In This Series
Most of us are already familiar with the importance of the United Nations community and its efforts to strengthen peace, ensure the dignity of human life through the protection of human rights and economic and social development, and to ensure peace and security in an ever more complex world. The UN is an altruist’s dream and at times, their worst nightmare.
The UN grew out of some of the greatest aspirations of humanity at a time when the pain of war soaked the psyche and spirit of millions around the world. It is relevant to note that religion too arose from the profound awareness of the human desire for “more” and “better,” “higher,” “ennobled,” though it first took root in individuals then formed larger groups while the UN began with nations as the “individuals.”
The UN was uniquely shaped by political and thought leaders as WWII wound down. It was born of the aspiration to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and as the a mechanism that would help governments work together to accomplish this.
To this end, this global body was formed with 6 major organs that work through multiple mechanisms such as commissions, agencies, committees, formal and informal meetings, conferences, regular meetings, high-level and special meetings, and so on.
There are a variety of ways in which any one individual can make a difference, engage and contribute to this work. In fact there are so many ways we can contribute to the larger society, ways limited more by the scope of our creativity and capacity to create effective, functional entities than due to any limits placed on us by the existing UN system.
Perhaps we are constrained by which vehicle we have access to, but the unique route each person chooses to take to get from A to B is the creative work we do and that is empowered by the vehicle.
The UN is one of the (quite many) places with its unique mechanisms, where governments engage one another in support of the UN’s goals. And much like anything seen from afar, it seems quite static, but like everything, down to the smallest creature, it is constantly in motion. Changes are happening at every level, all the time, some large, some small, but change nevertheless.
So what does all this have to do with getting our voices heard? Like any group that forms, small or large, a language unique to that group forms around their activities. Around their interests. Every group has their group-speak and jargon, and the UN is no exception. And gaining familiarity with UNese is par for the course, and one of the only ways to engage in working relationships with other knowledgable NGOs, UN staffers and diplomats.
Getting past the acronyms just scratch the surface—ECOSOC, UNODC, SC, OCJ, UNESCO, CCW, UNEP, OHCHR, OHRLLS. Specific knowledge of the history of certain terms and phrases are often equally important in order to grasp the nature of the specific efforts afoot.
Added to the nuance of language that comes with the specialized use of terminology and meaning there is context. The context of time/timing and of particular political backdrops.
OK, so there is a lot to learn. But lucky for us all, the UN is also a place where there is a constant flow of newbies. Each person is new to the UN environment at one time or another. It may be because they were recently assigned their political post (i.e. they are not a career diplomats and may have been assigned time at the UN to get the feel for multi-lateral environments and negotiations and to get the lay of the global landscape by their governments) or this is the first career posting, a new hire in the UN Secretariat, an intern or new volunteer. Whatever the backstory, each person is faced with learning some of the same essentials, and many that are unique according to their particular mission.
In the end, there are common things to learn as well as the many unique specifics we need to become the expert in our field. And even years later, you will still be able to step into meeting rooms at the UN and feel like you are back at day one, because the area of concern is new to you!
Every step of the way, there will be whole blankets of virgin snow in front of you that quickly turn to NYC street slush as the masses surge forward. Both the beauty and the grime are with us and each has their place.
Like an old friend of mine from quite some years go used to say about life, “we’re just going to get things a little dirty when we use them.” In this case, Athelstan Spilhaus (an old friend of Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller and himself the barer of 13 Ph.D.’s) was speaking about life in general and nuclear waste and the oceans in particular. The point being simple: when we use things, we make things messy. And just as for the day-to-day things in life, like when we cook a meal, we then clean the kitchen after. The problem really only happens when we don’t clean up.
Even when we jump into our work at the UN for the first time, there will be those first few moments of chaos and confusion. I feels messy. We are definitely out of our comfort zone, yet gradually we make our way. We develop our own grasp of what we are dealing with and develop our own ways to handle things and soon we begin to see patterns and ways to move forward. Sometimes magnificently!
Finding mentors, colleagues and mentees help us triangulate our path forward and celebrate how far we have come.