Darjeeling will immediately recognize its large windows showcasing Darjeeling photography amongst other wares, but what we are about to find out is that Das Studio, the family run business, also raised a daughter who now holds a high level international leadership position in an advisory capacity helping to create legal systems for nations coming out of conflict.
August 2011, Rima Das Pradhan –Blanch is in Iraq, she is donning her PPE – Personal Protection equipment. She slides into her bullet proof vest, dons on her helmet, and as she picks up her anti fire retardant gloves from the counter in front of the mirror, she catches herself in the bathroom mirror and for a fleeting moment her mind rests in her childhood home in Darjeeling.
DAS STUDIO in bright letters flash across her mind, the crisp morning air and the tunes that she played in her piano. She starts humming “Moonlight Sonata” and she glances at her day’s work. Designing and managing the Iraqi Higher Judicial Council – Court Administration Project.
She has come a long way from the Loreto Convent days. She is now hobnobbing with top political figures of the world. She works alongside Nobel Peace prize winners and the Chief Justice of Iraq would not work on a project without her. Go to www.Linkedin.com and type Rima das Pradhan-Blach her resume is mind boggling. She restores, restructures and creates entire judicial systems for nations out of conflict. She has over 20 years experience in research, technical advisory services, policy development as well as project implementation in primarily fragile and conflict affected states. She is an expert in Public policy development and implementation. Public Financial management. Civil service reform. Justice sector reform. Peace and state building in countries in transition and many more. And yes! She is from Darjeeling. When asked about how she feels to be surrounded by not just National level, but International level political figures, she laughs and replies with almost an air of nonchalant humility “ I am just little Rima ,you know…with the biggest balls ever! And if you throw me out of a helicopter I will make things happen!”
Her reply to “how does it feel like to be the only woman, or did you face any gender discrimination? “Will definitely surprise you, it has something to do with her Darjeeling upbringing. Read on…
Adwiti: What an interesting profession you have picked. You are an International Affairs Legal consultant. Very impressive. You have a very diverse range of experience, which is typical of individuals at your level working in an advisory capacity. Could you please elaborate a little more about your profession in general?
Rima: What my friends call me, is that I am a state builder. This would be the most succinct way to explain what I do in a phrase. I mainly work in countries that are coming out of conflict, for example Timor Leste. Timor Leste used to be Portuguese till 1975 and then it came under Indonesia. Timor Leste was war ravaged in every sense of the word.
I worked with the Nobel Peace Prize winner José Ramos-Horta. We had to do a whole lot of scenario planning , it was being administered by the Transitional Administration, established by the UN and I went there from almost day one focusing on how and what we needed to do to set up the judicial system.
Adwiti: So what you do is really formulate the legal structure entirely from scratch and you have to understand the cultural, social and political history of the nation before you create a whole new legal system for them. It’s almost like custom building a judicial system for a nation.
Rima: Yes, exactly. Similarly in Iraq, with the Ba’ath Party (Saddam Hussein’s party) we had to re-establish the judicial system from scratch, all the judges had to be vetted and because of all the sanctions, Iraq was like in a time warp for thirty years. Imagine creating a new legal system there!
They had been completely shut off and sheltered from the rest of the world, so we had to bring them up to speed. In fact I started working there from 2005 and the Chief Justice of Iraq wrote to the World Bank saying the only projects she has worked on are the ones Rima has worked on.
Adwiti: Impressive! What drove you to this field? What lead you to this very unique and demanding profession?
Rima: (Laughs …) you know I have always been a do gooder. Remember how your father (Nayan Prakash Subba) established the Youth Symphony Orchestra in Darjeeling I used to go and volunteer and teach the kids there, that was fulfilling to me. That’s the sort of thing that actually drove me…an internal sense of wanting to do good in the world.
So my first job was coordinating the 65 National Women’s Organization in preparation for the U.N. Conference for Women in Beijing at the Global framework for empowering women. I became very interested in Law then.
My first degree was in Resource and Environmental Management but because I was part of the UN negotiations over three weeks, working with Governments from particularly developing countries and helping them get their concerns across, I then actually decided to go back to school and did 3 years of law right after that.
Circa 1998 globally, development policy was giving priority to good governance, and there was a bunch of lawyers and judges and prosecutors from Australia who wanted to volunteer their time and support countries coming out of conflict or in transition to strengthen the legal and judicial system.
They wanted to do well but did not know how to operationalize it. Just at that time Suharto came down from Indonesia and Komnas HAM, the Human Rights Commission in Indonesia came to Australia and asked for help. So I went with some judges and lawyers on a five year strategy program, and studied and sifted through the legal and judicial program after the dictatorship and basically ascertained how to have a judiciary after a post dictatorship.
That’s where it all started.
I mean I don’t just work with the Judicial Department, I also work with Public Financial management, managing a country’s budget.
Adwiti: Is it fair to say it is rare to find women at your level- more so from our part of the world?
Rima: Oh Absolutely! In fact in most of the delegations I am the only woman.
