UNA-USA Essay Contest Winner: The Uncountable Decisions
The towering white sacks of rice, maize, and beans felt like a labyrinth slowly closing in on us. It wasn’t even midday yet, and the lowland Swazi heat was steaming up the warehouse. I looked up at the World Food Programme sacks—stacked according to a specific design for stability—and started counting again.
It was my first internship experience. My stomach grumbled, and my mind began wandering towards the sandwich I packed for lunch, left behind in the makeshift trailer office. I looked over at my friend and fellow intern, Bantu. Did we miscount the height? Our task was to take stock of the thousands of food sacks of the UN World Food Programme’s multiple warehouses in central Eswatini, and there was a specific algorithm to follow when counting. As part of the logistics team, we accompanied field officers to deliver food to Neighborhood Care Points (NCP). We witnessed the challenges that international aid organizations face in creating truly sustainable development. At one NCP, there was a newly constructed classroom and community shelter, but no teacher or equipment inside. At another school where we delivered food, the previous sack of rice had been spoilt with weevils because they lacked proper storage facilities. I began drawing together the threads of development work. Even the largest organizations like the UN can only achieve their goals through partnerships and collaborations.
It was during this same time that I discovered the Millennium Development Goals as part of my IB Geography class and read The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs’ analogy of diagnosing each country’s poverty and development the way a doctor diagnoses a patient stuck with me as I started seeing applications of the undeniably interlaced MDGs, and later SDGs, in the communities around me. These sets of goals provided a framework for me to understand how universal goals are met with contextual nuance in places like Guatemala, Eswatini or India where I lived as an adolescent.
Throughout university, the bright boxes of the SDGs became a constant theme in the environmental and social issues I was tackling in my degree. I memorized them like the periodic table, interned with a social enterprise in Thailand working towards gender equality, and declared a major in environmental studies.
By the time I graduated, the UN’s SDGs had defined my next chapter—a global innovation
program called Young Sustainable Impact (YSI). After a lengthy application process to select 21
talented individuals teamed up in groups of threes according to diverse backgrounds and skill
sets, we started on a 4-month innovation program to address issues working towards the SDGs.
The UN goals were guiding lights for our innovation process. Does this contribute towards
climate action (13)? How is this building systems of responsible consumption (12) – and most of
all: what partnerships (17) will we need for this to work?
After months of working together virtually, I met my two teammates from India and Pakistan in
Norway to incubate a digital waste management start up. Little did I know that the confluence of
working together towards the UN SDGs would carry me directly into the career I have now.
Less than a year after our meeting in Norway, my Pakistani teammate launched a fellowship
program with a multinational coffee company, and they wanted me to come to Pakistan for it. I
completed my environmental studies degree with a capstone in coffee production, spending year
after year visiting coffee farms in the Philippines working towards a specialization in rural
development in Southeast Asia. For a month, I worked with the international coffee chain
throughout Pakistan to develop a narrative around coffee in a chai-drinking country. I then
returned to Singapore to work in a social enterprise using coffee as a vocational skill to reduce
inequalities and provide decent work and economic independence to marginalized women and
I could never have predicted how those unmistakable colored tiles of goals would influence the
decisions I made.
I was led to people who opened up new countries to me, giving me new insights on my career.
I’ve seen and experienced first-hand the breadth and width of civil society, government, NGOs,
and companies that must come on board towards the goals. Insights and examples from the UN
have impacted my life at every juncture. As 2020 unfolds precariously, I’m entrenched in
shedding light on the climate crisis, finding the resilience to adapt, and continuing on to do
development work for those most affected during this downturn.
Alaine Johnson is a writer and environmentalist advocate for specialty coffee. Since first digging holes on coffee farms in Guatemala as a teenager, she was swept up by a curiosity to understand the workings behind the global coffee industry and its many nuances. Alaine was a YES Abroad Scholar to Thailand, a Davis Scholar at United World in College in Eswatini, and a fellow with Second Cup Pakistan, Young Sustainable Impact, and Sentient Media. Alaine now works with Bettr Barista in Singapore to bring upstream realities to life in the downstream urban city, focusing on sustainability initiatives.
Alaine writes for media outlets about topics related to the environment, conservation, and animal rights. Her research on the topic of organic agriculture certification is published in the Journal of Rural Studies and her film on Philippine coffee was selected for the Voices of Nature Environmental Film Festival in 2019. Her ambitions include building a zero waste supply chain of coffee and restoring biodiversity in the ASEAN region.