Farewell remarks by Kul C. Gautamat UNICEF Staff Holiday party

Farewell remarks by Kul C. Gautam
At UNICEF Staff Holiday party
New York, 14 December 2007

I want to thank, the NY Staff Association for dedicating part of our Annual Holiday Party for this nice, good-bye occasion for me.

I feel so touched and loved by your gesture.

Throughout my nearly 35 years, I have always felt very strong affinity with UNICEF staff and staff associations in many duty stations where I have served.

And this farewell party organized by the staff association and with the presence of so many staff, including quite a few of our veteran predecessors, is such a beautiful finale.

Thank you again.

This evening, and in recent days, the most often asked question to me is: what will I do next, after I retire.

And I have been fascinated to hear so many people guessing what I might do, or offering some really colourful and creative suggestions on what I ought to do.

In order to spare myself the task of having to respond to the same question for the umpteenth time, let me share with you my thoughts on what I might do after I retire.
31 December 07 will be my last working day at UNICEF

one way ticket to Kathmandu on 31 January 08

  • for a few weeks or months…pleasure of doing NOTHING !
  • then rediscovering Nepal
  • catching up with Nepali literature, music, art, etc.
  • then will try to figure out what I might do…but no rush
  • what I will not do is quite clear: no full-time job of any kind, not joining Govt or political process/party in Nepal
  • what I will do – less certain
  • ideally 3 sets of activities:   1/3rd – local/community-level work; 1/3rd – post-conflict reconstruction and development; 1/3rd international ventures.
  • but as you know, best laid plans often go off track
  • So fallback position – all the books I wanted to read…some writing, etc…

Now, having answered the most frequently asked question, if you allow me, I would like to respond to a rarely asked question, and offer my unsolicited advice.

But first, let me acknowledge that this is our annual holiday party – an occasion for fun and games, songs and dances – not for long speeches.

But since this will probably be my last chance to speak to a large gathering of UNICEF staff, including colleagues from senior management, I hope you will forgive me if I use this occasion to respond to a question which actually several colleagues have asked me:

The question is this: Based on my 3 and half decades of experience in UNICEF, what would my advice be to keep UNICEF a strong, vibrant, and effective organization that delivers results for children?

Well, fasten your seat-belts, for a long and boring answer!

Here are my 10 recommendations to keep UNICEF strong and vibrant.

  1. Learn from History, Don’t Rediscover the Wheel: UNICEF has an amazing history of extraordinary achievements that led it to win the Nobel Peace Prize; organize the very first World Summit for Children gathering the largest assembly of world leaders in history; lending its decisive weight for the adoption and virtually universal ratification of CRC; even stopping wars temporarily to protect children; and pioneering innovations in advocacy, fund-raising, and serving as the “people-to-people” organization of the United Nations.

Regrettably, many new UNICEF staff members, including some in leadership positions, are woefully ill-informed about the proud and inspiring history of the organization. Some attempt to rediscover the wheel, oblivious of lessons of UNICEF’s own past experience and proud history.   To remedy this trend, all UNICEF staff members should be required to read the following 6 publications in their first 6 months in UNICEF: 1. The Charter of the United Nations, 2. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, 3. First Call for Children from WSC and A World Fit for Children from SSC, and two volumes of UNICEF history by Maggie Black: 4. The Children and the Nations, 5. Children First, and 6. Jim Grant: UNICEF Visionary.

There are other important recommended readings which staff should read depending on their area of specific interest, but these 6 publications must be part of the UNICEF 101induction course for all staff to read, and periodically refresh their memory.

I do not know how many of you in this room have read the 6 primers of UNICEF 101. If you have not, please begin your crash course on Monday!

I would also ask DHR to include information on this required reading in the appointment letters for all new staff members, and a reminder when their contracts are renewed.

  1. Harness the Commitment of UNICEF Staff:

We often say that staff are the real asset of UNICEF. And if UNICEF is to succeed in its mission, we must learn how to harness the full potential of our staff.

Indeed, as I look back over the last 35 years of my cumulative experience, UNICEF has been at its best, when we have managed to get all staff excited about the organization’s life-saving and protective actions in the field.

Perhaps UNICEF staff motivation was at its peak during the heydays of the child survival and immunization campaigns in the 1980s, when most staff felt directly engaged in UNICEF’s mission.

Even now, when all staff – programme officers, secretaries, admin/finance assistants, drivers, heads of offices, etc. are mobilized in response to disasters like the Tsunami or earthquakes, or in the campaigns against polio or measles, staff morale goes high even when working conditions get more difficult.

Some of the old-timers here would recall how UNICEF’s legendary leader Jim Grant, used to say that in the larger scheme of things, those of us who work for UNICEF are just a handful of people with pocketful of coins with ordinary intellect.

What made us special, he said, was the noble mission of the organization that inspires and motivates us, working as a team, to achieve extraordinary results.

