As part of our “Americans in the UN” project to share the stories of Americans who work for the United Nations, we connected with the UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) Neal Walker, who serves as UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in Ukraine.
In his current role, Walker reports on human rights violations, leads humanitarian action, supports recovery efforts in war-torn government held areas of Eastern Ukraine, and supports reform and development.
Walker grew up in Green Hill, Rhode Island and earned a Bachelor’s degree in political science and a Master’s degree in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh.
Watch the full interview:
Below please find excerpts from the interview, which have been edited for context and clarity.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Neal Walker: There are two different parts. One is that we make an incredible difference in people’s lives. We have not only provided humanitarian assistance, but more importantly, we’ve returned people their lives afterward, in terms of their ability to get jobs and live a better life.
The second part that I really like is that it’s such an inspirational organization: mentoring young people, and supporting young people through the organization, and bringing them up. Twenty-eight years in the organization and supporting these people over so many years, it’s really incredible how many of them I’m still in touch with.
What is an example of how the UN has made a difference in someone’s life?
NW: Think about Guatemala in the early 1980s – there was a scorched-earth campaign, and, during that time, the military carried out a genocide against the indigenous populations. Probably between 300,000 and 500,000 indigenous people in a country of 10 million were killed. The United Nations in the early 2000s, when I was leading the United Nations Development Programme, had a project called exhumations.
We went to the towns where the massacres had occurred, and we found the mass graves and determined the cause of death. In the process of doing this, we did DNA surveys – Guatemalan forensic scientists led the way.
We were able to return the remains to people, and then we were able to initiate criminal proceedings on the basis of forensic evidence of wrongful death. The initiation of those programs – a decade later – led to the conviction of General Ríos Montt, who had led the work of this genocide, this scorched earth-campaign.
This is a piece of work that carries out literally over a decade, but it begins with righting an injustice and closing the books for families and people who have suffered through this genocide. It carries on through actual investigation, justice, hearings, trials, and convictions.
This is a powerful example in my mind of work that we have led in close collaboration with brave Guatemalans, many of whom faced death threats during the period of these investigations.
How did you first hear about the United Nations?
NW: After six years with the Organization of American States, I entered the United Nations Development Programme’s competitive Entry Management Program. And since then, I’ve worked in all five geographic regions of the world. In the past three missions, I’ve led the United Nations in conflict and crisis countries – Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh, and now Ukraine. And frankly speaking, it’s the last bastion of idealism in the world. You work for this organization and you have to have pride for what it stands for and what it can do for people.
What is your message to Americans about the importance of the UN?
NW: The United States invented the United Nations. They were the proud sponsor of the United Nations. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, at the time, it was considered almost a joke. It’s now international law, and we were able to track down a general and convict him for violations of human rights. It stands for what is America – it stands for accountable governance, it stands for peace, it stands for equality, for ending poverty, for human rights.
There’s no better statement of what America is about than the United Nations. And the difference is that when you go through the United Nations, you strengthen the buy-in of the world for what it is you’re trying to do. America alone can talk about these things, but then everybody is, “Well, it’s America, it’s different here.” In the United Nations, all Member States belong and subscribe to these fundamental principles; many governments don’t like it, but they’re in there.
So, for the United States, it’s a way of multiplying the force of what America stands for. And in terms of results, it’s great. And in terms of cost, even if the United States complains, the fact of the matter is we only pay a small portion of the budget. At the end of the day, America can achieve so much more working through the United Nations in a sustainable way, in a powerful way, than America can ever achieve by itself.