Interview with Michael Møller, Director-General, United Nations Headquarters in Geneva

When Michael Møller was asked to assume the post as interim Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, it was initially thought to be for a few months. He did such an outstanding job that, when the interim period was close to an end, members of the diplomatic corps in Geneva had already sent many letters to the United Nations Secretary-General in New York, requesting that Mr Moller be appointed the next Director-General. Since then, the Director-General has been working hard to put Geneva back on the international scene. During his tenure we have seen a number of peace talks taking place here, key negotiations with global implications, and, more locally, several events linking locals and “internationals” either on the UN premises or in other places in the city, activities showing a new and dynamic United Nations. One of his numerous initiatives is the Gender Champions Initiative, putting gender issues back on the agenda.
In recognition of his outstanding work, he was awarded the Geneva Foundation Prize earlier this year, and this is only one of many distinctions he has received so far.
We were curious to hear Mr Møller’s own impressions and visions, especially since he was asked by the new Secretary-General to continue in his job at least another year. We went knocking on his door, and now we will give the floor to Mr Møller.
Q: First of all, I would like to convey my congratulations for Le Prix 2017 de la Fondation pour Genève for your outstanding work promoting “International Geneva ». So, let me start by asking you, what is it that has made a Dane so fond of Geneva?
The link between Denmark and Geneva is not immediately apparent, but, when you look at the Swiss, the Danes and the Nordics in general, we have a shared value system. We look at the world in very similar ways and have very similar levels of development in our societies. So, there is some affinity there, and it also means that one feels comfortable.
The second thing is that I have lived here several times. I started my career here, I have lots of friends here, so, I feel at home. It’s one of my homes, if you will.
This is connected to International Geneva and my promoting it much more than simply Geneva being the operational hub of the international system.
The point is the “ecosystem” that we have here. It needs to be better known, better functioning, strengthened and attracting more support. We have to strengthen this “ecosystem” because we have been asked by Member States to improve our “products”. For that, we have to do many different things, including “social engineering”: it does not do to have a city where half of the citizens do not talk to the other half. You need social cohesion if you want to have a system like we have working to its maximum. We live in a very fragmented and difficult world right now where the international system, in particular the United Nations system as a whole, needs to be supported by the nations that it serves, and therefore by the politicians and those who decide on the support, on the financing, on the investments and on what to do. This is all a coherent entity, but we need to put the pieces together in a better way. The way to do that, in my mind, was to change the narrative, to make sure that everybody understands what we are doing here, so that they get its importance, its impact and its relevance for their personal lives. Every single one of them is touched by what is happening here, even if they do not know it. The moment everybody knows it, naturally, the support will flow because people will understand that they have a personal stake in making sure that this “ecosystem” functions at its maximum.
Q: You have now been the Director-General of the United Nations here in Geneva for several years, and your mandate has just been extended. What do you consider your major achievement so far?
I mentioned to you the narrative change, and that is still under way. There are several other activities that I’m happy about and that we still have to work on.
Part of changing the narrative is opening up the Palais to our fellow Genevans to an extent that has never been done before. I think that’s a good thing, in terms of what I mentioned earlier, making sure that we have a cohesive environment in which we work, in which people talk to each other, enriching each other’s lives. Happy citizens are more productive citizens both within the United Nations and outside. So, I’m very happy about how we have managed to do the opening up, and now we just have to do more, not only in Geneva, but in Switzerland and further down, outside the borders, in terms of how we interact but also in the language we use in explaining to people what we are doing. I think that through that we have also improved the coordination and collaboration among the many different actors here, both within the United Nations system and among our partners, whether they be NGOs, the business community or other international organisations, so that there is a much greater sense of unity, a sense of a family in terms of the international community.
That is increasingly important as we have embarked on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. We must prove to the world that we are able to deliver what they ask us to do. We have to earn trust. And getting back the trust that we have lost means proving that we are effective and that we can deliver – to make their investment worthwhile.
I think another achievement is that we have steered through the project of renovation of the Palais to a successful start. We received the approval of the UN General Assembly, and we are moving ahead with the physical aspect of it. It is working well. So that is a huge undertaking, and we are trying to do it in a way that is both cost effective and stays within the time limits, ensuring the continuity of business with as little disruption of the lives of our staff and delegates as possible.  At the same time, it is very important to safeguard a heritage building, which is one of the world’s most extraordinary historical buildings.
I’m also very happy about the way the staff are coming together. There is more collaboration between the different services, therefore we perform better as United Nations Geneva. I think that by and large the staff are happier and enjoy their work more than they used to. They are more inspired to do what we all should do when working in the United Nations – at least that is what they tell me. When people come and tell me this, I’m very happy. It’s the nicest part of the job actually.  So, more cohesion, more openness inside and outside, more pride in what we do, more understanding also. This business of understanding what we do actually is part of the “ecosystem” in International Geneva, not only outside and beyond. Lots of our colleagues don’t seem to know. Certainly our colleagues in New York do not have a full understanding of the extent of our work here, and even some here in Geneva don’t.
Q: On a personal level, what is the achievement that has given you the most satisfaction – the thing that lets you wake up in the morning and go to the office with a smile on your face?
