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NGO Activities

My Experiences at the United Nations

MET League of Colleges has provided a golden opportunity to its management students to be an integral part of the NGO Section at the United Nations' Headquarters in New York. I consider myself fortunate to be part of the contingent that served at the UN Economic & Social Council in the winter of 2004-05. It goes without saying that the enthusiasm among METizens for grabbing this break has gone up tremendously. It is proof enough from the number of applicants that soared beyond hundred last winter!

For the first time since the inception of the UN-ECOSOC project two years ago, the selection panel decided to make the process of choosing candidates more comprehensive and challenging. In addition to the regular interview sessions with the faculty of the school and the mentor at the UN, we had to undergo two additional rounds. One round involved essay submissions and the other was an interview with our Trustee.

It was Dassera when I got the news that I had been selected to be a part of the Winter Mission of the UN-ECOSOC. My joy knew no bounds! On what better day could I have been given such great news! From that time on until I left Mumbai on November 19, 2004, the four of us - Shweta, Purva, Bhavin and myself plunged into preparations for the trip ahead of us.

To add to our excitement, we had a generous de-brief from the pioneer group of students that had visited UN in the Summer of 2002 to set up what is now a familiar term among METizens- "The Paperless Committee" (a record management and an electronic meeting system for the Committee on NGOs). It dawned on us that the work we were chosen for was of a unique nature and that we were to be part of a forum of delegates from all over the globe!

The euphoria among the group was immense. It was as though New York was waiting with open arms for us to arrive. I touched down at John F. Kennedy airport after dusk and my first day in the USA was full of warmth that my hosts gave me in what would otherwise be called a cold, wintry night.

My first day at work was filled with social extravaganza and I must admit that I have never had the pleasure of meeting a bunch of people with such diverse origins! I was on cloud nine when I absorbed the fact that I was going to spend the next three months with such interesting people and not to mention, individuals of such high calibre! The NGO Section is one of the few departments in the Secretariat of the UN that has interns throughout the year!

Our friend, philosopher and guide Meena Sur has given us, what I can confidently call a treasure for life! A tough taskmaster and a highly energetic individual, Meena possesses the true qualities of a perfectionist and an ideal facilitator. As my memory races back to the first week that I spent in our cozy little "Paperless Committee" cabin, I recall the number of times I wrote and re-wrote memos of communication to various personnel while sipping my cup of 'freshly brewed medium roast' coffee (recommended as an adrenaline gusher by Meena). 'Nothing is good enough until you think it is perfect' is Meena's magic mantra. I cannot agree more.

As we delved into the daily routine of the department, we realised that the work done by NGOs is not only difficult And time consuming, but also involves a humungous amount of communication and follow-up. Unlike the general impression of a 'laid back attitude' that people have of NGOs and organisations dealing with NGOs, we discovered that besides being challenging, the work demanded tolerance for different cultures and the elderly (note that a significant number of people running NGOs are elderly). But we were not left alone to face this situation. Erdwine Antonio Marie was our messiah when it came to dealing with executives of NGOs. Erdwine assists Hanifa Mezoui (Chief of the NGO Section) in administrative tasks, but as a new comer to the department, many interns are convinced that she is the boss. A person with a heart of pure gold, Erdwine is straightforward and a very helpful soul. The day I bumped into her, I was intimidated by the way she asked me what I was doing there. I must confess that she is a bundle of joy and the life of the department because of the witty sense of humour that she has! (Peace! Erdwine, if you are reading this.

Among the several projects that I undertook, I would like to highlight particularly, the work that I did on the Report of the Secretary General's High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. In his address to the General Assembly in September 2003, Kofi Annan warned Member States that the United Nations had reached a fork in the road. It could rise to the challenge of meeting new threats or it could risk erosion in the face of mounting discord between States and unilateral action by them. He created the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change to generate new ideas about the kinds of policies and institutions required for the UN to be effective in the 21st century. In its report, the High Level Panel sets out a bold, new vision of collective security for the 21st century. We live in a world of new and evolving threats, threats that could not have been anticipated when the UN was founded in 1945 - threats like nuclear terrorism, and State collapse from the witch's brew of poverty, disease and civil war.

