Reflections on my career with the UN

On the eve of my retirement, I look back at the lessons from what I call the ‘university of life and service’.

Munyaradzi Chenje, the outgoing Regional Director, Regional Office for Africa.
Munyaradzi Chenje, the outgoing Regional Director, Regional Office for Africa, UN Development Coordination Office.

Two hundred and fifty months!

Administratively, my full time United Nations service totals 20 years and 10 months at the end of this month – July 2021. At a personal level, the 250 months represent a lifetime of learning, passion, service, friendships and some frustrations.

Working for the UN is like being at the university of life – every day is a learning experience – learning-by-doing, new concepts, and adapting to new situations, and interests. Working for the UN is not just a job – it’s service.

I have learnt from brilliant scientists and professionals. I have also acquired invaluable knowledge from many at the community and grassroots levels. The unbridled enthusiasm of many interns with whom I have worked has been rewarding.

Dull moments are few and far-between.

Being paid to do what I enjoy – making a difference – is priceless. Supporting UN member states in their efforts for collective action to global challenges with massive national impacts is rewarding. Negotiations may be long, arduous, fractious, and frustrating, but it was well worth it to be in the room and be witness to historic and landmark decisions such as the ‘Future we Want’ and the ‘2030 Agenda’.

Frustrations of divergent views and special interests are overshadowed when the outcomes – the 2030 Agenda, Paris Climate Change Agreement, and many others – redefine how we should contribute to changing the trajectory of the world in which we all live.

Working for the UN is a privilege, and my greatest honour was being appointed by the Secretary-General as the founding Africa Regional Director of the UN Development Coordination Office (UNDCO). It’s an honour that I share with just but a few because it’s not every day or every year that the UN establishes a new office!

The work of the UN sustainable development system is to provide the whole-of-UN-system action in engaging with the whole-of-Government and with partners and stakeholders in implementing the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and also, the African Union vision – Agenda 2063.

I’m taking early retirement at the end of July 2021 after two years as UNDCO Africa Regional Director during which I established the Regional Office in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and the Dakar Office for West and Central Africa; and built a team of 12 staff committed to translating into action UN member states’ resolutions, and the Secretary-General’s vision to transform lives and opportunities for all in all countries.

Our work is focused at the country level, supporting 53 Resident Coordinators (RCs) and UN Country Teams (UNCTs) in 54 countries across Africa in their work with governments, partners and stakeholders to resolve social, economic and environmental problems, including climate change; and to transform people’s lives and national economies in harmony with our environment.

The work of the UN sustainable development system is to provide the whole-of-UN-system action in engaging with the whole-of-Government and with partners and stakeholders in implementing the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and also, the African Union vision – Agenda 2063. The commitment at all levels is to leave no one behind in such transformation, taking integrated action on social, economic and environmental issues and opportunities.

My team’s work involved visiting RCs and UNCTs across Africa to better understand the environment in which they work, the support they need to effectively respond to the expectations of governments and their people. However, the COVID-19 pandemic upended our business model over the past year-and-half, forcing us to conduct most of our engagement on online platforms such as Teams and Zoom.

Ground-truthing UN reform through country visits and directly engaging RCs and UNCTs, government officials, funding partners and stakeholders has been impossible during this current COVID-19 environment. Undertaking field trips to engage directly with communities and experience first-hand the UN at work on the ground was curtailed by the pandemic. This is one important area of our work that online platforms can never accommodate.

Despite the challenging impacts of COVID-19 on lives and livelihoods; and how we work at regional level, RCs and UNCTs across Africa have made tremendous progress in translating UN resolutions; and the Secretary-General’s vision of a 21st Century UN sustainable development system that is “focused more on people and less on processes, more on results for the most poor and excluded, and less on bureaucracy, more on integrated support to the 2030 Agenda and less on ‘business-as-usual.’”

I was privileged to have been in such outstanding company, not only in the context of DCO, but all members of the UN family across the world who – individually and collectively – are responding to making a difference at country, regional and international levels.

Sustainable development is today’s human story. It’s no less compelling than emergencies and disasters whose images always convey urgency and galvanize action.

Focusing on integration

As I reflect on my two decades in UN service, I realize that the main thread of my work has been on integration – tackling the interlinkages of social, economic and environmental issues central to human well-being today and across generations.

In the 18 years that I was with the UN Environment Programme, I coordinated both regional and global environmental assessment and reporting work; supported the General Assembly’s Second Committee consultations on sustainable development issues; and directed its regional presence work, supporting the integrated implementation of the 2030 Agenda and SDGs through its regional offices.

