Interview with Carlos Lopes Executive Director of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)

Carlos LopesHe is young and dynamic and you will probably be hearing more about him in the months to come. On 1 March this year, Mr Lopes was appointed Director of UNITAR by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Not only has he had a long and wide-ranging career within the UN, but he has also made excursions into the academic environment. From his long list of achievements, let us just briefly mention that he has taught at universities and academic institutions in Lisbon, Coimbra, Zurich, Uppsala, Mexico, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and set up research networks and NGOs. So, we leave the floor to Mr Lopes.
Q : Now that you are in charge of UNITAR, may we assume that there are going to be some changes ?
UNITAR has incredible potential ; it has a wonderful mandate. This mandate does not focus on any particular theme, but more on the type of function that UNITAR can perform.
UNITAR has avoided storms and crises, and over recent years has actually grown significantly. But it is still lacking that clear focus that the UN really wants all organizations to possess. Therefore, I agree that reform has to affect UNITAR as well. One of the things that can be done at UNITAR is to give it a much clearer sense of purpose : what makes an organization like UNITAR special ? There are a number of other institutions within the UN system that deal with training and research. What is it that UNITAR does that no-one else does ? This is what is missing and that is what I intend to achieve.
One of the objectives would then be to focus UNITAR as a UN Centre of Excellence in a particular area. This area would be methodology and know-ledge systems, defined as capacity development, e-learning, adult training, professional learning, issues relating to new technologies and methodologies in line with current challenges. All these new areas of knowledge and knowledge management need be mastered by one part of the system so that it can help the other organizations to take advantage of them. We are not going to specialize on labour, because the ILO already does that. We will not focus on agriculture because there is the FAO. We are the organization that will be the cutting-edge in terms of know-ledge systems specialization in the UN. Thus, any UN agency can use UNITAR as a partner —a partner that knows what is happening on the methodological front. That is the focus I’m going to give UNITAR.
This means that we do not just to proclaim what we would like to do in terms of focus. To be the benchmark, we have to certify and be able to institute quality system control to such a degree that nobody has any doubt that we really are a centre of excellence. How is this to be achieved ?
Every certificate or diploma that UNITAR issues has to have value, and value will come from respecting the following points : 1. Membership of key associations that deal with these issues, like management schools associations, e-learning associations. We will have to satisfy a golden standard with these various associations. Thus, certification is not just a piece of paper, but is justified by very clear certification that comes from recognition.
2. The content of most of our courses will be developed through major universities and institutions of learning. This means that when you receive a certificate from UNITAR, it will also correspond to one from another institution like a major university — MIT, Yale, Institut des ?tudes Politiques de Paris, etc. This will give it a totally different meaning. It will not just be UNITAR promoting a centre of excellence ; it will be equivalent to the diploma, the certificate issued by the associated institution. That, of course, is a challenge, and we will need to transform structures to reach that type of standard. But I am familiar with academia from my own career and I know enough about the UN to understand that this is perfectly possible. UNITAR has the advantage of being financially strong, so it is possible to proceed from the position that UNITAR already has.
Q : Are you going to develop closer relation-ships with UNESCO, the UN organization for education, science and culture ?
Of course, we will work with UNESCO. UNESCO has an e-learning platform that we can use for disseminating our courses, but we are not necessarily going to work with UNESCO because of its responsibility for education, science and culture. UNESCO is more concerned with educational standards, policies, etc., and not necessarily focusing on adult education activities per se. We are going to specialize in adult training. If UNESCO is interested in our methodology, they will become one of our partners. We will have partnerships with as many UN organizations as we can. Right now, taking into account the demands placed on UNITAR, our areas of focus are : international affairs and diplomacy training ; local governance ; environment ; development mostly related to trade ; and debt management. Those are the priorities at this moment, but we will expand into other areas because our focus is not theme but methodology. We are paying attention to those areas because there is a demand for them. If demand gravitates towards education or health, we will follow.
UNITAR will expand by adopting new technologies as far as possible. A lot of things will be done online, and the presential part will complement online training. But it will not just be online, because according to some studies and according to experience, that is not enough. You need to have a combination of online and presential training. People should meet teachers, while learners should interact with each other. Knowledge does not pass only through virtual communication. You need human communication as well.
So how do we handle that ? By accrediting institutions to the UNITAR network. For the most part, we will set up or consolidate connections with centres in developing countries that will be accredited to UNITAR. They will provide the two- or three-day presential part, following our guidance and our development content and structure. To be accredited you must pass through this stage.
Q : How are you going to ensure that top universities are ready to collaborate with you ?
I think that it is going to work. First contact is with institutions with whom we are already collaborating. We are not starting from scratch. UNITAR already has lots of combined programmes with a number of reputable universities, including some in Switzerland such as the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne and the University of Geneva. We also have contacts with a number of other universities, such as Yale or the Institut de Sciences Politiques in Paris. Another contact has been made with the British Open University, because they have a very large e-learning platform.
What are we ;proposing that might be of interest to them ? We propose three things that could be very attractive for major universities.
1. Association with the UN at no cost. We offer a link with the UN without asking them for any money and that makes it interesting for them. 2. UNITAR is already a cutting-edge institution in terms of knowing about the demand for short-term professional training on UN related areas. Universities are much slower in reacting to this demand. For instance, they might have a very interesting course equivalent to a masters on climate change. However, they might not know how to associate climate change with the framework document that has been requested by the convention. We know how to do that ! We have something to offer to them, which is the latest cutting-edge know-ledge. They will know about the practical things that are being taught. But our courses are not masters. They are to the point, a kind of collaboration on demand for the beneficiaries who want to know something immediately, but are not interested in an academic career. Universities have something to gain from such an association.