Let us ensure that we continue to find creative ways to motivate our staff and harness their full potential to help achieve extraordinary results for children.

  1. Work for the Mission, not just for Money:

It is a privilege to work for the United Nations and to serve humanity. Working for UNICEF should be seen as not just a job, but also as a mission.

UNICEF and the UN are considered among the best employers in most countries. There are thousands of very competent people across the world who would love to have our jobs. So let us not forget none of us is indispensable.

For the privilege of working with UNICEF, I hope all of our staff will cultivate a genuine interest in UNICEF’s mission, and are ready to serve in functions and places where your services are needed most. If you can’t do that, and if your primary motivation to work at UNICEF is for money or job security, consider finding another employer.

  1. Choose the Moral high ground over Political correctness:

When Maurice Pate was offered the post of becoming UNICEF’s first Executive Director, he took the job on one condition: that UNICEF should be allowed to help children in need everywhere, regardless of political or other considerations. By and large UNICEF has remained faithful to this principle.

But occasionally UNICEF comes under pressure by powerful member states, some autocratic regimes, and blocks of countries to impose or comply with conditionalities, selectivity and sanctions, that are not always based on concern for the well-being of children.

I hope UNICEF’s senior management, at all levels, will have the courage and wisdom to stick to this principle even when it may seem expedient to do otherwise.

  1. Safeguard the Magic of UNICEF:

With its universally cherished mandate, the noblest of all missions, a record of proud achievements, extensive field presence in developing countries and a network of citizen volunteers in industrialized countries, UNICEF appeals not just to the head but to the heart and even the soul of its supporters and the general public.

The magical reverence for UNICEF’s work generated by our wonderful Goodwill Ambassadors, and selfless volunteers is an asset for the whole United Nations and for all activists working for the rights and well-being of children. UNICEF’s decentralized field office network, with highly empowered country representatives is another asset that should be preserved and strengthened.

UNICEF must not only be an efficient machinery for international cooperation. It must safeguard its magical lustre with a moral purpose.

  1. Deliver as One UNICEF:

In the context of UN reform, to bring greater coherence in the UN system’s support to developing countries, efforts are being made for the UN system to “Deliver as One”. UNICEF must continue to play a constructive role in this context, and support all sensible efforts to strengthen the UN system’s capacity to “deliver as one” with greater harmony, efficiency and effectiveness.

But while we try to “deliver as one UN”, we must watch out that UNICEF itself does not become a house divided, because of inadequate consultation with staff; directives coming from on high that do not respect country reality; trepidation among field staff that UNICEF’s access to leadership and ability to be a fearless advocate for children maybe compromised, and that UNICEF’s unique ability to mobilize resources from the public as well as private sector is not lost.

“Delivering as One” must not lead to well-established and highly regarded UN agencies losing their identity as was once suggested in a UN reform proposal in the late 1990s, by a high level consultant of the Secretary-General who recommended that all UN funds and programmes should be merged into one super UN Development Agency.

Carol Bellamy wisely and courageously resisted that proposal, and Kofi Annan agreed with her. In fact, I recall Kofi Annan came out with a very apt proposition. He said he wanted all UN agencies, especially at the field level, to work as a well-coordinated team.

But he clarified that when he said, a team, he was thinking about a “soccer team” in which all team members work towards a common goal, but where each player has opportunity to demonstrate individual brilliance, rather than like a rowing team in which everybody must paddle simultaneously at exactly the same pace.

Some of the unique characteristics of UNICEF that make it a much loved and respected organization and a strong member of the UN country team should be seen as an asset for the whole United Nations. To help the UN to deliver as one, UNICEF itself must remain a united organization capable of “delivering as one UNICEF”.

  1. Retain the Humanitarian and Development Balance:

UNICEF was originally established as an emergency fund, and gradually evolved into a development agency, but without giving up its humanitarian role.

The world looks to UNICEF to help when children are in distress because of natural disasters or man-made emergencies. UNICEF has acquired a fine reputation for prompt and effective emergency action. That was in part what won UNICEF the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965.

Most countries – donors as well as developing countries – appreciate the fact that UNICEF is often there before, during and after emergencies. The fact that UNICEF provides many life-saving services that are equally essential during emergencies as well as part of normal development is another asset. UNICEF epitomizes the value of the seamless continuum from humanitarian to development support.

From time to time, in the context of UN reform there have been proposals from seemingly wise people recommending that there should be 3 distinct pillars separating emergency from development and both of these from environment. Based on our experience, such a separation would not only be problematic for UNICEF, it would be artificial and bad for children.

We must insist on UNICEF not being fragmented, and allowed to work across the spectrum of the humanitarian-development continuum.

Of course, we all hope that there will be fewer emergencies and we can concentrate more of our efforts on longer-term development. But so long as UNICEF exists, its ability to help children in need, including in emergencies, must not be compromised.

