What does a UN officer actually do? (Except taking frequent coffee breaks and talking of course!)
If the above question does not appeal to you, I can save you some time by saying that there are more interesting reads out there. However, if you happen to be the kind of person who is thinking of becoming a UN official, or working in any public organisation really, I highly recommend you continue reading.
First things first, this all depends on what role and particular division you are part of. Instead of generalising, I’ve outlined what my dear supervisor Aida gets up to throughout a normal working cycle. Here we go!
It all somehow starts with a research idea, theme or trend. It might emerge as a result of a random event such as a natural disaster, e.g. floods, drought or lack of fresh water, or a public demonstration for a particular cause such as the environment or economic injustice. Here in the Environment and Development division though, most of the research is done alongside real-life projects around the Asia Pacific, e.g. nature-based solutions to manage floods or solar panels for self-sufficiency in remote villages or even islands.
The data results are collected and conclusions made, and the end result is often a policy brief; basically, a combination of the research paper and policy proposals that align with the project results to suffice a particular future solution and/or technology.
However, why write a text if no one cares? Thus, the next step is to increase the visibility of the policy brief, which is mainly done through participating in workshops or sometimes even hosting workshops at the UN itself. I have previously written about the CED meeting UN ESCAP hosted in December 2018, for which you can read all about here.
At the end of the day, you want your policy brief to be reflected in the member states own policy making and have an impact on people.
The working cycle I described above is a high-level description of the process, which seems to be quite straight forward. However, as always, the devil lies in the details, and so it is even in this case.
I have come to understand that a UN officer, and the whole UN organisation really, works similarly to the university world. Both are mainly funded by the public, thus there is no single person or company who has the final decision or ownership for that matter, and both are driven by a bunch of extremely driven people (who sometimes overestimate their own research at the expense of others.)
Moreover, as a UN Officer is working very closely on their own research and projects, the organisation is not fully utilising their specialisation opportunities to achieve some economy of scale and network effects.
For example, one observation from my side during the time here at the UN ESCAP in Bangkok, is that each UN Officer seems to be a project manager on their own. They are basically responsible for everything from coordination, research, presentation design and even funding in some cases – which is a huge difference compared to the private sector that I was more used to where you have roles and responsibilities allocated based on tasks, e.g. a logistics team, research team, communication team, finance team etc.
The complete opposite and the more common alternative would be to apply the Spotify Squad approach. An approach that for the UN Officer case could mean that you create teams specialized for particular tasks, such as project management, research, coordination, marketing and raising money. This way, each person can focus on their strength and thereby become more productive instead of wasting time on things others could do much better.
However, the issue with applying the Spotify Squad approach once again loops back to the very core of the organisation; its structure and people. Because, as described, there are no central ownership of the organisation as a shareholder or even one single state that is responsible. On top of that, many UN Officers, just as University professors, can become somewhat narrow sighted and almost obsessed with their own particular research project, unable to see the big picture. This environment simply ties the project ownership to their responsible UN officer instead of the organisation itself that would be able to allocate resources more efficiently due to a more holistic view.
Moreover, in order to apply the Spotify Squad approach, you need to involve your colleagues, and to put full trust in them and other working units to use your hard-earned network and research in a proper way. The alternative, which to some extent actually happens, is that you keep everything to yourself and do all the work yourself – because you don’t trust your colleagues to manage your contacts or research takeaways.
It is complicated, but at the same time, understandable.
This is my last article for my UN experience, hope you enjoyed my series and feel free to reach out if you would like to know more.