I’m a happy man because I’m enjoying my job. I have worked for the UN for almost 38 years now, and I have done quite a lot of different jobs. I have obviously picked up some experience along the way, some skills and some knowledge, and I find in this job, that all of these things I have learned in the past are coming together, giving me the ability to do my job here. So it’s fun, and I look forward to each day on the job. It also means that I do not have any stress, so, my health is good too.
Another factor is that we have many really excellent colleagues here. Some I started my career with, others I have hired and quite a few I have served with in different parts of the world. So it’s like a “family” thing. All of these are things are good and make me a happy man.
Q: Now, talking about the United Nations: the renovation of the Geneva office is about to start. What do you see as the major challenge?
First of all, it’s a very big task. It is a very technical challenge. The Palais looks nice from the outside, but inside it needs a lot of tender loving care. Many of the things we are doing are things that have not been done since its construction. It’s a challenge. We have to keep on working in an environment where there will be lots of dust, noise and traffic, and it’s happening at a time when a lot of other construction is about to happen. Within the Palais there will be many things happening at the same time, and just outside there are also a lot of things happening. The whole area will be one massive construction zone for many years. As I say to many of my colleagues and delegates :“ buy a bicycle”.
Another challenge is also the financial aspect of it. The budget which we have is big, nevertheless it’s a minimum and in many ways does not cover everything that we need to do here. For example, it does not cover the restoration of the villas. It does not cover security upgrades and other matters. So, one challenge is to find money. That’s one of the things that my colleagues and I are doing with some success. The challenge is also to make sure that everybody understands what is happening. There is a lot of pressure on us to utilize our space better, and of course people are afraid of that. They are used to having their own spacious office, so, that’s another issue. We have to do it in a way that takes into account the well-being of staff. We have to take into account the requirements of each work-unit, and we are working on that, too. The challenge is to deliver all this on time and within budget.
Geneva has a good track record of delivering and keeping within budget for the construction carried out in the past and I would like to ensure that we live up to that reputation.
Q: You are one of the initiators of the Gender Champions Initiative. How did the idea come about?
It came about in a conversation between the American Ambassador at the time, Pamela Hamamoto, Caitlin Kraft-Buchmann, Head of the NGO Woman@theTable and me. There had been a lot of talk about gender parity and gender activities but little action. It was their idea, and I just jumped on it. We needed to find very practical, measurable project that would push people to think differently – nothing onerous, but something practical, measurable and accountable that makes sense. We are more successful than I thought we would be, and I am very happy about that. There are three commitments, and one is the same for everybody. It’s at a personal level, so, each one is personally responsible for it. You are going to be monitored by your peers. If you are not doing what you should be doing, it will be made public. So there is pressure, it’s practical. It’s measurable. We now have more than 130 Champions in Geneva. It has been replicated in New York and Vienna. The Secretary-General has become a Champion. He was already one when he was High Commissioner. We are now looking at replicating it Nairobi and Rome. Possibly in other places too. Here we have expanded it. It is not just the diplomatic community or the United Nations family, it’s also businesses and local politicians. François Longchamp is a Champion. The World Economic Forum is another one. We have just talked to all the sports federations, and several of them are now coming on board. CEOs of multinationals are coming to see me, and they tell me that they like the idea. They themselves are also becoming Champions, and they are using the concept in their own business. So, it works and has an impact.
The first commitment that we all share and that everybody has to sign up to is that we will never again participate in panels where gender balance is not respected. That very quickly changed things. Now after one and half years, there are few panels where there are no women or no men. It goes both ways. My other two commitments involved devising and implementing a geneder policy for the UNOG that did not exist before. It works, and I will give you an example. We are doing quite well actually in the United Nations Geneva in terms of parity of staff. Over all we have 48 per cent women, while the problem is still is at the top level. That is typical for any business, whether public or private. When we started this in 2015, women the top grades represented 34.4 per cent. At the end of 2016, a year later, it was 41per cent. So, we have done quite well. I’m asking all the managers to be very attentive to how they hire.
Q: Finally, Mr Director-General, what would you like to achieve in the years to come, and do you have a particular message to convey to our readers?
In this coming year a big focus is going to be on the Sustainable Development Goals implementation. As you may know, I have created a new little unit in my office called the SDG Lab. It is basically a facilitating entity for all stakeholders, both inside and outside the United Nations family, to share information, to share best practices and to be a resource centre for people who want to improve the way they implement these goals. We would like to know what others have done, not re-invent the wheel. It has been in existence for only a couple of months, but it’s working. It has, in fact, become somewhat a victim of its own success as we are getting more and more requests, and not yet able to deliver on all requests. But it’s not fully staffed yet. I am not paying for staff because I do not have any money. It is all voluntary funding, and it works. We have staff from all over the world, each region. So I would like to scale that up, and continue to increase the outreach and the narrative of what we do, both on the SDGs and in general. The perception project is another unit that we created that is also working hard on that. I would also like to continue to work on this “human engineering”, get the private sector closer to what we do, get Switzerland and Geneva closer to what we do. We now have an agreement with the city and the canton of Geneva that they will finance a Geneva Room in the Palais as a gift from them. So I would like to continue that too, and to do some more fund-raising.
Leaving the DG’s office one can only admire of all the things he has put in place during his years in office, and hope that United Nations in Geneva will benefit from his dynamic spirit even longer.