The UN in a Changing World: an Interview with Bruce Jenks

The UN in a Changing World: an Interview with Bruce Jenks
An interview with Bruce Jenks on United Nations reform.  By: Katherine Duceman   Bruce Jenks has had the kind of exciting and varied career that SIPA students dream of, having held positions such as Director of the UN office in Brussels, Assistant Secretary General at UNDP, and Senior Fellow at the Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is currently an adjunct professor at SIPA, where he teaches the course “UN and Globalization.” This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo: 2014 Coursera Inc. Last year you co-authored a report, UN Development at a Crossroads , in which you provided insightful analysis regarding the future of the United Nations, warning that the organization risks becoming irrelevant without substantial reform efforts. In respect to UN reform, do you consider yourself to be more of an optimist, pessimist, or realist? I retired five years ago, but I spent 30 years at the UN, and the UN is in my blood, so I still consider myself to be subject to the rule that I always espouse, which is if you’re not an optimist, you shouldn’t earn a UN salary. Which I mean quite seriously – I don’t think you should join an organization like that if you’re not willing to give it your all and try to make a difference. Whether or not you succeed is beside the point. What were the main takeaways for you, in this report? To me, the core takeaway is that reforming the UN development system is an uncontested idea. Most people would nod their heads and say “yeah, sure, it needs fundamental reform,” but then the same people in their next breath will say “but it’s impossible because it’s such a political place and it’s too complicated and it can’t be done.” What we try to do in the report is lay the groundwork for why that’s just not true. If you look at it historically, the UN has reformed itself many times, and [today] we think we’ve reached another fork in the road. The question is why is today’s leadership unable to engage in change like their predecessors. It’s about something that’s blocking change right now and that’s what the report focuses on. In your opinion, what are the biggest obstacles facing UN reform efforts right now? There are a lot of obstacles. The core challenge is to recognize that the world has dramatically changed in the last ten or fifteen years. The idea that the core functions of the United Nations in this radically different world could be pretty much exactly the same as twenty years ago is ridiculous. So the challenge is to get people to acknowledge that this change has occurred and to have a debate about what needs to change as a result of that. What inspired you to get in this line of work? I’m actually second generation UN. I was born in Geneva, in Switzerland. My father was at the International Labor Organization for many years. I was still a kid when he died, so I had my moment of not wanting anything to do with the UN. But I was studying international relations at Johns Hopkins SAIS, and then I went to Oxford to do a PhD in international organization, and that got me really interested and from there I came back to the UN. I joined the UNDP in 1981, and I spent almost 30 years in different roles, in UNDP in particular. I left about 5 years ago and since then I’ve been teaching at Columbia at SIPA and also a little at the University of Geneva. There seems to be a recent increase in dialogue surrounding the role of public-private partnerships in development. Do you think this is the way of the future? Well, there’s a lot of debate. At the core, the fundamental issue is that the challenge is not what I would call an “in-out” approach of the UN to the private sector, which is to try and see how you can get private sector money to come to the UN. The private sector will never do that – there’s no reason why they should. The challenge is for the UN to find a way of influencing financial flows and major investments in a way that is compatible with internationally desirable objectives or goals. It’s not a question of getting the private sector to fund UN programs, it’s a question of altering the behavior of investors. Similarly, with regard to the private sector’s role in eliminating or reducing poverty in different parts of the world, it’s not so much picking up money for little corporate social responsibility projects, although that’s wonderful – I’m not against it – but that’s not the core of it. The core of it is to work with businesses to develop inclusive business models that are more helpful and supportive of the interests of poor people than the classic model that they might use in a developed country. Some people get that, and some people don’t seem to get it yet. I went through the wringer because I used to handle this stuff in UNDP and I went through a phase of trying to get private sector money and it took me a while to realize that that was actually a pretty stupid way of relating to the private sector. Do you have any advice for an aspiring UN careerist? The UN can be a very rewarding place and it can also be an incredibly frustrating place. So it’s very important for aspiring young people that are looking for a career there to know what it is they want to do. I don’t think you should think of the UN as a place to go and work and get a good job – it’s a place to be passionate about something. And I think what’s particularly important for your generation is to really think about what gives you energy, what makes you interested; if the UN can be a vehicle for that, then go for it. But otherwise you’re likely to get very frustrated. If you want to change the UN, join it. If you want to just get a good salary, go somewhere else. If you could change one thing at the UN – no matter how big or small – what would it be? Many things come to mind, but I think that the challenge of developing a culture which is able to make very difficult choices and to take risks – I think that is really very, very important. The UN has a fundamentally inclusive DNA, which is a wonderful thing but it makes it very hard for it ever to say no. And you go back to the old Michael Porter adage, that the essence of strategy is the ability to decide what you’re going to stop doing. And I think that the UN really needs to figure out a way of moving in that direction. Similarly, on the issue of risk, there are many reasons why the UN is a fundamentally risk-averse organization. And yet, some of the wonderful things that the UN could do require leaders in the UN to say, “hell with it – let’s try.” And some of the great leaders in the UN have done just that. And they’ve had remarkable results. What is your favorite book? I’m a great Harry Potter fan. It’s just great fun. You thought I was going to give you some really heavy work of philosophy or something, didn’t you? Katherine Duceman is a second year Master of Public Administration student. This story first ran in the print edition of The Morningside Post on October 16, 2014.

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