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Unleash the idea that leadership is everywhere

In this interview, Ulrika Modéer from UNDP shares her views on the future of leadership in the United Nations.

Meet Ulrika Modéer, Assistant Secretary-General, Assistant Administrator and Director of the Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy (BERA) at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). She was interviewed by Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström and Johanna Mårtendal for the ‘The Art of Leadership’ blog series. Ulrika Modéer talks about the traits and practices of UN leadership and building teams during and after a pandemic.


Ulrika, you have worked with and for the United Nations. When you think about the concept of leadership in the UN, what comes to your mind, and do you think the UN’s leadership still matter today?

Many people, including myself, perceive the UN as a public institution that has quite a traditional, hierarchical view on leadership. Hierarchies sometimes can help to get big institutions, like the UN, organised. This is important in relation to the many partnerships the UN must maintain and build, but it can also be a hindrance, especially in terms of agility and creativity. In an environment like the UN, we need a combination of both: get organised and unleash leadership. And I speak quite a lot to my colleagues that I’m directly responsible for and to colleagues across the organisation about the need for a different perspective on leadership.

I talk about the need to really look for leadership across the organisation and break down the ‘traditional’ hierarchies. This is especially important for newly recruited staff, young staff and support staff working within administration who have roles that one would not consider to be a leadership position.

We need to unleash the idea that leadership is to be found everywhere. There is sometimes a kind of ‘wait and see attitude’ amongst staff. My message to them is simple: ‘Stop being afraid of taking initiatives. Don’t wait for your superior to give you an assignment or a go ahead!’.

With the world in turmoil, do you think people are still looking for leadership from the UN?

 In the world today, there are people out there pointing at the lack of leadership from the Security Council – which is to some extent paralyzed. But the UN is so much more than the Security Council. Take the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change for example. The UN convened a wide range of actors including the academia, private sector and civil society, to come together and form partnerships.

We have developed new ways of working, like the campaign we’ve done on fossil fuel subsidies (Don’t Choose Extinction) where we connect programme implementation with policy and advocacy. We increased awareness with regards to the possibility to actually use the fiscal space and decreased subsidies to invest in social protection, or any other area that will be good for the people and the planet. It’s so easy for us to mobilise partnerships and here are a lot of people out there who want to work with the UN and who really believe in the importance of the UN taking lead on global solutions to global challenges such as climate change.

 You have worn many hats in your career – from civil society to national government to international organisations. Looking back at your career, what have you learned from these different roles and how did those experiences shape you as the leader?

 I’ve spent many years in civil society. As a UN volunteer early on in my career, I was privileged to work with local communities. Having worked in different roles, different settings and in various junior to senior positions, I often ask myself: ‘How can I enable human rights defenders or local indigenous communities in the work I do?’  I was always driven and motivated by the idea of driving change, probably derived from the fact, that I’ve worked in different organisations where people had a similar motivation. Even now, I am spending a lot of time engaging with civil society. Given my background, people at times perceive me as a person who has a bit of an activist mind.

Having been part of the political landscape as well, I’m very aware of the importance of being held accountable, being in the public space. There was a time where I was holding civil society and international organisations accountable. I always remind myself: ‘How can I justify what I do in relation to the people that we are not only there to serve, but also to support to become change agents in their own local communities?’ Whether you’re a politician or whether you’re in a public institution, like the UN, you have to be ready to be accountable. It’s a good compass in a way.

As you just said, your career spans back to Swedish politics and civil society. Now you work with an international organisation. How did you perceive the transition to the international civil service, and did you struggle with some aspects of it?

 Most of my career has not been in party politics, so I didn’t find the transition too difficult. In fact, I found it very useful. As you know, decisions made in politics are not always based on facts. I learned this both in my civil society days and my days as a politician. As international civil servants, however, we need to always strive towards providing facts. We know that politicians sometimes fail to use the available facts to make informed decisions, but it is our responsibility to continue to work towards presenting and communicating the facts in a way that hopefully leads to more informed discussions and decisions.  It helps to have worked on both sides and understand the ‘political game’.