Adwiti: How has it been to be the only woman….how did you get there? You worked as a lead or senior consultant for different countries like Nepal, Afghanistan and Iraq. How did you navigate through the cultural sensitivities?
Rima: To be the only woman…frankly it hasn’t really mattered to me. The most important thing is…….are the things that we learn from Darjeeling… those are the skills that really make a difference. I am very upfront, I am very respectful and I know how to make things happen without being arrogant or aggressive, in fact at times the National Commission were all men. For example while working in Afghanistan and this may sound a little off but because I don’t come across as a typical western advisor, they immediately feel at ease. So even in Afghanistan I always use the Darjeeling or Nepal (mother is from Nepal) card out and we have that immediate connection and they are not intimidated or that they do not have a preconceived notion that of being patronized.
I remember having to set up a meeting with the Minister of Religious Affairs and he was only going to give me 10 minutes, but we started talking about Darjeeling and I had him for an hour and a half and this was about women’s rights!! They were talking about the Friday prayer messages, how can we work together with the Imams on certain type of messaging relating to the Quran and how to include women in the prayer service.
Adwiti: You mostly work in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Nepal. How do you create this atmosphere of respect for yourself in a very male dominated culture?
Rima: For me it is a lot about giving them the space to be heard and then facilitate their ideas to happen. Simple rule of thumb: I don’t worry about how they are looking at me, or what gender I am. I am not conscious of that. I simply deliver. And they trust.
So, for example the Minister of National Planning Commission said to me “You have single handedly changed the way the government works with the International community and how the international committee works with the government. In two and a half years”
Adwiti: What do you enjoy most about the work?
Rima: The National Planning Commission has given me two nicknames The Iron Lady and the Head Mistress.
The experiences are varied but the last experience in Somaliland was very heartwarming, since Somaliland is very insular, they don’t even touch women, but because I have worked so hard for them, they forget that I am any gender. They would touch my face and hug me and were generally very affectionate!
Adwiti: I am actually really curious about your work in Nepal? Senior Consultant UNDP/Center for Constitutional Dialogue. How was it? What changes did Rima make?
Rima : It was a time when the Nepali Judiciary was making some serious land mark decisions, particularly about impunity against the soldiers working on U.N. Security Council resolution, rape as a war crime and so on. So I was working with the national Judicial Academy and the Chief Justice on a range of issues.. One of the things with the International Committee (this was four or five years ago) found out that all the Judiciary was corrupt and justice had to be institutionalized. It became very sexy to implement alternative community justice mechanisms and alternative dispute resolution and mediation.
I had to do some intense studies and was appalled that there was so little money for building up the justice sector particularly after 2007. So much was going towards building up the community structures for conflict resolution. But then there are figures like high incidences of gang rapes and war crimes which were decided by community measures and not being enforced and did not necessarily protect the woman. So in one of the conferences in Copenhagen where everybody was allowed alternative dispute resolution, I made sure they knew that they were undermining the state and they were not doing a favor to vulnerable groups like women and girls. Investment in the state is a necessity; otherwise you are messing things up. So based on that the International community started investing in State institutions again.
When I went to Nepal the most interesting turnaround was that the relatives who thought I was a complete rebel when I was young, invited me to every youth function to speak and to inspire them. This was quite remarkable!
Adwiti: You grew up in Darjeeling… Das Studio of course is a landmark for all of us from Darjeeling; so many memories are attached to the studio…photographs, buying our romance cards, listening to the latest music… How was it growing up in the Das studio, In Darjeeling? What do you remember fondly of this place?
Rima: People like Taba (uncle, father’s older brother) and Aama (Aunt, wife of father’s older brother); I think we were very fortunate to be exposed to a world of travelers. I think one of the main things that my family was absolutely committed to was helping us learn about the world. Taba, used to subscribe to all the magazines from the world, such as National Geographic, Time, to name a few… just so we were exposed to an international arena and we were a reading family.
And so it was incredibly lucky to have that sort of broad minded thinking and you know I was the first girl to sit at the table. Aama and my mother waited until everyone finished or ate on the floor but because of me everything started changing.
Adwiti: What do you remember mostly of your home?
Rima: Taba and Aama and Saili (nanny)…and all the books, the music and the piano. Taba bought me the piano when I was in grade one. They just let me flourish despite you know me being the only girl in the family.
Adwiti: Do you miss Darjeeling.
Rima: Oh YES!! Of course I miss Darjeeling.
Adwiti: What do you miss about Darjeeling?
Rima: Generally waking up at four in the morning and walking around the mall and walking past that haunted house, watching the sun rise quietly and then fervently playing the piano.
Adwiti: You have worked in countries that are mostly going through political or civil unrest. Have you had any dangerous encounters?
Rima: Many times. In Afghanistan, my husband, Fleming actually literally saved my life. I was leaving to go to work and he asked me if I had my PPE on…which is your personal protection equipment, which is the bullet proof vest, your helmet, anti fire retardant gloves, bullet proof glasses. I refused to which he said if I didn’t he would divorce me. When I went back, the place where I was before I left to wear my protective gear…was blown up!!
