Protagonists is a series of interviews about life, identity, and pursuing passions…

Nina is a natural storyteller with the best turn of phrase in the business.

She’s the kind of person who would make you feel inadequate by comparison at high school reunions. It would be totally inadvertent, of course. And you’d be enjoying the conversation too much to care.

Formerly an advertising copywriter, she’s currently working for the Fijian Ministry of Health.

What are you doing in Fiji?

I’m an Australian Red Cross volunteer, working as a digital communications officer at the MoH (Ministry of Health). We’re called volunteers but we actually get paid quite well for our countries.

They do placements all over the world but [Australian volunteers] mostly get countries in Asia and the Pacific.

Do you enjoy it? Any homesickness?

I absolutely love it. There are so many Australians in Fiji, especially working in the development sector, so I hardly ever feel homesick. Another thing that makes me feel at home is the street signs are exactly the same as in Australia!

How are volunteers deployed?

We don’t get recruited by our host organizations (eg MoH) but by the AVID (Australian Volunteers for International Development) program.

The good thing about working in a ‘developing’ country is I get to do heaps of things that in Australia would be too senior for me.

Nina (right) with Fijian President Frank Bainimarama. Source: Nina Betts’ Facebook

Did you experience much culture shock moving there?

Well in some ways, because it can be conservative, but Suva is quite progressive. Fijians have a different sense of ‘personal boundaries’ too which takes some getting used to.

For example?

People on the street ask if you’re married, then ask you to go on a date with their son. My colleagues regularly tell me if they think I’m getting too fat/thin. A guy I met in a village last week immediately started showing me photos of his dead mother’s open casket funeral.


Yeah, you get used to it. It’s a more communal society so there are less interpersonal boundaries, whereas Australia is very individualistic. But all in all I highly recommend [Fiji].

Nina status 2

I know you have some firm views on language. How do you feel about the creeping habits of online journalism?

I rue it!!! I mean, as infotainment it’s fine. But I did work experience at the SMH in year 10, and a senior editor there taught me these supposed golden rules of journalism. One was “never use a question as a headline” because the answer could be “no”. And now the SMH does that shit all the time!

The quality is just atrocious. But I get that the way news outlets made their digital content free at the beginning was a massive mistake.

There’s definitely an emphasis on sparking outrage for the sake of clicks.

Oh and something else that annoys me about the Australian media, is that there’s ALWAYS a story on Q&A!

It’s just a current affairs panel show. Why does it make the headlines every single week? That’s become a joke amongst my friends.

Do you think it’s lazy that journos just take their cue from that?

Definitely. And some weird kind of hero worship of Tony Jones?

He can be a victim of his own smugness at times.

But, to hark back to your point on getting revenue, people don’t want to pay for content but also don’t want to have to see ads. I mean, how do they expect the journos to be paid? I totally sympathise with them on that front.

So how can writers strike the balance of getting paid without selling out on quality?

Well. This doesn’t really answer your question, but an old colleague of mine said something once like “people don’t tend to value their own skills because they come easily to them”.

Like, you (or I) might downplay the worth of writing because you already know how to do it. And I think that can lead to people (writers/journos) copping the rough end of the pineapple when it comes to getting paid for their work. But they/we should resist the idea that our work is of low value.

I always think of myself as some absolute median. Like, if someone is not as capable as me at something, I’ll wonder why they’re so inept. But if they’re better than me, I’ll be blown away by their unfathomable excellence. I fall into the trap of thinking my level (however good/bad) is automatic and fixed. So I never really think of what skills might be worth.

Haha its like that old joke – “Everyone driving faster than me is a maniac. Everyone driving slower is an idiot!”

Precisely. What are your go-to sites for news/entertaining content?

I know this sounds kinda pretentious but far and away I think the New Yorker provides the best journalism around.

They did this feature on Dolce and Gabbana. The tone of it was so scathing, hilarious and derisive without actually being openly insulting. It’s called Couture Club by Rebecca Mead.

The journalism here can be quite funny. Actually, Fiji is also in dire need of some decent copywriters. My favourite road safety messages include “Father dead from over-speeding” and “Together we can save millions of lives!”. The population of Fiji is under 900,000.

Source: Ministry of Health – Fiji Islands’ Facebook

Is the issue that people can get by without good writing? Or at least they don’t notice the impact of its absence. Whereas people literally can’t do without doctors or plumbers, thus their tangible skills are more easily valued.

Actually I was chatting to one of my medical colleagues the other day, and for the life of him he couldn’t understand what a copywriter was for. He had this mystified air of “but that’s not a skill”. I mean, he is a cancer specialist so I get it. But still!

