A Duty to Shout? A debate on what it means to be an international civil servant in today’s world

Young UN and the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation are teaming up for a ‘Young UN Talks’ series to spark an honest debate within the UN system on what it means to be an international civil servant in today’s turbulent world and political landscape. This is the first of the three-part series, to be held on Wednesday, 2 September 2020 at 12pm EST.

This topic has recently been brought into focus in the context of the #BlackLivesMatter, Fridays for Future, #MeToo protests, strikes and social movements when different UN entities and offices have conveyed mixed messages regarding how personnel should balance the responsibility to uphold the Organization’s values with the duty to remain impartial in the face of controversial matters.

The open-debate style discussion aims to highlight new tools and ideas that could guide UN senior leadership in designing and implementing policies (at institutional level) and UN personnel in assessing their application (at individual level). The event will be interactive, bringing the voices of multiple stakeholders, including members of Young UN network.

About the co-hosts:

Working towards a vision of a UN that fully embodies the principles for which it stands, Young UN recognizes the need for genuine change in order for the UN to effectively meet the challenges of this century.

The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation works on ethical leadership and the integrity of the international civil service builds on Hammarskjöld’s legacy with an aim to ensure the UN’s continued relevance and effectiveness in the face of contemporary global challenges.

The event will be held under the Chatham House rules and will not be recorded. A summary of the event will be published on this web page.

Mark your calendar, register below and share your participation in social media by using hashtags: #YoungUNTalks #YoungUN

Talent Management

In the same way as 2030 agenda has been introduced as integrated platform to assist the Member States in attainment of 17 SDGs, in the similar way UN Secretariat and UN system needs to address various degrees of organisational myopia, simplify rigid bureaucracy and hierarchy, break down artificially created boundaries and operational and mental silos, and as a whole needs to be more united in itself.

In alignment with the Secretary-General’s management reform and upcoming roll-out of the GSDM, the aim of the Talent Management initiative is to create dynamic, adaptable and (functionally) mobile global workforce that share knowledge and expertise, can quickly utilise more strategic and holistic approach towards delivery on increasingly complex mandates and breaks the existing operational silos demonstrating that change is possible and is effective and beneficial for all.

The initiative proposes targeted managed functional mobility (lateral job swapping within duty station for cost-free approach), through opt-in compendium and matching exercise for compatibility for placement, utilisation of buddy approach of the ‘swap couple’ to learn and develop new skills and train each other as well as oversee each other’s work during the swap (e.i. simultaneously development of leadership and supervision skills on the job).

This would be applied to general staff, professional staff to begin with and could be applied to consultants, interns (depending on the length and functional expertise requirements) and moving forward to national professional officers, temporary appointments and eventually to mobility across organisations through systematically targeted secondments aiming for attainment of united One UN.

The UN we want (and that the world needs)

We, the Young UN network, are a group of committed, engaged, and enthusiastic young professionals brought together by our drive to make the United Nations ready for the future. Since the inception of our network, we have managed to rally more than 800 young professionals from around 80 countries and more than 50 funds, programmes, agencies and departments of the UN.

Our vision is that of a UN that fully embodies the principles and values it stands for, and empowers its people and those it serves. Our shared aim is to identify, promote and implement innovative ideas to achieve this vision. We believe that this can only be done if we operate in an open, inclusive and consultative manner. This is why anyone willing to work towards positive change within the UN system can join our network, ensuring we draw our inspiration and strength from the diversity and plurality of our members.

With relentless energy and optimism, we work in a collaborative spirit towards a different UN, guided by its Charter. We strive to demonstrate the commitment to the organization through our efforts, conducted alongside our professional duties, out of a sheer will to serve to the full extent of our potential.

But most importantly, we demonstrate a true ability to collaborate across UN agencies, geographies, ages, genders, and professional grades, in an agile and solutions driven manner. This is how we lead by example: if we are capable of such coordination, even without a mandate, then who isn’t?

The birth of Young UN

For some time Young UN was just an idea floating around the collective mind of younger UN staff that would come up in conversations in the corridors of the UN HQ in New York and other duty stations. It was only a matter of time before somebody would have the courage and determination to materialize this concept and bring together those that were willing to take it forward and make it a reality.

Following the example of recent social movements, we decided that this should be a flat, open, agile and distributed network of change-makers. All those willing to contribute to a better UN are welcome. An initial key milestone was the open workshop organized in July 2016, where more than 50 people gathered in New York and identified collectively a number of issues Young UN would deal with.

We also affirmed our goal to become a full-fledged advisory network and a generator of innovative ideas space for UN as a system. We aim to be a sounding board for senior management, as well as an implementing partner for reform. So far, we have in fact contributed our ideas to all three UN reforms streams: the management reform, development reform, and peace and security reform.

