ESCAP’s first woman Executive Secretary takes a fresh look at the Commission

Published By iSeek Story, The United Nations

Date: 14 November 2007

Only six weeks after taking on her new position as Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), Ms. Noeleen Heyzer outlined for iSeek her vision for the regional commission that is home to “two thirds of humanity”.

ESCAP’s priorities

For the Executive Secretary, ESCAP’s first priority is to strengthen the Commission as the “regional hub for the Asia and Pacific region” for inclusive social and economic development. ESCAP should provide the “platform for discussion” putting urgent development issues on the political agenda and strengthening the leadership and perspectives of the region in global processes. It can harness the

partnerships and capacity for “a rich and meaningful dialogue” that engages all stakeholders in the region, including the private sector, civil society, and think tanks.

The Commission is not an operational agency: its role is to develop strategies and provide policy options for the region, which although it is an “economic power house” also houses the “largest numbers of the world’s poor.” To respond to growing inequalities, it will be essential to stress regional cooperation and develop true partnerships and knowledge sharing. ESCAP has a strong role to play to build regional consensus around its transnational agenda – which includes financing for development, trade and climate change It needs to leverage the strength of the region to assist countries that are struggling to develop. ESCAP needs to facilitate the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), follow the progress of the on-track and off-track countries and help “bring the off-track on track”. Asia Pacific can be the region to achieve all the MDGs by 2015.

The obstacles and challenges ahead While ESCAP has a competitive advantage as a powerful convener Ms. Heyzer is aware of the “stumbling blocks” and the need to be near the “nerve centres of the Governments’ agenda”. ESCAP has a “tremendous potential to help build the economic and social foundations for more inclusive and sustainable societies”, as the region’s sufficient resources, expertise and political will already exist.

The Executive Secretary has already read all the evaluation reports and met with every single manager, as well as junior staff. Through a web site, she has asked ESCAP staff to respond – anonymously if they preferred – to the following question: “How would you develop ESCAP to be your dream organization, the one you would be proud to work in?”

The responses helped identify four challenges that ESCAP will have to face:

  • It does too much, is involved in too many “little things”. The priority should be to “focus our energy even more” and have “more depth and less spread”.
  • It needs to track results, and move from being an activity-based organization to a results-based organization.
  • It needs to be relevant: ESCAP is dealing with a changing world. Partnerships and alliances need to be developed to reach out to sub-regional actors and “prioritize the Governments’ agenda” to build common prosperity and ensure human and ecological security.
  • It needs to be visible: because ESCAP does so much, the “gems” that Ms. Heyzer has found at ESCAP “are not seen”.

Ms. Heyzer sees a few essential areas of work for ESCAP:

  • Trade, finance and public-private partnerships for development.
  • Data and statistical work: ESCAP should bring all UN organizations together and help harmonize the regional data through a joint database.
  • Environmental security and disasters prevention.
  • Infrastructure development and ICT connectivity: more work has to be done to assist LDCs and small island states.
  • A strong integrated social and economic agenda focusing on social protection, equality and poverty reduction.

At the regional level, as chair of the UN-wide regional coordination mechanism, Ms. Heyzer hopes to focus the UN regional programmes “to deliver as one” to achieve common results: communications will play an essential role in explaining how each agency contributes in the areas of its comparative advantage.

Inter-regional cooperation is equally important, and Ms. Heyzer just attended a week-long meeting of the five Regional Commissions Executive Secretaries, during which the decision was made to adopt common agendas and positions. The Secretary-General and the Deputy Secretary-General are committed to strengthening the development pillar of the UN and would like the regional commissions to act as pillars for the regional level. If the five regional commissions work together, South-South cooperation will be strengthened; to that end Ms. Heyzer invited all Executive Secretaries to ESCAP in December which will provide the opportunity to further discuss the development agenda of the regional commissions and South-South exchange.

A woman leader

Currently Ms. Heyzer is the only woman to lead a regional commission, and she is the first woman Executive Secretary at ESCAP. Her strong development experience is seen as a real asset by Executive Secretary colleagues, which will help promote their common wish “to

strengthen the voice of the regional commissions”. To play her part in achieving this goal, Ms. Heyzer will take her usual fresh look at things, and try to find innovative solutions.

Prior to joining ESCAP, Ms. Heyzer was the Executive Director of the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM). By thinking out of the box, she was able to influence the Security Council and push for recognition of the gender perspective with the adoption of resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace and security, “the best-known Security Council resolution”.

Enabling ESCAP

The Executive Secretary is encouraged by the numerous visits she has already received from Ambassadors, and by the high expectations

that were expressed during the meetings, a good sign for the successful revitalization and repositioning of ESCAP.

Ms. Heyzer sees ESCAP currently as a compartmentalized organization that needs to focus on a “strong and coherent development agenda”. She wants to change this “internal culture of compartmentalization” and adopt a “more coherent method of working”, that will be cross-divisional and will create an “exciting environment”.

To achieve this, Ms. Heyzer will tap into her UNIFEM experience, where she had to face the same challenges in the beginning. The Executive Secretary is optimistic and sees “possibilities as much as… challenges”. She wants the Commission to adopt “different ways of working”, more linked to the substantive work of the Organization, and intends to use a sub-regional approach. She needs to introduce all of this “very quickly”.

It is essential to “bring back the values and principles of the Organization into ESCAP. We have to live the UN values, the values and principles the UN stands for.” The agenda of the UN – achieving “freedom from want and freedom from fear” – is very clear and it is “much larger than the MDGs”. The Executive Secretary sees the UN as a system, but not a monolithic one: rather it is similar to a football team that shares a common goal, but to which each member of the team brings different strengths. The team needs to work in synergy, as one. At ESCAP, this means common purpose, and for each Division to understand what the other Division is doing to achieve common results.

Ms. Heyzer has already organized a number of staff meetings to explain her vision. Her understanding of results-based management and knowledge of substantive issues allows her to make these meetings more meaningful as she is able to not only engage in substantive discussions with her senior staff but move them to be more results oriented.

She intends to hold everyone accountable, and wants to promote greater internal justice. A seamless flow of internal communication will be necessary to better explain this vision.

A senior staff retreat is scheduled to plan the programme structure. Ms. Heyzer wants the process to be inclusive and participatory and has already met the ESCAP Staff Council, as well as organized town hall meetings. Junior Professionals submitted a ten-page memo containing suggestions, which she called “a strong paper”.

The Executive Secretary will introduce a new culture at ESCAP, giving power to change agents. “Business as usual is no longer an option. People refusing to change cannot be holding back the future of the Commission.”

Ms. Heyzer describes herself as “a good listener and a tough manager”. Once directions have been set, she expects those directions to be followed and wants accountability. She will be ready to sanction or reward: she strongly believes in motivating staff and in giving public recognition.

Six weeks in the process, Ms. Heyzer is encouraged by the fact that “already people are doing their work differently”, but knows there is “a long way to go”: a challenge she is excited by, and sees as “difficult but not impossible”.