Nikhil Seth has been UN Assistant Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research since 2015. The qualified lawyer who was born in India has a Masters degree in Economics (University of Delhi), and has served at various offices of the UN since 1993; These include Special Assistant and Chief of Office to the Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Chief of the Policy Coordination Branch in the Division for ECOSOC Support and Coordination, Secretary of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the Second Committee of the General Assembly, and Director of the DESA Office for ECOSOC Support and Coordination. In an exclusive interview with You & I, the global statesman reflects on the role of the UN in the new millennium, why sustainability is becoming an important component of UN’s strategic thinking, and the greener recovery from the pandemic.
Before you were appointed for the post of UN Assistant Secretary-General, Executive Director of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, you were the Director of the Division for Sustainable Development, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) at the United Nations Secretariat in New York. How has your journey been thus far?
My work in the UN in New York was in and around sustainable development. I had a ringside seat and was often in the drivers’ seat in many of the UN’s Conferences and Summits. My last significant assignment was in steering the Sustainable Development Goals and helping forge a consensus among so many players – government, business, civil society, and academia. Much of the New York work was in the world of words. Drafting reports, agreements, declarations which were inspirational, and which would help spur urgent action. It was exhilarating. My transition to UNITAR, which works in many countries to bring about attitudinal and behavioural change through learning, is converting the words into action. We help the poorest and most vulnerable, use technology and methodology for a better life for people and for a safer planet. It is not as easy as writing beautiful words. We humans are creatures of habit and find change difficult. I find this transition of my work fascinating and it has been a great journey.
As we know, your work spans a large area of research: from economics and social affairs to sustainable development. But what do you think is the common thread that ties all this together?
What is common in all our work, research or in developing and implementing training programs is the search for practical solutions to address human wants, aspirations, and fears. After all this is what the Sustainable Development Goals are all about. An integrated vision of the problems of our contemporary world which need joined up solutions bringing together, economic, social, environmental issues and our dream of a peaceful and just society.
The Oxford University Economic Recovery Project report suggests that a greener recovery from the pandemic will create more jobs, spur long-term growth, and save lives. How can education and training tackle the challenges?
Education and training especially in the context of an inclusive and green economy does two major things. First it helps change mindsets into alternate development paths and secondly it shows the practical applications for quality jobs, quality growth and better lives. We have thus the immediate benefits and the longer-term benefits of a more enlightened, aware and compassionate society.
Why is sustainability becoming an important component of your strategic thinking? Has COVID-19 hurt progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals?
COVID 19 has set back SDG achievement very significantly. It has pushed 150 million into abject poverty, increased chronic hunger, worsened violence against women and girls. More than the SDGs it has shown how divided we are, how little, sporadic, and inadequate is cooperation between nations, it has also revealed the impacts of inequality between and within countries. Sustainability as defined in the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda is the only way we can handle Peace, Prosperity and the well being of our fragile planet.
Taking Amartya Sen’s definition of ‘development as freedom’ (economic, social, and political), should we privilege some freedoms over others when thinking about developing countries’ development? Is economic growth a precondition for sustainable development or a result of it?
Over the last few decades, the debates around “growth”, “sustainable development” and the priorities for development in poorer countries has made pendulum swings. As a young diplomat I was on the side of the argument which said grow first and clean up later. Follow the path of the developed countries. But there are many fallacies in the argument. First growing dirty now actually puts the lives and health of current generations at great risk: more over the later clean up is just not possible (as we are seeing in Climate Change) or is prohibitively expensive. Growth is indispensable but it should be “quality growth” which is “inclusive and green”. Growth with greater inequality, or which is jobless, or which doesn’t take into account the gender dimension is not sustainable. We need to grow, but intelligently, keeping in mind the basic guidance from the SDGs which is grow but in ways that ends poverty, reduces inequality, and protects our planet.
Ambassador Indramani Pandey, at the 8th meeting of Friends of the UN Institute for Training and Research, said that it is committed to enhancing its bilateral cooperation with the institution. How do you work with governments at the international level?
We work with governments at two fundamental levels. There are governments which fund us, promote our work and which are part of our governance structure. There are others which seek our help in training diplomatic services, different line ministries, universities, municipalities, army brigades in peace keeping missions, police units and in various dimensions of SDG implementation. We build capacities in these countries. India has given us support and sought our support for training in NCDs (non communicable diseases). There are many ways we interact with governments.
The last two years were unusual. What have you learnt, and what would you do differently, given the benefit of hindsight in the context of leadership? And just to wrap up the conversation, are there any important bites of wisdom that you’d like to leave our emerging leaders with?
One of the major things we have learned is the greater applications of technology in training and learning. We can, cost effectively, reach many more learners. We can, with the help of social media and gamification, make learning fun. As we master the techniques, the methodology and technology for the new learning, we must also make efforts to share the good practices. Leaders must embrace science and technology. Technology can be our best friend if used and applied intelligently.
Tell us a bit about your family. How do you balance your family and work?
We have essentially become a global family with my children and grand children in our long-time home in New York. I am in Geneva with my wife in a city we enjoy greatly. It is a foil to New York and very age appropriate. It is a walking city, and you feel very close to nature. I grew up in the Himalayas. The mountains stir spirituality and awe. The Swiss Alps have the same effect.
What are your weekends like?
Weekends are time to walk, catch the latest from Hollywood (James Bond and Dune this weekend) or Bollywood. And there are friends and travel into the mountains. My only regret is that weekends pass too quickly.
Name one thing that you are not looking forward to?
My current worry is that the next Climate Change Conference COP 26 may not demonstrate the urgency with which we need to tackle Climate Change. But let’s see. - - as told to Anisha