We also serve as a platform that connects people across the system and provides a voice for young professionals, because we wish for a UN that fully harnesses the potential of all of its human capital. A UN that is leaving no one behind. A UN that is strong and agile.

An agile approach based on results and rooted in principles

The strength of the UN is its global presence. As the Young UN, we believe that many solutions are and should be locally driven. As a first step, we structured the initiative and expanded it to a global network by reaching out to regional and field-based duty stations. This outreach coincided with the election of the new Secretary-General, to whom we sent a consolidated letter outlining the ways we would help further his mandate.

Since the inception of the network, the Young UN has been involved in various activities and strategic workstreams across the system. We have produced proposals related to human resource practices, frontier technologies, and other critical issues. Beyond the initial Focus Groups, we have organized workshops on diverse topics, such as value-based leadership and the integrity of the UN civil servant. We have also organized discussions on key topics such as the Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review (QCPR) and maintained a dialogue with relevant partners both within and outside of the UN System.

Our work and the results from our dialogues have fed into proposals submitted to UN senior management who have expressed a clear willingness to work with us. But these initiatives are just a few among many. Our goal is to spark the spirit of activism and out-of-the-box thinking at all levels of the system as we move forward in making the UN fit for the future.

Addressing the paradoxes of the international civil servant

Our journey, however, has not always been an easy one. The practice of our daily work and the discussions held among our members not only unleashed creative ideas but also revealed struggles through which we have to navigate.

One issue that arose was the necessity for the UN and its staff to adapt to a radically new international political environment while remaining faithful to the Charter (something that Dag Hammarskjöld also dealt with throughout his years in the UN). Other central questions that came up were: How can international civil servants uphold the values of the UN Charter when political pressure can prevent them from doing so? How can we act in an impartial manner, while not allowing ourselves to remain neutral to injustices? What should be the UN’s position in a conflict-ravaged country, where support is needed for humanitarian access, but the human rights record is poor?

As we develop and grow as a young spirited network, we will draw on our enthusiasm to come up with innovative ways of modelling a UN that we can identify with, a UN that starts working today on solutions for tomorrow’s problems. There is no pre-established plan on how to do so, but by creating greater space and visibility for young ideas, and by tackling some of the paradoxes inherent in the current system, we believe we have already started working towards a more progressive and modern UN.

This is but the first in a series of blogs we will write over the coming months so stay tuned for more words and ideas from us, which we hope will contribute to generating some solutions for the big challenges ahead.

(This article was published in collaboration with the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation)

Collaboration: UN Envoy on Youth

In January 2018 the UN Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, hosted a global and virtual joint workshop with Young UN. The workshop served to discuss key findings of Young UN’s Global Ideas Survey and to come up with proposals for making the UN system an employer of choice for young talent in terms of recruitment, career development and retention. As a result, five key priorities for HR reform were identified:

  • More career development support;
  • Cross-UN talent-management approach;
  • Longer and more secure contracts;
  • Better middle management;
  • Better collaboration within the UN system.

Since then, several proposals were submitted by the Young UN network to address these key priorities. A common thread throughout all of them was a need for more system-wide interagency collaboration, coherence and information sharing in order to better meet the SDGs and the complex needs of the 21st century.

Our Projects

Since its foundation, Young UN has been involved in various activities and strategic work streams across the UN system. Just as the network grew autonomously and self-organized, activities and topics have emerged throughout the network, depending on members’ initiatives and arising opportunities. 

So far, Young UN has met with numerous UN stakeholders, departments and representatives of senior management, both to present the network and to offer ideas and constructive solutions to political and internal issues. Furthermore, the so-called Young UN Policy Lab has submitted proposals for a large variety of work streams and processes, many of them at the request of UN senior management – for example from the Deputy Secretary-General, the Secretary-General’s Executive Committee, and the High-level Committees on Programmes and Management. Topics have ranged from attracting and retaining young talent, to relevant skill sets for the achievement of the SDGs or to aspects of frontier technologies like artificial intelligence.

Young UN has also initiated a wide range of concrete and often locally driven activities for positive change: from workshops on value-based leadership and integrity as a UN civil servant to starting a bike advocacy group to constructively engage management on practical sustainability concerns at the UN headquarters in New York. Following discussions in the working group on SDGs, Young UN sent a letter to the UN pension fund to request information on the extent to which the fund’s investments are aligned with the sustainable development goals. Other members of the network are investigating sustainable and ethical investment options for staff.

In addition, Young UN conducted a UN-wide Global Ideas Survey with more than 600 respondents, covering a wide range of agencies, departments, contract types and duty stations. Building on the results of this survey, Young UN has contributed ideas to all three UN reform tracks: the management reform, development reform, and peace and security reform.

Below some results of the Global Ideas Survey: Respondents were asked to list five words that describe the UN as it currently is, based on their own experience and perception (left side), and how they would like it to be (right side).

The full results of the Global Ideas Survey can be found here.