Recently, I got a pretty awesome offer.
I was asked about the prospect of leading UNDP in Egypt’s energy and environment team on new and innovative practices.
Four weeks later I was on the ground, first in Pristina then Podgorica, at offices teeming with energy – with colleagues empowered by their management to get out there and try something new.
I remember attending one meeting to discuss a project document on parliamentary development when, two hours in, one colleague remarked:
“I’ve always wanted to hold a round table discussion with youth in different municipalities to understand why they couldn’t care less about parliamentary issues. Understanding why they aren’t engaged can help in the design of several activities in this project.”
This project officer immediately agreed. Participatory activity design would surely maximize the impact of the project. The collaborative atmosphere allowed for new ideas to flow in freely.
This particular example also highlights a notion that is oftentimes overlooked: the people know what they need.
All they require is a forum in which they can speak their minds, and the resources with which to meet these needs. We have access to a pool of technical expertise, and we enjoy leverage in resource mobilization. But we have something that not all development agencies have: access.
By virtue of its neutrality, impartiality, and the relationship of trust it enjoys with the government, UNDP has the necessary clout to convene people from all over.
To put a UNDP twist on an Abraham Lincoln quote:
We should aim to design development of the people, by the people, for the people.
I learned a great deal and could probably fill ten blogs but I’d like to leave you with four thoughts that I took away from my friends in Kosovo and Montenegro:
1. Keeping momentum even in the face of disappointments and failures.
New ideas require adjustments and refining. You have probably read half a dozen articles on how failure, if properly absorbed, is just another stepping stone to success.
You have probably heard how Walt Disney, Sidney Poitier, Albert Einstein (the list goes on…) all failed miserably at the start of their careers, before going on to shine around the world.
Yet at the first sign of failure, most of us run (and possibly hide), and erase all tracks that had led us to our failure. Never be afraid to fail.
2. No innovating just for the sake of innovation.
There are private sector companies that are paid great sums to innovate. UNDP has an edge that these private sector companies don’t: We have access to a pool of technical expertise, an excellent relationship with the host government, and the ability to convene all stakeholders.
Innovation should serve to complement these edges.
3. To innovate is not to create a Facebook page. It’s not about just integrating new technology into our projects.
When you innovate, you do things differently: non-traditionally. When you innovate, dare to push the limits.
In a recent campaign for social inclusion in Montenegro , the Minister of Labor and Social Welfare and the head of the UN Country Team moved around a square in wheelchairs, to get a sense of how inaccessible the public sphere can be for people with disabilities.
The resulting impact of this campaign surpassed what any report or online platform alone could have done. It was a massive hit.
4. If you want to learn about a city and have the time, visit it!
Walk its streets, speak to its people, listen to its music and taste its cuisine. The experience will be richer and give you a far better sense of the context you’re working in than a Wikipedia page.
Most of all, get involved!
*Hereafter referred to in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999).