Wednesday, June 23, 2021
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Challenging times for the IMO

Nine months into the coronavirus pandemic, the IMO meetings are still taking place virtually. The delegates are unlikely to come together in London any time soon.

“Almost everything is put on hold. Not cancelled but postponed. It takes time to do everything virtually”, says Haakon Storhaug, Senior Adviser at the Norwegian Maritime Authority and Head of a few Norwegian delegations to the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

Under normal circumstances, IMO delegates from 174 member States would meet in London to develop and maintain legislation for the international shipping industry. However, 2020 is anything but business as usual.

Storhaug started his IMO career back in the 1990s. At that time, he worked for the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva.

He has been a delegate for Norway since 2008 and knows the system and organisation well. Storhaug has worked with several complex cases and issues, but the year 2020 cannot be compared with any other year.  

Different time zones

Holding debates on digital platforms has been difficult and time-consuming, but trying to schedule meetings for the 174 member States has been nearly impossible.

“It simply cannot be done. Some delegates, for instance in Vancouver and Australia, have had to attend meetings in the middle of the night due to the time differences.

Storhaug does not complain though. He and the other delegates know that things take time at the IMO. They are used to spending days, evenings and late nights working in the IMO building. Still, he admits that the corona situation is starting to take its toll.

“I miss physical meetings and I prefer face-to-face communication. Virtual meetings do work, but I look forward to returning to normality”, he says. Personal contact and conversations during the breaks are what I miss the most. This is where many issues are usually solved.

There are a number of technical challenges in this situation. Bad lines and poor reception. Some delegates who speak English, others in need of translations. This summarises the current workday for IMO delegates.

“It is difficult to set priorities which often has direct consequences for manufacturers bringing new products to the market. Everything is connected and affected by this situation,” says Storhaug. 

At the home office – in London

Storhaug’s description is confirmed by Lars Christian Espenes. The former Head of Section at the Norwegian Maritime Authority, whose current job title is “Technical Officer Subdivision for Protective Measures, Marine Environment Devision”, took a temporary leave from his NMA position in the autumn of 2019 and headed to the IMO in London. 

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HJEMME – I LONDON: Lars Christian Espenes.                                  Foto: Privat

“Six months into my new job, the COVID-19 pandemic hit with full force and most of the country went into lockdown. We are all working from home, and our meetings are virtual.

Apart from a few committee meetings, all IMO meetings in London have been put on hold indefinitely.” Even though Espenes would have preferred physical meetings, smaller virtual IMO meetings have worked well.

“Virtual meetings run smoothly when the meetings are well planned and the chairman has all information necessary”, says Espenes.

However, there is no doubt that the family’s stay in London has turned out to be quite different from what they expected.

Naturally, the daily contact with colleagues has disappeared, and international interaction is challenging. But there are exciting things going on, and the job still offers great opportunities”, Espenes continues.

Now, he is able to see more of his five- and seven-year-old schoolgirls than before. Before COVID-19, he used to leave their home on his bicycle at 06.15 and return at 17.30.

“I spent a lot of time on my bike and on public transport. Working from my home office allow me more time with my family at the same time as I do my work properly. That is the good thing about this situation”, he smiles.