Let me add something more. International cooperation is one of the most important instruments for development finance flows to countries in need. Especially, now when we see less foreign direct investments and less remittances it is important to understand and work together with governments. Because at the end of the day, the UN together with governments, have a responsibility to work towards sustainable and inclusive change and go beyond ‘traditional development projects’.

 I also want to mention that personal values are really important parts of leadership in the world today. In the UN, as international civil servants, this includes the idea that we can come together in a shared set of values and norms of what peace and sustainable development mean.

We have had quite a few eventful years, the pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, shifts in terms of financing. What opportunities and challenges do you see for the UNDP in leading the development efforts in the next few years?

 From my perspective, the current Secretary-General makes the case for prevention very clear. Whether we speak about disaster risk reduction or prevention in relation to a world with an increasing number of protracted conflicts and crises, we know that it’s cost efficient to invest in prevention. And yet despite these messages on prevention, we see an increase in the number of humanitarian emergencies.

We need to start a dialogue about the prevention agenda with the humanitarian actors, in times where more financial flows need to be transformative and leveraged to achieve results. I therefore met with President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Mauer, and with Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Martin Griffiths to work on better cooperation between humanitarian and development actors. Our transitional engagement framework in Afghanistan, for example, is actually built on the nexus between the humanitarian and development actors. We have found a way to create a medium-term collaboration, in a country with a protracted crisis and no legitimate government in place.

We have to be more straightforward in how important these collaborations are. In today’s political environment short term solutions are more and more common. Different political parties and political powers fighting to stay in power and address their constituencies with a certain narrative.  In my perspective, they, to some extent underestimate their own constituencies understanding the importance to transition from humanitarian aid to development cooperation or for continued development cooperation to build resilient communities.

It’s the responsibility of politicians to balance what they think people may believe is right, with the courage to inform them of the different opportunities that are available to respond to a crisis.

 Over the past decade, expenditure on humanitarian activities has increased by 164 per cent, while spending on development activities has remained roughly the same. The recent government funding cuts to the UN have largely targeted development agencies, while humanitarian aid has remained stable. Generally, it has become more difficult for agencies with a development mandate. Is development hard to sell?

 I used to be a politician and I don’t agree with this narrative that long-term and sustainable development cooperation cannot be ‘sold’ to its constituencies. It is a mistake we repeat that has major consequences.

A couple of years back, the World Bank Group and the UN, led by UNDP, did a study called Pathways for Peace to understand the impact of investments into the prevention agenda. Perhaps an update to the study that showcase the value and the costs of these investments would be useful to address the ‘information gap’ on the real value of development aid. There is no doubt: the UN, the Secretary-General, UNDP and many actors argue for the benefits of a prevention agenda.

Politicians come and go. As development practitioners, we have to remind ourselves that we have to speak in a way that informs their discussions and decisions. Too often we meet in closed circles, and we speak amongst each other. We are our own echo chamber. We, the UN, have to be much better at communication and outreach and to engage with decision makers and their constituencies alike.

I do believe that politicians in donor countries underestimate the ability of the general public to actually understand the cost effectiveness of investments in long-term development. The line of reasoning and the results are there, it’s simply a matter of communication. There is a lot of work to make development more attractive.

Let’s talk about your office. The pandemic affected the traditional way of working. The world is shifting a bit towards, a ‘new normal’. What have you learned from this period and how do you motivate staff to come back and rebuild teams with the new working cultures that have emerged out of the pandemic?