Then there was the other time when it was sheer luck, I used to work with the Chief Justice in Iraq .The The Australian Embassy in Baghdad asked me if I could take the Chief Justice to Australia for the conference and just two weeks before I had been sitting with the Chief Justice of Iraq in his office, and I had mentioned to the Chief Justice to at least put blast proof film on the windows, as most people died from the glass when there were car bombs, or rockets…and then from one day to the next we were in Australia. When we got off the plane on October 25, 2010, we were told the news that the Ministry of Justice and Higher Judicial Council had been hit by two truck bombs, the largest yet in Iraq. The entire building was completely destroyed, over 500 injured, and about 170 killed. The Chief Justice’s entire floor was killed, and we would have most likely been there.
Adwiti: Wow! That is a close shave. You have always had that indomitable will, a strong sense of knowing what you want in your life and laser sharp focus. All these qualities have led to your success. What and to who do you attribute this quality to and who are your inspirations?
Rima: My inspirations are my Mom, she says I am her role model and I tell her she is mine…risk taking definitely comes from my father..
The strong beliefs and doing good comes from Taba and Aama.
Adwiti: You have lived a very colorful life and have achieved great success for yourself, with single handed devotion to your profession and your career. What advice do you have for the younger generation of our region or the youth of today? Any advice from your personal experience?
Rima: Be curious. Learn about the world. Take risks and do not be afraid. Just to give you an example of how I ended up in the U.S. was on a dare. Somebody said you’re wasting your talent in Australia you have two degrees from Australia; you need to get a proper degree from the USA. I took out a loan for 100,000 US dollars investing in my head with no assets whatsoever.
I closed my eyes and said not going to think about it…just GO FOR IT…….. JUST DO IT!
Adwiti: So it is primarily an act of inspiration. When you are hit by inspiration and the burning desire in your stomach – don’t prevaricate. Do not hold yourself back and with your eyes closed go for it. Wonderful advice!
Rima: Yes …. In the beginning it was about trying to prove myself, being the ONLY girl in the family and then just going for it. I went beyond the proving to myself and others that a girl can…to OMG I cannot believe I am doing this? Am I a great big bullshitter? Am I a used car salesman? How am I doing this?
(Laughs…….) and then suddenly realizing that people actually respect me! When you go from country to country, you always establish yourself you know in terms of professionally and then it suddenly strikes me, Oh…maybe I am not a bullshitter after all..!
Adwiti: No Rima, you never were never a bullshitter! How do you manage the laser sharp focus in your life, in this world of collective distraction or might I even say ADHD? How can we achieve that kind of laser focus?
Rima: I’m kind of an unusual creature because people I work with say I do the job of three people. It has always been my history at work, my colleagues and bosses could never keep up with me and in Somalia the minister would say Duracell Special Advisor.
I suppose this type of discipline we learned from school and Darjeeling and the nuns. I have always been a focused person, if you think about my music how I used to totally engage completely.
The main thing is to make up your mind and I am very result oriented. People around me know when I engage at work, I am breathing it, living it and passionate about it. Everything else shuts off when I am going for a particular goal which I have to! A whole country’s judicial or financial future is at stake and I am in charge of it and I have to deliver the results and it has to be good!
One – is the way my brain ticks and two- I am very result oriented. I keep my eye on the goal. To be results oriented you simply shut down. So Fleming, my husband too knows when he sees it in my eyes, I am charging for the result, the final product.
Adwiti: What is next in the horizons for Rima Das Pradhan-Blach?
Rima: I have always worked overseas, and now I have a home in Denmark. I want to work from here yet be available to travel for work. So I decided after two or three years away that I was going to make Denmark home and then work from here. Because of the uniqueness of my profession, it is a little bit of a challenge to find a job of my nature here but then it’s like all the stars aligned, as I received a call from this Company Bindslev A S. They want me to be a partner and help expand their business internationally. And they’re very much social entrepreneurs. It is a good fit. Do good and also make money.
So right now I am happy with this!
When Rima asked me why I am interviewing her I told her it was because I wanted to make an intellectual contribution to our community. In my Face book profile www.facebook.com/AdwitiHaffner I bring in a lot of inspiring messages for my audience, but now I want to bring real people, exemplary people from my region, people who are leaders, people who have overcome hardships and have created a meaningful life, people who have contributed to the society in terms of music, art, culture and intelligence, into the public eye to inspire the youth and anyone aspiring to reach their full potential. I want to particularly raise awareness of the latent talent that they possess and what they can achieve when they focus and have the courage to accomplish their goals. By bringing real people who have overcome odds with their courage and “can do” attitude, I hope to help you tap into your own courage and attitude. And for those who are sitting on the fence or have a dream, take that leap of faith and fulfill your dreams. Thank you Rima for this eye opening, refreshing and INSPIRING interview!
[Adwiti Subba Haffner is an entrepreneur, social worker, writer, freelance journalist, world traveler, mother, wife, meditation instructor. You can find her at https://www.facebook.com/AdwitiHaffner and her website iswww.alivewithadwiti.com]