Interview with Ms Sally Fegan-Wyles, Assistant Secretary-General, United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Training for delegates to the United Nations

Training for delegates to the United Nations
Q: You have been the Executive Director of UNITAR for over a year now. What is the true significance of United Nations training and research?
We should first talk about UNITAR’s niche in the training world, because there are so many organizations around the world carrying out training. Most parts of the United Nations provide some form of training, and then there are universities all over the place. There are more universities and research institutions in Geneva than in any other city in the world. One of the reasons why it is important for UNITAR to be here is because we greatly benefit from close association with local institutions; and also from the students based here who work for us as interns ‒‒ it is a wonderful treasure.
There are 200 people working for us at any one time. When I counted in October 2013, sixty-two were either interns or senior fellows ‒‒ retired UN staff who are ready to work for their DSA (daily subsistence allowance) and travel costs because they want to contribute and do something interesting. This makes it possible for UNITAR to keep its costs down and remain in business in a competitive world.
In future UNITAR training will, I believe, become even more closely linked to the work of the UN. Given that there are so many training institutions in the world, what is our specialty? Why would you come to UNITAR instead of going to a university or another UN organization? UNITAR has the mandate to help Member States assume their place in the UN ‒‒ which has led to two key areas of work.. One is to help delegates in Geneva, New York, Nairobi, Vienna, Addis Ababa or elsewhere to be able to contribute to discussions on new norms, new policies, standards or programmes on an equal basis with Member States who perhaps have much larger delegations, who may even have subject specialists for every issue. There are some Member States that have very small missions. They may have one person who has to cover twenty topics and has to be able to discuss these topics with specialists. He/she may receive very little support from back home, so clearly it is a very unequal playing field. Thus, the first mandate of UNITAR is to try to make it level, helping the delegates from small missions ‒‒ usually poor or smaller countries ‒‒ to acquire the diplomatic skills to negotiate, to chair committees, to draft resolutions. This represent about 15% of UNITAR’s training.
The other 85% of our work is to help member states have the knowledge they need  to act on decisions made by the UN. For example, the UN has agreed a series of conventions on the disposal of chemical waste. It’s very technical and, because there is no UN agency for chemical waste, UNITAR runs training programmes in all countries to help them understand what it means to implement the UN agreements.
That is more or less what our niche or competitive advantage is. We conduct training on things that are very closely related to decisions that Member States have made or are going to make, and help turn these decisions into action.
Another area of our work is UNOSAT. By helping different parts of the UN access this geospatial imagery, it helps them to obtain the information they need to support good decision making. We train Member States showing them how to do this for themselves, and how they can use this information for their own planning. For instance, we were very quickly able to produce images of the floods in Bangkok (October 2013) that showed where the situation was worse. Then we train nationals to use this information and technology for themselves.
I think that UNITAR should do an awful lot more to assist UN Member States in making good decisions. Once they have made these decisions, we should be able help them translate these choices to bring about meaningful change in their country. Through this kind of practical action support we are able to keep the UN relevant in the twenty-first century. In this way we ensure that the UN is not just a talking shop, but we increase the likelihood that the talking becomes action ‒‒ which is what is important in the end.
Q: Before becoming an Assistant Secretary-General, you had a long career with the UN.
I was very lucky. The first lucky thing that happened to me was that I began as an overseas development volunteer in Malawi. Then I went to Liberia as a UN volunteer, and then to Uganda as a young programme officer. When you are young and single it is much easier to accept these quite difficult duty stations. I did not realize it at that time, but this is a very good way to begin. People who start their careers here in Geneva or in New York become a little bit comfortable. Perhaps they find a partner and have children, and then it becomes extremely difficult to move to a field posting. If you do not have field experience ‒‒ and particularly emergency field experience ‒‒ it’s very hard to be a senior officer in the UN, because you are missing that kind of first hand in-depth experience which is an awful lot of what the UN is all about. I was lucky starting with these very hands-on assignments.
In Malawi I actually worked as an officer for the Malawian Government, which was also a very fortunate way to begin. Seeing the work of the UN through the eyes of the government was very useful. I was a young economist working for the Ministry of Health, and I was paid a government salary, living in governmental housing, sharing an office with two other governmental officials. Then I went on to work as a UN volunteer. Once again it was working for the government as an economist in the Ministry of Economic Planning in Liberia. While I was there I had the chance to move to UNICEF as a young professional and became a UN staff member. So, I had four years of working for governments before I started to work for the UN. I had twenty years of working in the field before I came to the headquarters.
Twenty-four years of working in Africa really meant that when I came to the headquarters I had a very strong field background. It gives you a kind of confidence when you come to headquarters because most people working in headquarters have either no or very limited field experience.
Then I had a long career as a development officer, first for UNICEF and then for UNDP. At a certain time I wanted to understand how the UN Secretariat functions, how the Member States’ decision-making processes work, which is very different from how UNICEF, UNDP and the field agencies work. Thus, I had the good fortune to be allowed to work in peace-building support, and to assemble the Secretary-General’s Report on Peace-Building and the Immediate Aftermath of Conflict. This was all about stating the obvious: that the four parts of the UN ‒‒ the Humanitarian, the Military, the Political and Development ‒‒ must all sit down together and do the strategic planning at a very early stage, with the key national actors.
Because of that experience, I had the chance to lead the team that resulted in the establishment of UN Women, and that was very interesting. I worked under the Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro. There were four very different units, one large programme, two small departments, and an independent training entity. It was my job to bring them all together and create something new. I started with a big advantage as the Member States had already made a very strong resolution. My job was to work with these four organizations and come up with a new vision as to what the new organization would look like, it’s functions, it’s work and then to obtain the Member States’ agreement to that. Once we were granted the founding resolution, we had to set UN WOMEN up while we were waiting for the first Executive Director to be appointed. Then I worked with her for four months, while she got her team together.