  1. Be Guided by the Best Interest of Children:

Faced with limited resources and unlimited needs, policy makers and managers are often confronted with having to decide among competing priorities. This happens in all organizations. In the give and take of realpolitik compromises have to be made.

Fortunately for UNICEF, the Convention on the Rights of the Child offers a good basis for making difficult decisions or advising on the right choices. When in doubt about the best course of action, we should opt for what is in the best interest of children.

To determine the best interest of children maybe easier said than done, especially when it comes to the best interest of a single child versus children as a group. UNICEF should be mindful that public investment policies need to generally prioritize collective over individual interest. So there is no simple formula, or substitute for tough judgment calls, but “the best interest of children” does provide us with a very helpful moral compass to base our decisions and recommendations.

  1. Help Fulfill the Rights of All Children:

As a development agency, the major focus of UNICEF’s financial and material support must continue to be the most vulnerable children in the poorest countries of the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and the least developed countries.

But UNICEF would be performing well below its potential, and neglecting its mandate, if it did not use its considerable influence, convening power, and advocacy potential to help children everywhere, including in middle income countries, and judiciously even in the industrialized countries.

While the national average of basic services coverage in most of these countries may seem respectable, there often are significant pockets of poverty and disparities and dysfunctional systems of basic social services. And all countries can and need to do a better job in fully complying with the CRC by creating a more protective environment and improving the quality of services for children.

Very modest amounts of catalytic investment – often in policy advocacy, legislation, and experience exchange – facilitated by UNICEF in these countries can produce disproportionately beneficial impact for large numbers of children in need.

We must also remember that what happens in the rich, industrialized countries has a fairly direct demonstration effect in developing countries – for better or worse. So anything UNICEF can do to promote good child rearing and caring practices in the North, can eventually benefit children in the South.

I worry especially about children in rich countries – and children of the rich in poor countries – today who are growing up so mesmerized by the make-believe world of video games and gadgets that alienates them from the real world.

Young people’s ready access and immersion into the fantastic world of cyberspace and entertainment with special effects, makes it often difficult for them to distinguish between reality and virtual reality.

Paradoxically, the revolution in information and communication technology today can lead children to be more aloof and isolated rather than being engaged in human interaction and community spirit.

If these children of the rich and affluent, who are likely to be the rulers of the world of tomorrow, grow up in the cocoon of virtual reality, will they have empathy for the poor and the down-trodden? Will they understand how the other half of the poor world lives?

As the world’s premiere agency for children, UNICEF needs to be concerned about these profound issues. That is why I believe very strongly in UNICEF NatComs’ role in education for development and global solidarity.

Besides helping with basic services for children in the poorest countries, UNICEF has a major role globally in supporting programmes that inculcate in the younger generation respect for such values as universality of human rights, diversity, mutual understanding, peaceful resolution of conflicts and equitable human development.

When people hear me speak so nostalgically and passionately about UNICEF, some wonder if I am not overly chauvinistic about UNICEF. Do I only care about UNICEF and not about the larger United Nations?

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I believe in the United Nations even more strongly than in UNICEF. And here is why:

  1. We are the World, We are the United Nations:

While we are proud of UNICEF, we must not forget that we are part of the larger United Nations system. Children cannot survive, thrive and grow to their full human potential in a world where there is poverty, inequality, injustice, wars and conflicts, environmental degradation, and chronic violations of human rights.

We need the full force of the United Nations – with its political clout, diplomatic skills, technical expertise, normative mandate, and moral authority to help create a framework of world order in which organizations like UNICEF can play their vital role.

Detractors of the United Nations are quick to point out its many shortcomings, some of which we cannot deny or ignore. But in our imperfect world that is rapidly shrinking into a global village, there is no alternative to inter-dependence and solidarity.

As the current discussion on climate change is highlighting, rich and poor, North and South we will all sink or swim together.

Assuming we would rather swim rather than sink together, we need an organization like the United Nations to help establish some common rules of the game for managing global public goods and values.

As it has been said, if the United Nations did not exist, it surely would have to be created anew. Since it already exists, and has endured and overcome some of the toughest tests to its raison d’etre, let us make it an effective instrument for tackling those planetary problems that no nation, no matter how powerful, can hope to tackle alone.

The time will come one day when the well-being of children will be regarded as perhaps the most precious global public good, representing the most universally cherished human value.

A world espousing such values will need a functioning architecture of global governance in which the United Nations will provide the sturdy anchor for the essential work of organizations like UNICEF.

Dear friends, I apologize for being long-winded and abusing your time. I trust you will all appreciate that I do so because I love this organization, and want it to remain strong, vibrant and effective.

As I said at another farewell party on Wednesday, I will soon retire from UNICEF, but the ideals of the United Nations and the magic of UNICEF will never retire from my heart or mind – or soul.

And if we follow, the 10 recommendations I have just put forth before you, I know UNICEF will remain such a wonderful organization that when your turn comes to retire, you too will all feel the same way!

Thank you.