He may have a point.

Well that’s kinda why I didn’t want to work in advertising anymore. It’s hard to put your heart into it. “I really care about third quarter detergent sales!” Not.

How do you seek reward in your work?

Well I know that things I do here at MoH can actually have a direct impact on people’s health.

If I come up with, say, a script that compels someone to get tested for HIV, I am doing something unambiguously helpful for my fellow humans. And that’s a great feeling.

What represents fulfilment to you?

I guess fulfilment for me, in a professional sense, is the absence of niggling doubt. On a selfish level I don’t have to think “my work doesn’t matter”, because public health DOES matter.

Having said all that, I could be eating my words if I can’t find an “ethical” job in a few months.

Are foreign aid cuts having an impact on what you’re doing – and on the AVID program more broadly?

Absolutely, they are having a direct impact. Aus Red Cross is pulling out its international volunteering programs because of them. So the funding won’t be available after March.

And more broadly you can see it happening in the development sector – some volunteer starts a project, then they have to leave a year or two later and the project dies.

So what you’re doing now won’t exist beyond March 2016?

Correct. Unless one of the other volunteer programs (Scope or AVI) provide funding, which they don’t have to do.

It pretty much flies in the face of aid being sustainable. Don’t just cut and run.

How do Scope and AVI fit into the equation? I’m a little lost regarding the structure.

Don’t worry, they made us watch hours of training videos! So DFAT has subcontracted AVI, Scope and ARC to manage Australian volunteers. All three companies are under the AVID umbrella.

The host organizations in foreign countries tell AVID they want, say, a paediatric nurse, a disaster preparedness expert and a communications officer. Then AVID and the three organisations recruit based on those requests.

What’s your stance on religion/spirituality? Has it changed since living in Fiji?

That’s been one of the biggest adjustments for me: open religiosity in the workplace. Praying at meetings. Thanking God for improved polio vaccines, etc.

One thing I like about religion in Fiji is that the Christians, Hindus and Muslims just live and let live, but on a personal note I couldn’t be less spiritual. It’s just not how my brain is wired. I just politely keep my mouth shut.

Although I did once hide some brochures on creationism from our front desk.

Ha! Is religion quite an obstacle for the MoH to get its point across?

It can be. When people prefer to pray rather than seek medical intervention, for example.

But one nurse I met gave a speech and she said, “God has empowered the doctors to heal you. Don’t just pray, go to the doctors that God had created” which I thought was a really smart way to approach the issue.

There’d be no point trying to make it “god vs science” because science would lose.

Nina status

What are the biggest medical/social issues in Fiji right now?

So many. NCDs (non-communicable diseases) like obesity are getting worse. Diabetes is bad too. Domestic violence is bad all over the Pacific. But the smoking rate is going down! And they have GREAT vaccination rates. Better than Australia I think. Which is great for Fiji and terrible for us!

Also there’s no taboo on breastfeeding which I think is interesting (and awesome). Also did you know taboo is a Fijian word?

I did not. Do you have any writing projects lined up?

Pffffftttccchhth. My Achilles heel.

I start doing something, or I get an idea, and I start doing it then I think it’s not good or it’s too ambitious or whatever and I just let it die. It’s such a bad habit.

It’s weird cause I can be really disciplined with other things. I go to the gym all the time. But creatively I can be so lazy.

My latest Thing I’m Tentatively Planning is a podcast with my former boss, who’s also a copywriter.

What’s the thrust of it?

Life Mentors. He advises me on how to do life, and I advise him. It kinda relies on our ‘odd couple’ dynamic.

I think it has the potential to be excellent, but I’m also scared it might be shit. The feeling is like climbing a tree until you get to a branch you can’t negotiate, and then you don’t know where to put your foot next, so you just don’t move at all. I hate that feeling!

Describe your family dynamic.

My family is awesome. I would actually choose them if I could. And I have strong traits from both of my parents which are quite contradictory.

Like, my mum is really practical, and my dad can be extremely impractical, and I waver between the two which doesn’t make any sense.

My dad had a health scare a few years ago and he just embraced that life was for living as much as you can, which has been very inspiring for me.

And I have a brother who I think is going to end up saving the world. Half joking. He’s a passionate refugee advocate.

What’s your favourite emoji?

Easy! The sunglasses guy.

Actually I read a quite from Tolstoy saying that he wished there was some pictorial punctuation to convey emotions. What a world we live in now!

Nina blogs intermittently/wonderfully here. Foreign aid fans can also find out more about the AVID program here.

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