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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (March 10, 2001 - Pacific Magazine/PINA Nius Online)---Marshall Islands Foreign Secretary Marie Maddison isn’t your average government bureaucrat.

With a vocabulary that regularly includes the words "empowerment" and "mobilize," Maddison broke the mold long ago, Pacific Magazine reports.

Maddison is one of two women running a government ministry in the Marshalls, and she has the most experience of any in permanent secretary roles.

She was named as the first chairman of the Public Service Commission when constitutional government was established in 1979.

Since the early 1980s, she’s rotated as secretary of social services, health, education and now foreign affairs. Maddison was also director of planning, research and development at the College of the Marshall Islands.

She’s widely perceived as an extremely effective administrator, known for reform and innovation.

Promoting women’s rights and interests in and outside of government is a priority of Maddison’s.

Prior to joining the government, she was instrumental in establishing "Jined ilo Kobo" ("our mother glues together and moulds the family to promote good growth"), the first women’s group in the country that was not associated with either church or handicrafts.

"We focused on social and economic issues," she says.

But in the male-dominated environment of 1970s Majuro, "there was a lot of resistance to it," she recalls.

Despite the obstacles, the group focused on such diverse community needs as sports facilities and raising public awareness on economic development issues.

The willingness of Maddison and other young women to challenge the very limited role for women in modern society at that time led to significant involvement of women in political status campaigns of the late 1970s.

"It had never happened before," she says. "It was a start."

"The question is always -- how to mobilize the community? To change attitudes you have to mobilize people beyond just awareness," she says.

Now, as Secretary of Foreign Affairs and charged with preparing the government’s sustainable development policies for renegotiation of economic assistance from the U.S., Maddison has been handed her toughest assignment.

For she is fully aware that no matter how well produced a development plan is on paper, if the community doesn’t exert ownership, sustainable development is a pipe dream.

"We need to understand our legacy as a colony and a nuclear test ground, and how to weigh these factors when trying to become sustainable. But the mentality is, ‘America owes the Marshall Islands,’" she says.

Balancing the U.S. obligation to the Marshalls with the need to be independent is tricky, she says.

For example, the Marshalls recently submitted a petition to the U.S. Congress requesting at least $2.7 billion to satisfy nuclear claims in the country, more than a quarter of which is for health care services.

"We’re not just asking the U.S. to just give us compensation. What we need is to resolve the situation and meet our needs," she says.

Maddison doesn’t mind asking the hard questions. She’s used to the heat they often generate -- and these days she’s talking a lot about sustainable development.

"Sustainable development is all about being accountable for your actions," she says.

Some criticize this development approach as being too environment-oriented.

Maddison counters that on an atoll "everything is related to the environment."

"In the past, we’ve never looked at our environment as ‘what do we have here?’" she says. "It’s always been ‘what can I get out of it?’"

What Maddison has seen in other countries is what she hopes will eventuate at home: people in key leadership positions seeing community participation in development as part of their job, and NGOs actively involved in affecting government policies.

"It needs to happen here," she says. "We have lots of NGOs. How can they contribute to development of the country?"

It’s a question that Maddison is asking with increasing volume these days.

For additional reports from Pacific Magazine, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Magazines/Journals/Pacific Magazine.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: 

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