Q: After the setting up of UNIFEM, did you come here?
First I took early retirement. My husband is a little bit older than I, and we realized that we had always been living overseas and did not have a home. We decided to establish a home in Ireland and to put down some roots while we were still physically able to do so. We left New York and moved everything, setting up our home in a beautiful place on the coast of Ireland. After four months the house was finished, and I realized that I was not really ready to stop working. I went back to New York and walked down 44th Street just to see whom I might meet on my way ‒‒ was there anybody who needed my help? I ended up meeting a colleague from UNICEF, who said: “Ah! You are here and we were looking for somebody who can be acting head of human resources for six months. Can you help?” So I was Acting HR for six months, and then UNDP said: “When you have finished that, could you come and help us for six months while we find our own person.” I really enjoyed both of these assignments.
When I had finished these two assignments and was ready to go home and do some more retiring, I got a phone call from the Secretary-General’s Office saying: “We are thinking of consolidating seven organizations together, including UNITAR. You have proven yourself as a manager in the system. We would like you to do two things: to be the manager of UNITAR; but also to help the efforts of the SG to consolidate UNITAR with these six other organizations.”
Q: So that’s what you did?
Well, that’s what I came to do. It has not progressed as easily as I think the Secretary-General would have wished. I think the initial idea was a lovely  idea, but trying to make reality match the ideal has been a lot more difficult.
Q: UNITAR is often mentioned in Geneva for its assistance to humanitarians through UNOSAT. What are the other contributions you make to International Geneva?
There are two reasons why people should know about us. My predecessor, Carlos Lopez, started the Geneva Lecture Series because he felt that the people of Geneva do not really know much about the work of the UN. He wanted to introduce a series of presentations which would be slightly populist, not academic, and everybody could get an understanding of the issues that the UN is dealing with. Why are these issues important? He started these lecture series and we carry them on. We try to do two per year. It’s a surprisingly huge amount of work. We did one just before Christmas 2013 with Martti Ahtisaari, the former President of Finland, and José Ramos-Horta, who was the President of Timor Leste. Both of them had been very important in negotiating peace deals. José Ramos-Horta is now the United Nations’ Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Integrated Peace-Building Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS). It was very interesting to listen to them, and both of them said the same thing, which is so relevant now for Syria. The most important quality that the winner must demonstrate is the forgiveness to the looser. It’s so hard, but if you cannot make the loser feel that they have hope of playing some useful role in the future, you are sowing the seeds of the next war.
Another thing that we do in Geneva is to run a lot of training courses here, both online and actually face-to-face. Our target audience is the Geneva-based delegates to the UN, particularly the new ones who have just arrived, and particularly those from countries that do not have their own national diplomatic academy. We teach negotiation skills, resolutions, drafting, etc., but also to understand how the different UN bodies work, the rules of the Human Right’s Council, the rules of the First Committee, the rules of the Security Council. That’s what we do.
Q: What are your plans for the Institute in 2014?
We have a very interesting new programme. There is a big discussion going on in the UN about the Sustainable Development Goals, and the new Post 2015 development agenda.  There are so many different, but related, processes going on, that Member States are drowning in information. It was suggested that UNITAR could help delegates, including newly arrived delegates, to know what is the most important information, and what are the essential reference documents, so that they can participate in the process with confidence. We are therefore going to provide orientations and briefings for Member States, particularly for the small Member States who do not have huge amount of staff covering the process. Maybe it would be useful if we would do a series of briefings for Member States on some of the issues that might be included on the agenda. For example, why do you need a development agenda in the first place? How do you get the right balance between a results-oriented agenda and an inspirational and visionary agenda? Why would you like to have a limited number of results on everything that everybody could think about? On all these issues, why is it better to have ten or fifteen results rather than 150? What are the advantages of having this result instead of another result? What indicator should we think about and what does a good indicator mean? Some are technical matters; some are almost philosophical. Why is it important to have universal goals instead of having goals just for the developing world ‒‒ just like MDGs? What were the shortcomings of the MDGs? How do we learn from that experience, and do even better this time.
There is a lot of work going on right now. The problems is not that there is not enough information, the problem is that there is far too much information. Thus, the poor delegate who is covering three committees all by himself/herself is overwhelmed. So we asked: “Would it be helpful if we could draw this information together, synthesize it, and make it more comprehensible ‒‒ easier for the Member States to grasp?” So we are now putting together a series of briefings for New York and Geneva, and hopefully that will help to get this agenda decided. But, once the agenda has been decided, there is something more important. If this is going to be the agenda for the next fifteen years, we have 193 countries who need to know everything about it: what does it imply? what are the indicators? how it is going to be financed? etc. There is a huge need for a programme of information. This is what we are working on right now.
Q: How is UNITAR doing financially these days?
I would say that everything is relative. We have not grown in the last three years; we have not shrunk; we have held steady. Compared to other parts of the UN, I think that this is positive. As you might know, we rely completely on voluntary funds and we start every year with zero ‒‒ we have no budget given to us. We start every year preparing project proposals. We go to governments and say: “Would you like to consider financing this project?” But there are also some governments of emerging economies ‒‒ and I think that this is a recognition of the quality of the work we do ‒‒ who come to us and ask: “Would you like to come to our country and conduct this training course for us ‒‒ and we will pay?” This is the way of the future and, of course, we are open to requests from any developing country that would like to work with us in this way.

Assistant Secretary-General,  United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)

Assistant Secretary-General,
United Nations Institute for Training and Research