3. They will also gain influence and knowledge in areas where at present they do not have any contacts. Major universities may be big in their own countries, but what do they know about, for instance, Burkina Faso ? What do they know about Peru ? We know ! We have something to offer, and since we are not asking for any money …
We ask two things of them : 1. To put their logo next to ours on the certificates. Evidently, they will have to feel comfortable with the quality of what we are doing. That is precisely the reason why we are associating ourselves with them.
2. We want them to verify the quality of our content. I think it’s a good partnership because it is an interesting of way of involving them. UNITAR is much more flexible that other parts of the UN, so they will not be faced with a jungle of bureaucratic red tape. They will be dealing with an institution that is very sensitive to academic and training aspects and has reduced it bureaucracy to the bare minimum.
Q : How many universities are you thinking of ?
With regard to partnerships with major institutions and universities, I think we are aiming at thirty to forty.
Q : Will this be only major Western universities ?
Absolutely not ! We will ensure that it’s plural and that there are major universities from the South.
Q : How many people are following UNITAR training courses at any time ?
At the moment, we are at the 40,000 mark : each year 10,000 people attend residential courses and 30,000 are online or following correspondence training. Our aim is to double that.
Q : Over what period of time ?
We have not benchmarked this ambition, because we do not get any money from the UN regular budget. However, I’m convinced that we can get there in a period of four years.
Q : What kind of degree do your students receive ? What is the level ? Is it some kind of masters ?
We call them « beneficiaries » because they do not like to consider themselves as « students ». The majority of our beneficiaries are already in well-established jobs. For instance, we train 3,500 diplomats a year (and I do not think you could call them students) ! These are short-term courses that do not lead to degrees. Some courses, however, constitute credits for degrees as awarded by some universities. Right now we are working on two masters in collaboration with the University of Geneva — Information technology and languages and Environ-mental governance. These are examples where we are collaborating on the content and also associating ourselves with the activity.
I think UNITAR is going to rise quite significantly in terms of visibility because until now most of the training and activities that the institution has been doing did not receive the level of recognition that they deserved as there was no clear certification system. Now that this issue is clarified by our Board — and it is going to be very systematically benchmarked — it is possible to have higher visibility and everything certified. Not by us alone, but by associations by others.
Q : Are you expecting a huge demand from the diplomatic community ?
The demand is already huge. I told you that we train about 40,000 people a year, but I think we receive double that number of requests. A lot of people do not receive the training that they want because we do not have sufficient resources. We function only on voluntary contributions. Our next task is to convince the donors that this is a good investment.
Q : You are knocking on the doors of donors, academia and who else ?
There are three types of partnerships, as I like to definite it : 1. partnerships with donors to mobilize resources ; 2. partnership with affiliated institutions to extend our network and our offers ; 3. and partnerships with academic institutions for certification. We need these different levels to be able to create a new UNITAR.
Q : How long before this « new » UNITAR will be in place ?
We submitted the new reform plan to our board in July 2007 and they welcomed it warmly. We are now implementing it full scale. We have already done some things that basically depended upon the Director, but were endorsed by the Board. From my consultations so far, it is going to be a relatively peaceful process.
We have given ourselves between August and December 2007 to implement a number of transformations to our structure. So the « internal » part of the transformation will take part then. In 2008 we start the new system with our long- and medium-term plans. Our medium-term plan covers the biennium 2008-2009.
Q : How do you promote your programmes ?
Mainly through our website, but also through our catalogue distributed regularly to diplomatic missions, and through the various branches of the organization. We are going to develop a more powerful website capable of presenting our courses in a much more attractive way so as to increase the number of « hits ».
We have, for instance, an online training course on peace-keeping and we get about 50,000 requests per annum for this one alone. So, you see, people know about it.
Q : These courses are open to diplomats and other officials. What about UN staff ?
Our courses are for beneficiaries in Member States. Sometimes they are directed to people working in a particular area such as ministries, etc. Sometimes they are tailor-made corresponding to the request of a Member State, but there are also courses that are open to anybody in the world. Of course, they have to go through the selection process. This is, for instance, the case of the course on peace-keeping. That’s one of the reasons why the demand is so high.
However, there is one limitation — there is no training for UN staff. They have to go to the Staff College in Turin or a training department — not to UNITAR.
Q : Do you have a special message for the international community in Geneva ?
One of the things I am really looking forward to is to make UNITAR known as a major training institution to Geneva International, something that is known and contributes to the debate — not just for training. I believe that for an organization of our size, Geneva really does not know about us. We need to change that. Thus, we are looking forward to a project that gives us high visibility. We are working carefully with UNOG on launching a series of public lectures every two months on global topics that will constitute our contribution, but will also make us more visible. I think it is going to be quite exciting for the international community.
Q : Do you also want to be more involved with the Geneva academic community ?
Correct ! I have the advantage of knowing the academic environment in Geneva quite well, with a respectable network of contacts. I have already been in touch with all the major players, and I think that we are going to do a lot of things with the academic institutions of Geneva.
Q : What about the rest of the world ? Can they contact you too ?
Absolutely ! We are open for business … Please contact