I survived polio and overcame ‘deadwood of mediocrity’ label — Siddharth Chatterjee
Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Resident Coordinator and the UNDP Resident Representative to Kenya.
A prolific writer, Chatterjee is a regular contributor to Reuters and Huffington Post.
A Princeton University alumnus, Sid Chatterjee was decorated for gallantry by the President of India during his service in the Indian Special Forces where he rose to the rank of Major.
He is active on social media; his Twitter handle is @sidchat1
Wycliffe Muga: Everyone has a remarkable story from his youngest days. Something which happened that only now looking back do you realise how profoundly it influenced you for good or bad. Looking back, what would you say had a profound impact on you?
Siddharth Chatterjee: Without a doubt it was being laughed at by a teacher when, aged 14, I told him my ambition was to get into India’s prestigious National Defence Academy. He hooted with laughter and described me in words I have never forgotten: “You are the deadwood of mediocrity”. He, in fact, asked me to pursue a vocational skill and forget about advancing in academics as he did not see a future for me there.
I was hurt and furious, but I was not really surprised because, to be fair, it wasn’t completely unjustified. So comparing me to the deadwood of mediocrity, may actually have been a compliment, as mediocre is certainly better than plain bad (Sid laughs).
Getting into the National Defence Academy is incredibly competitive and I was failing to shine both academically and at sport, so my big ideas about being a Special Forces officer in the Indian military and learning to parachute and play polo and dive sounded pretty hollow to my teacher.
I suspect that statement of my teacher stuck to my psyche. While it sounded cruel and insensitive then, on reflection it might have woken me up. Rather like a jolt of electricity that shook me and spurred me on.
By way of background, my father came to India as a refugee from East Pakistan– now Bangladesh–when India was partitioned in 1947. My mother came from a very simple background. She came from a family of 9 siblings and her mother was married at 11 years of age. Even as a child I remember clearly noticing the massively different status in Indian society of the different genders. Gender differences in India are very pronounced. I saw deeply ingrained patriarchy, misogyny and gender inequalities within my family and the wider community. It was not easy for my mother and for countless women who were married young and had scarce opportunities to achieve their full human potential.
PHOTO CAPTION: Sid Chatterjee as a 6 year old with his parents Dilip Chatterjee and Gouri Chatterjee.
Ours was a simple household. My father’s family lost everything during the partition of India, which on all counts may have been one of the worst genocides in history. No side was innocent, except for the women and children caught up in the tragedy.
My paternal grandfather died and my grandmother fled East Pakistan with her two sons and a daughter. Life was hard for them, very hard. To be made indigent from a reasonably comfortable home and through no fault of their own left my father’s family deeply traumatised.
So when I see refugees anywhere in the world, I connect with them in many ways and feel deep empathy.
My father’s family basically restarted their lives from scratch. When I was born and growing up, there was no money to spare at home but, like most parents, my mother and father were very ambitious for me, and really struggled to ensure they did their very best for me. My father was the bread-winner and my mother stayed at home to raise my brother and me. They used their modest means to get me private tuition, but I was still failing. I changed schools often simply to avoid having to repeat the previous academic year.
I also contracted polio as a child, but was very lucky as it was detected early and corrected in time. Countless other children in India had to resign themselves to a life of handicap, pain and immobility. I was three years old, but my memory is still vivid with the painful rehabilitation process I had to go through at a military hospital.
My brother was born 10 years after me and in the meantime my experiences at school could at best be described as inconsequential. I tried my hand at boxing, but invariably I would be either knocked out in the first round, or even when I survived the first round, I never won any fight.
However, I think my childhood experiences on seeing how women were treated and my own tryst with polio, may have had something to do with my passion to fight gender inequality and my enthusiasm to advance universal health coverage. These are two issues I am deeply passionate about.
WM: Looking back, do you see why? Because it wasn’t that you didn’t have brains. What do you think was holding you back?
Sid: Frankly I found the education system tyrannical. Corporal punishments and bullying was common. The pressure was intense. I must admit I hated each day, I had to wake up and go to school.
I also think it was because the education system involved a lot of rote learning. It was all about how much you could memorise, and didn’t focus on problem-solving or creativity of any sort. This didn’t play to my strengths.
It was obvious I wasn’t heading for a good university, but with the help of a tutor I managed to pass the entrance exam for the National Defence Academy (NDA) on my second attempt. This was a huge success for me. Out of around 100,000 applicants only about 200 were selected following difficult exams and rigorous interviews. I was overjoyed.
The NDA is like the West Point of the United States of America. However it is a unique military training institution where the three arms of the armed forces train together, the Army, Air Force and the Navy, as officer cadets. We join as sixteen year olds after passing an entrance exam followed by a week of personality, psychological and medical examinations. The process is exacting, it is an intense period of studies and training. You are groomed to be an officer and a gentleman.
PHOTO CAPTION: Sid Chatterjee (left) with his colleagues at the Indian Military Academy at a polo match.
At the end of three years we receive a Bachelor’s degree and move to the specialised service academies, the Indian Military Academy, the Air Force academy and the Naval Academy, where we spend an additional year. It is like doing a graduate programme on steroids.
Something about being accepted changed me. Perhaps it was my “Forrest Gump” moment. On the first day at the Academy they cut your hair, put you in a uniform, and basically start to build you as a new person. I found this liberating. It was like a formal break away from the past where I hadn’t known any success and had no self-confidence. Suddenly the lights came on.
