Istanbul: Where East really does meet West

It has been a little over a month since my arrival in Istanbul, Turkey. Although I did find it difficult to adjust to living alone in a new country, I overcame my homesickness quickly once I established a routine. Known abroad as the city where continents collide, it’s easy to see that Istanbul has perfectly balanced East and West. In its path to modernize, this 14 million-resident city has managed to maintain its own history and tradition. On one hand, the thriving nightlife is well known due to increasing popularity of clubs, live music spots, and bars; on the other hand, the abundance of historical mosques echo the call to prayer throughout the streets five times a day. On one hand, there is Cevahir Mall, one of the largest in the world, with over 300 stores (including international retailers), almost 50 restaurants, 12 cinemas, and even a bowling alley; on the other hand, there is no shortage of bazaars and street vendors (who arguably have the best fresh fruit and vegetables) where haggling is a must-have skill. On one hand, the recently upgraded subway system is well built, advanced, and definitely better than Toronto’s TTC; on the other hand, crossing the street as a pedestrian is probably one of the greatest challenges I’ve faced. Since I arrived a few days before my internship began, I was able to explore the city and visit a lot of tourist sights, such as the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, the Galata Tower, and even take a ferry to the Princes Islands.

Bosphorus Strait at sunset, from the Galata Bridge


In addition to having individual country offices, UNDP has established five regional offices, called Regional Hubs, that broadly service the five major regions of the world. These Hubs are located in Panama (for the Latin America and the Caribbean region), Addis Ababa (Africa), Bangkok (Asia-Pacific), Amman (Arab States), and Istanbul (Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States). I’m working with UNDP’s Global Energy Team, which is based here at the Istanbul Regional Hub. As a Sustainable Energy Intern, I, along with the three other interns in the team, am contributing to creating a database of all of UNDP’s sustainable energy projects worldwide. We are documenting over 100 projects and researching and analyzing their results and impacts in order to find best practices and lessons learned; I’ve been looking at Arab region states. In addition to this task, which will likely not be completed until well after my departure, I also have other assignments. Currently, I am also helping write and revise a report on a study on kerosene use and subsidies in select developing countries. Many developing countries rely on kerosene for lighting and cooking, and this fuel has extremely harmful effects for both health and environment. I’ve gone through this 100 page document at least three times over the last few weeks (and it won’t be the last) and although the document is quite overwhelming, it’s very interesting data and I’m learning a lot about barriers to and opportunities for sustainable energy in the developing world. The report is currently undergoing the peer review process and I’ll be creating a draft report, a condensed version, for policymakers. To see how reports and studies undergo peer review and to be directly involved in the very extensive and thorough process is an action-packed learning opportunity.

Rija & a few other UNDP volunteers

I also had the opportunity to attend the first World Humanitarian Summit that took place in Istanbul last week. Over 9000 participants from the private sector and civil society, and many heads of state and government came together to discuss humanitarian challenges. The Summit, although it has its criticisms, was iconic in the sense that different stakeholders have never come together with the United Nations at this scale. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the organizer of the Summit, needed some volunteers to help with logistics during the Summit and reached out to UNDP. Volunteering at the Summit was definitely not easy work, but it was a great experience since I was able to attend events and the opening and closing ceremonies, meet lots of interesting people, and listen to some great speakers including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Executive Director of the World Food Program, Ertharin Cousin, and Jeffrey Sachs. It was interesting to see the other side of large-scale conferences like this, and actually partake in the planning and organization process.

Here’s a short clip that shows what the 2 day Summit was all about:

The first month of my internship has been quite eventful already, and even included an earthquake training seminar that the UNDP Security team requires all staff and interns to attend. Istanbul is located on a major fault-line and the risk of seismic activity is very high. The seminar was held by the Department of Earthquake Engineering at Istanbul’s Bogazici University, which I attended last week. The University is located on the Asian side of the city, so we drove from Europe to Asia on the Bosphorus Bridge. The bridge not only offers impressive views, but is impressive in other ways; pedestrians and trucks are not allowed, and travellers must pay a toll to enter the Asian side. The toll booths are unmanned and don’t accept cash, but use an electric toll collection system to avoid traffic delays. Venus Williams and İpek Şenoğlu played a tennis match on the bridge in 2005, the first tennis match  played on two continents, and in 2013, Tiger Woods hit a golf ball from ‘Asia to Europe’ on the bridge as well.

Despite a tense security situation and political atmosphere, the city has a lot to offer and I’m looking forward to exploring it (and the different styles of kebab) more. Although there is often a huge language barrier since not many speak English, locals are consistently kind and hospitable. I’ve started to pick up some basic Turkish, and hopefully will advance my language skills further in the next few months too!


Rija Rasul is a student in Cohort 4 of the Master of Development Practice program. Rija’s background is in political theory and international relations. Her research interests are climate change and sustainable energy, and international security and terrorism.


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