In today's world, a threat to one is a threat to all. Globalisation means that a major terrorist attack anywhere in the industrial world would have devastating consequences for the well being of millions in the developing world. And the erosion of State capacity anywhere in the world weakens the protection of every State against transnational threats such as terrorism and organised crime. Every State requires international cooperation to make it secure. The Panel has set out 101 recommendations for various bodies that make up the United Nations. Primarily it has advocated the setup of a Peace-Building Commission that will fill the crucial gap between regional organisations, international financial institutions and the UN by giving the necessary attention to countries emerging from conflict.

Hanifa Mezoui entrusted me with the job of preparing a presentation with the relevance of the report of the High Level Panel to the UN-ECOSOC and the NGO Section- a presentation that could be used by the NGO Section to address audiences with the road map of the reformed United Nations. To supplement my inputs to the presentation, Hanifa asked me to accompany her along with other interns to attend a debate on the report held at the Association of the Bar. I will always be grateful to her for having given me the exposure to witness the finest debate I have seen between stalwarts on the subject of globalisation and security.

We did have our share of socialising and retreat during thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. The group was elated when the Head of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA)- Sarbuland Khan acknowledged the contributions of MET and its students in an address during a private gathering on Christmas Eve. And if you thought that the UN employees were conservative and shy, you should have been a part of the party that went on that evening. There was wine, entrees and conversations galore!

The Regular Session of the Committee was fast approaching and in a span of just over five weeks we were geared up for a smooth show. Running errands from the NGO section office to the conference room in the main Secretariat building had become a frequent affair and enjoyable all the same as we would get to relish the sumptuous meals at the One-world Café- a melting pot of different cuisines from across the world. My vegetarian co-workers must agree that they never felt out of place as there was always something for them to eat (I was the only non-vegetarian in the group).

Daniel Perez is the technical wizard of the team at the NGO Section and he helped us set-up, maintain and trouble-shoot the IT infrastructure used to run the paperless committee during the session. The Committee commenced with full vigour. To our horror, the Paperless Committee became inaccessible in the afternoon after a smooth and error-free session in the morning. But we did not get disheartened. Part of the team got together to provide the delegates with paper backup while the rest of us channeled our efforts into getting the Paperless Committee up and running. After hours of trouble-shooting in the evening and elimination of causes, we narrowed down the cause of failure to a peculiar virus attack that choked the bandwidth of the network. It was not long before we administered thorough virus scans on the laptops used by the delegates. The network was up and running before the following afternoon. However, we had more work at hand as we had to run virus scans twice every day before the commencement of each session.

Note taking of the proceedings of the committee was a job that was handled by each intern by rotation. This task was one that required maximum concentration and a high level of alertness. Any point missed could lead to misinterpretation of an entire discussion among the delegates. The biggest advantage the note-takers had was that they learnt a great deal about the NGOs whose applications were being discussed or reviewed. And it was this involvement with the work of the NGOs that gave us a chance to interact with delegations from the member nations.

We had the honour of having lunch with the delegate representing India- Smt. Mukta Tomar who appreciated the work that the Indian team had put in during the Committee. This was when we realised that our contribution was special and MET had provided us a platform for making a difference at the global level!

I must acknowledge without being boastful that the team handled the overwhelming realm of tasks during the days of the Committee very well indeed! And the results showed up- the committee was able to complete all the work on the agenda two days before schedule! But that did not mean that we had more time to rest. As they say in the corporate world- "So much to be done, so little is done!"

We decided to spend the remaining days of our Winter Mission in concentrating on regular work of the NGO Section and learnt that the scope of work of this tiny group was very broad. In the following weeks we were fortunate to witness a movie screening on Dr. Kiran Bedi who was at the end of her tenure in the UN. The documentary on reform of the prisoners at Tihar jail through meditation- "You be the Sky" moved many a heart. I thank my stars that I was spectator to a fabulous speech by an assertive and charismatic orator like Dr. Kiran Bedi!

Talking about influential women, an NGO called "Woman on Top" sponsored a conference on Domestic Violence of which we did become a part. The team helped to manage logistics for the opening ceremony of the conference organised by the NGO Section.

Our last week was spent wrapping up the various projects that were ongoing like the Publication of the Millennium Development Goals where I had to hand-over the completed surveys of NGOs who sent in details of the work that they were doing in line with the eight goals set out by the United Nations.

If I were to sum up what I learnt from this Winter Mission, I could go on endlessly using all the buzzwords of management for all of them did unfold while we performed the wide range of tasks. Each one of us specialised in some areas while assisting others in their work. But what matters most to me is that we did make a difference, a difference that may have changed the life of someone, somewhere.

(Pawan was a part of the 2004 Winter batch of UN Interns)