Our differences are no barrier
The child of a Niuean father and a blonde-blue-eyed Kiwi mother, career diplomat Raylene Liufalani (pictured) sometimes felt a little out of place growing up in small-town New Zealand.
Although she was born in Niue, Raylene grew up in Gisborne, where she did not know many other people with Pacific heritage or know a lot about Niuean culture.
“Often I felt I didn’t completely fit in in either world - at the time I thought that was a unique experience but I know now this is not the case,” Raylene says.
In 2000, Raylene joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), and she has embarked on an exciting, global career, and is currently based in Buenos Aires where she is the NZ Ambassador to Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Her career at MFAT has been centred on multilateral issues, particularly disarmament and the environment, and her previous appointments include Deputy Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and Economic and Trade Officer at the NZ Commerce and Industry Office in Taipei.
Before taking up her appointment in Argentina, Raylene was Lead Adviser in the Ministry’s Environment Division with responsibility for oceans, biodiversity and international environmental governance.
Raylene says she has always been interested in different countries and cultures, and puts this down to often feeling “different” growing up.
“My mum encouraged this curiosity and I studied Japanese at high school going on to study Mandarin and Japanese at the University of Waikato,” she says.
During university, Raylene had the opportunity to spend a term studying in Shanghai supported by the then Asia 2000 Foundation (now Asia NZ Foundation), which she says was a great chance to learn more about China and improve her Mandarin and to live with students from all over the world.
“This was an enriching experience and cemented my interest in working in international relations.
“It was in Shanghai I realised while we may look different, speak different languages and have different cultural practices or religions, at the end of the day we had more in common than not - our differences were not a barrier to friendship.”
In her current role, Raylene is responsible for progressing NZ’s interests with Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.
“It is exciting to be charged with this responsibility and to work with lots of different partners to achieve good outcomes for New Zealand.
“Mobilising a range of different actors around a shared goal, devising a strategy to achieve our desired outcome and then empowering and leading these actors to deliver is very rewarding.
“At the moment a key objective for us is to see whether we can start negotiating a free trade agreement with Mercosur (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay).”
At the more micro level, presenting her formal credentials to the Presidents of Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay has been a particular highlight, Raylene adds.
“I have had many ‘pinch me’ moments over the years, but standing in the Presidential Palaces in all three countries as New Zealand’s official representative was pretty special for a girl from Kaiti.”
Another special moment during her time in Argentina, was meeting a group of school kids from a “villa” (or slum) in Buenos Aires.
“The Embassy had partly funded a project to use technology to map the villa so the residents could receive emergency services, government support and at the basic level have an address.
“More importantly, however, these children spoke of how they no longer felt invisible and that their lives mattered … this had a powerful impact on me.”
One of the main things Raylene enjoys about working with MFAT is the many different roles there are available within a foreign service career.
There is a need for people with different skills and strengths - deep-thinkers, good writers, effective negotiators, bridge builders and excellent communicators among others, Raylene adds.
“Diplomacy in my view is largely about people and problem solving - regardless of the job you are doing, we need to be good communicators, we have to be perceptive and adaptable, and we need to be creative and innovative.
“Having in-depth knowledge of a particular country, region or issue is important but having the skills to use this knowledge to solve problems and progress New Zealand’s objectives even more so.
“From my own experience, we often have to develop the subject matter expertise on the job so having these skills is essential.”
Diplomats are NZ’s official representatives overseas and to be truly successful in this work we need to represent the whole of NZ and its diversity, and the foreign service needs to reflect this.
“Pasifika bring a range of natural skills that are invaluable in a foreign service career,” Raylene continues.
“We are ‘people people’; we are good listeners as well as good communicators; we are peacemakers and conflict resolvers; we are empathetic and understanding; we are smart and these are the skills that can contribute to a successful foreign service career.
“I am proud to be a Pasifika woman representing New Zealand overseas and hope to see more Pasifika joining us in this great line of work.”
These days, when Raylene and her family are in NZ, Wellington is home.
However, she never forgets life in a small town, and what it has taught her each time she ventures to a new place, and while we are all unique individuals, these differences should be celebrated and not used as barriers.
Currently, MFAT is recruiting for Foreign Policy and Development Officers – applications close on April 6.
Visit MFAT for more information.