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An Engineer’s Perspective on the United Nations, Cathy An

10 Jun

Editor’s Note:  Cathy (Xin) An came to us this summer via Georgia Tech University in Atlanta.  She was the student of Dr. Robert Thomas, a very good friend of our program.   Like our other capable interns and fellows, Cathy learned the UN “ropes” quickly; but she also experienced a variety of complex issues that will impact her personal and professional future.  As she goes forth to start her career, her reflections on her experiences here are very much worth considering. 

Four years at an engineering institution had taught me to see things at face value, to think analytically, and to be painfully concise and straightforward. By the time I got out, my approach to life was almost scientific in the way I shunned abstract meanderings in favor of formulaic and logical rhetoric. My four weeks at the United Nations as an intern for Global Action to Prevent War (GAPW), a policy organization with a focus on anything relevant to peace and security inside the UN, proved challenging in that it forced me to view new and “foreign” topics with a different lens. In every meeting,  Bob Zuber, Director of GAPW, had to whisper in my ear to fill me in on who was who, who mistrusted who, who’s in charge of what, and the decades of history and back stories influencing every decision. Gone was the brevity preached by my professors, and in came scripted speeches with a 5-minute intro with mandatory thank-yous, mixed messages with hidden political agendas, and conversations that always led to tangents. Anything said concisely was seen as being “blunt,” and people used ornate language as a tool for skirmishing around the topic. Also, oddly enough, everyone around me always seemed to know exactly how the meeting was going to turn out before the meeting even began.

I was thrown into the deep end and submerged in conversations on topics that I had only previously heard brief mentions of. “Yeah the U.S. needs to do something about that ISIS” was oftentimes the level of depth in these conversations with my peers. Terrorism, Daesh, climate change, wildlife conservation, gender equality, violent extremism…in only four weeks I had attended meetings on these topics (and many more) in which policymakers from around the world would sit in a room for a few hours and discuss options for decisions to be made. I listened to Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, highlight her progress on cases involving international criminals in Libya and Darfur, and I was disturbed that I could only recognize one name from her list. I was shocked to see how desensitized people were to certain issues; at certain times it seemed like speakers competed with one another to have the most shocking or brutal testimonies in hopes of grabbing the fleeting attention of an audience that has been hammered for decades with variations on the same sad story.

Something surprising to me was how actively engaged the UN community was on twitter. Tweeting during UN meetings was excellent because it forced me to stay alert, and the 140 character limit helped me sift through paragraphs of filler words to find and present the main idea. I slowly improved my “filtering” skills, whether it be in finding a single relevant phrase stated by a verbose speaker, or in finding the important meetings in a list of meetings that all contained “buzz words” in its headers. Rather than be bombarded with information on issues that other people kept telling me were important, I slowly began to decipher for myself what were actually the priorities on the UN agenda.

What’s interesting is that I’ve always possessed this level of critical thinking, but its usage had been diminished by the time I arrived at the UN. Like many of my peers, I pushed the realm of international affairs off to a “foreign” space that I believed had little immediate consequence on my surroundings. In doing so, my knowledge of the world’s current events had already been predetermined and shaped by media bias; it wasn’t just the colored perspective of a journalist that helped influence my views, but also the media’s criteria by which some stories would be published over others. Furthermore, when you hear only fragments of news occurring in faraway countries, it’s hard to connect the dots and understand how they immediately pertain to you and your business. Indubitably, this lack of understanding is what fosters apathy among so many of today’s youth in relation to international and political affairs. We take what we hear at face value, and when we’re unfamiliar with a topic, the storyteller’s opinions become our own.

This mental separation between international affairs and “reality” is worrisome for businesses in the private sector. In an age of globalization, companies will need to see beyond their current scope and examine the potential implications and risks arising from their decisions and products. I’m positive that Twitter didn’t think ISIS would use twitter and other forms of social media to recruit thousands of youth to become Jihadi fighters; video game companies probably didn’t think that terrorist groups would use their products to simulate the fighting experience for future child soldiers; and those that disregard climate change definitely didn’t think that their actions would create environments conducive to violence in the Sahel region. Only a comprehensive awareness of the issues and concerns of the world will enable the private sector to do its part in being a key player in social enterprise. Fortunately, the United Nations and the private sector are beginning to recognize the benefits of partnership, as seen in many joint ventures including the STI Forum and the World Summit of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

If I could, I would encourage everyone to spend at least two weeks in the UN. Despite its flaws, the United Nations still stands as the pillar of human rights and development advocacy. It’s the world’s most complex institution, and two weeks in it will force anyone to expand their horizon of thinking across multiple sectors.