 I have a global team in the Bureau on External Relations and Advocacy. If you ask colleagues, who were already connecting remotely to our staff meetings, they have probably felt that they have been more integrated into the teams during the pandemic. We have been able to benefit more from their engagement. Participation, to some extent, happened on equal terms during the pandemic. But we have also experienced, like any other workplace in the world, staff being very isolated.  Staff who may have had challenges at home because they had young kids with no access to day-care, but also staff who lived alone with few social interactions. We have seen both – the possibilities and challenges of remote work. And now, as we bring people back, like in any other workplace, especially the kind of organisation that we are, we would want to look for the sweet spot in all of this. How can we both maintain the digital platform that allows for people to connect to their colleagues across the world and ensure that we as UNDP have a true global presence? We are in the business of diplomacy. Meeting with people and getting ideas from people out there who are not colleagues, is vital.

Let’s talk about the engagement of young people, specifically, the involvement of young people within the UN system. In our recent contribution on this topic, we stated that the average age of staff in the UN is 46. We recognized that for Gen Z, it is really difficult to enter the UN, despite the fact that they bring a lot of value. So, I just wanted to hear a bit about what you think young people bring to the UN system and what do you think needs to change in order to give them more opportunities or access to make the UN bit more accessible for youth?

 I’m actually very proud of UNDP, and I am not saying that only because I work here. I think our focus across the organisation on youth has been very strong. Youth are an important asset to the SDGs and decision making. We, at the UNDP, have a strong focus on young people in our programs, not only in relation to decision making but also in governance, as in the example of Accelerator Labs integrating innovation and youth.

But equally, I’m quite surprised that our young staff are in fact not that young. To have an internship with us, you have to have a master’s degree. This fact surprised me when I entered the organisation. Nowadays, we have many young people with a strong education and numerous internships having difficulty to access the UN job market. At headquarters, we benefit a lot from the JPO [Junior Programme Officer] programs, UNVs, [UN Volunteers] and the fellowship program. When we speak about young people and representation, we really need look at the intergenerational leadership. I think the UN and UNDP have been quite good at this. But donor countries have to improve. For example, fund JPO programs with young people from the Global South to improve geographical representation.

In our new UNDP graduate program, we recruit young individuals from the Global South, especially first-generation graduates to get fresh perspectives. This is important as many young people from the south also come from international top notch Ivy League universities. When we look at diversity and recruitment of young people, we need to have an intersectional approach – taking into consideration socio-economic background, gender, and geography.

There is a lot of room for improvement within the system. Staff retention is one of them. A lot of young people want to work with us, but how do we keep young people motivated to stay? Whether they start as a UN volunteer, JPO, or in a fellowship programme, what happens if you fail to navigate through the hierarchies? And how can we ensure that young people feel empowered to unleash their creativity and leadership?

Here the organisation needs a cultural change, but also a bit of structural change. We’ve talked a lot about more agile ways of working. At UNDP we create agile teams that, for instance, provide the opportunity for more junior colleagues to also take charge and lead.

So, any advice you would give to young leaders?

Don’t wait for anyone to come forward with your ideas and always try to formulate those with a constructive solution. Did your idea get turned down? Try again and again. Be proactive. Don’t wait. But us, more senior leaders also have a role to play. We need to create a ‘speak-up’ culture that motivates people to come forward with their ideas.

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Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström By Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström

Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström is a Programme Manager at the Foundation, covering the financing, form and functions of the UN development system, and UN leadership. Previously, Veronika worked for several international foundations and projects including the Friedrich Ebert Foundation; the European Centre for Development Policy Management; the European Commission’s TradeCom Facility; and for PARTICIP, coordinating the European Commission’s Results Oriented Monitoring System for the Western Balkan region and the European Institute of Peace. She also conducts short-term assignments for the UN Secretariat, United Nations Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office and UNDP.

Johanna Mårtendal By Johanna Mårtendal

Johanna Mårtendal is a Programme Officer at the Foundation, working on projects relating to multilateralism, repositioning of the UN system and building and sustaining peace. Prior to joining the Foundation, she conducted research on issues of gender, war trauma, and inclusive peacebuilding at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University and supported public education and youth initiatives at the Singapore Committee for UN Women.

                                    Supported by Marijana Markotić.