Working on four global and about 10 regional environmental assessments, I was exposed to diverse views and interests. I got to understand and acknowledge that science and policy are interdependent; and that science can be negotiated when it comes to policy decisions and action. Climate change and policy making are a good example.

Consensus evolves, and can be frustratingly glacial until competing interests are accommodated or not at all. For example, it took almost three decades for sustainable development to be universally embraced. With its roots in environmental discourse, sustainable development was often perceived as an environmental agenda to limit economic development. The world has since accepted that integrating the three dimensions of sustainable development – social, economic and environmental – is central to transformation, leaving no one behind.

Lesson from the field

Hard data and information tell a story, but cannot beat a human story. And people like stories to which they can relate.

In January 2020, for example, I visited the community in Fabidji in Niger, which is involved in strengthening social cohesion among farmers and herders in the Dosso and Maradi regions. The women, participating in this Peacebuilding Fund-supported project being implemented by UN Women and FAO, were excited to talk about their experience and how they were resolving tensions and conflicts.

The project helped train women as conflict mediators; and created 346 Dimitra clubs (men and women dialogue groups), providing for the effective participation of women, including Fulani women, in village assemblies (such participation is not culturally tolerated). The role of 600 women mediators in conflict prevention and management, and in land commissions is now increasingly accepted. Women’s inheritance rights are also increasingly recognized in communities.

During the January 2020 field visit, some of the women conflict mediators excitedly spoke to us about their success, the positive impacts among communities, and the need for ongoing UN support. Their focus was on successful delivery and impact on their lives. They never spoke about quality planning and project documents. These are internal workings of the UN system, and of no interest in their lives.

I believe that their expectation is for the UN to deliver and to get them to their destination – a better life.

Reflections on the work ahead

Beyond the health and socio-economic responses to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on lives and livelihoods, I believe that it’s important not to lose the pandemic’s lessons – that we are in one world; that we are all in this together; and that neighbour now not only means next door and shared national boundaries, but also manifests across regions.

The whole-of-UN-system response to the COVID-19 pandemic in support of countries and people across Africa is an opportunity to accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and SDGs.

The COVID-19 response has been about now, controlling the spread of the virus, saving lives and livelihoods, repurposing resources for the now, and ensuring that countries get on track to recover better, pulling up all who fell behind and those left even further behind.

While the COVID-19 response was turbo-charged, sustainable development generally seems to be on a two-stroke engine, giving the impression that we have time: We don’t!

The 2030 Agenda and Africa’s Agenda 2063 are action documents. It’s important that they are not perceived as more long-term rather than urgent. They should not be a source of delayed action or inaction.

Sustainable development is today’s human story. It’s no less compelling than emergencies and disasters whose images always convey urgency and galvanize action.

I believe that a compelling human story about sustainable development should always convey urgency and galvanize action, including massive financing, which is currently limited.

Telling that compelling story is one of the major challenges that we face in our collective efforts to deliver on the 2030 Agenda and SDGs.

The SDGs have to be delivered daily in order to achieve transformation.

People want their daily bread today – not tomorrow, not next year, and certainly not in 2030 or 2063!

The 2030 Agenda and SDGs are best before 2030. 

Yes, planning is critical for success; and quality plans and frameworks are just as important. I believe, however, that quality documents do not change people’s lives – action does.

While financing sustainable development is a huge challenge; and delivery on the ground and transforming lives, leaving no one behind seem onerous, I believe that challenges galvanize action, and that the RCs and UNCTs in Africa and across the world are up to the challenge.

It has been an honour and a privilege to serve with women and men from all corners of the world and from many diverse cultures, and alongside so many talented and experienced colleagues – Resident Coordinators and UN Country Team members, Regional Directors, and UN colleagues across the world – who are in service to make a difference at country, regional and international levels.

Mr. Chenje is the outgoing Regional Director, Regional Office for Africa, UN Development Coordination Office.

With more than 30 years’ experience in sustainable development, both in and outside the UN, Mr. Chenje joined UNEP in Nairobi, Kenya, in the year 2000, where he served in various capacities, including as Africa Regional Coordinator for environmental assessment and early warning; Head of integrated global environmental assessment and reporting; Head of Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs at UN Headquarters in New York; and Director of the Regional Presence Office. 

He has also served as Deputy Chief Officer at the UN Secretariat of the Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol in Montreal, Canada.

In 2019 he was appointed the Regional Director for the UN Development Coordination Office (DCO) Regional Office for Africa based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, till his retirement in July 2021.

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