From a childhood of academic and sporting failure, in three years at the Academy I became a top boxer, show jumper and polo player. I also finished my Bachelor’s degree by 19 years of age, and set my sights on joining the Indian Special Forces.
Joining the Special Forces was a crowning moment of my life. You put on that maroon beret and that uniform and you are a part of an elite unit, quite a feat given my background. I started getting top grades in the commando course, the infantry course, and the junior leaders' course. Suddenly I was coming first in my unit in battle physical efficiency tests, and I became a parachutist, a combat underwater diver and skilled in unarmed combat.
In a sense, the military helped me find purpose in my life. I was decorated for gallantry by the President of India for my part in counterinsurgency operations.
But this intense exposure to combat unsettled me. I started to feel uneasy, a sort of “subconscious disquiet”. Something about this violence did not make sense at all.
WM: Let me hazard a guess here: Was it all the people being killed? Was there an incident which crystallised the doubts in your mind?
Many years ago, while out on patrol in a very hostile insurgency environment, a platoon of my Special Forces unit came under fire. Minutes later, an officer lay lifeless from gunshot wounds. I remember that day like it was yesterday.
Nothing can prepare a soldier for the death of a comrade – nor for delivering the news to his family. I remember the look of pain and agony on the faces of my fallen comrade’s wife and children, and that memory still breaks my heart.
Every time the media reports on military deaths, I think of the families of those soldiers and wonder if a little more regard for soldiers and their families would inspire us to seek non-violent resolutions to conflicts.
PHOTO CAPTION: Sid Chatterjee holds up a live and deadly Russel’s Viper, teaching his students survival and living off the land at the Commando School which trains young infantry officers in commando operations. Photo: Indian Army
I had misgivings about the whole principle of fighting an insurgency when alternate opportunities existed for advancing peace, dialogue and diplomacy. If I could turn back the clock and if I had any position of influence, I would have encouraged dialogue and reconciliation.
India has the largest number of war widows, currently estimated at 25,000, but very likely much more. I doubt there is another nation-state that has lost so many soldiers to fighting within its own borders.
WM: That is a large number of war widows. Surely the political leadership in India as well as the population of India must be sitting up and taking note of this?
I wish that was the case. Frankly I am not sure.
In banal, patriotic statements, we declare these fallen soldiers martyrs and war heroes, while ignoring the shattered dreams of the spouses and children left behind. Clearly, we must find alternatives to sending young men and women to war. The cost is not only in lives lost and families shattered, but also in long-term damage to the mental health of military veterans. Many struggle to adjust to life after very traumatic and disturbing experiences in war, and some even take their own lives.
When I went into a counterinsurgency operation in the North East of India, I realised we were fighting in an insurgency with no real prospect of success. I had read this very interesting book by American author Barbara Tuchman called "The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam". The book is compelling and brilliant and draws on a range of examples, from Montezuma’s absurd surrender of his empire in 1520 AD to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour- she defines folly as the pursuit by government of policies contrary to their own interests, despite the availability of feasible alternatives. She enlightens the reader with four decisive turning points in history that illustrate the heights of folly: the Trojan War, the breakup of the Holy See provoked by the Renaissance popes, the loss of the American colonies by Britain’s George III, and the United States’ own persistent mistakes in Vietnam.
Something started to stir in my mind when I went into this particular counter insurgency operation.
There was no endgame in sight, for that matter anywhere in the world in this sort of environment. That was when it became clear to me that something needed to change.
WM: You are saying then that military victory – or what is generally assumed to be victory – is really little more than an illusion. But many leaders who have taken their militaries into war have argued that there was no other choice. So what do you think should have been done?
History is replete with examples that military might alone cannot end such insurgencies or what is called low intensity conflicts.
From my own experience in India’s military, which included many years of active service in counterinsurgency operations, it is clear that unbridled violence invariably back-fires, as it tends to add fuel and sustain the insurgency, just as it has in other parts of India and the world.
In many parts of the world governments continue to combat insurgencies over decades. In most cases such conflicts are unwinnable, each side inflicting increasing levels of violence, creating a vitiated environment of hate and a vicious cycle of vendetta and revenge, with civilians bearing the brunt.
Insurgencies thrive in the parts of India have seen protracted socio-economic deprivation, intergenerational poverty, poor governance and a deep sense of injustice. For example this is particularly true given the fact that the problem of left-wing extremism and the question of social justice are essentially entwined in India. In 2009, former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared, “Left-wing extremism poses the gravest internal security threat to India.” He was right. India’s long-running Maoist insurgency has developed into one of the country’s most serious security challenge of the past 50 years.
Unfortunately, this form of militancy has all along been sustained by India’s wide and deep-rooted inequality with conflict over land ownership, struggles for the rights over mineral and forest wealth, poverty, and denial of justice and human dignity, which plays a pivotal role in alienating a large segment of the working class poor. It often reflects the harsh reality of the wider local region, which is typically affected by either exploitation of the peasantry, struggles over mineral wealth, or denial of rights over forest-land to the local tribal population.
WM: Not that I think your message would have any real chance of reaching him, but if you had an opportunity to convey a short message to India’s Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi, what would you say to him?
Ending conflicts through dialogue and diplomacy is a daunting undertaking. However, history shows that peaceful negotiation can resolve even the most obdurate conflicts. For instance, we can learn from the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the long-running Irish conflict or the recently-concluded peace agreement in Colombia. It needs perseverance, stamina and an abundance of optimism.
The road to peace in Ireland was characterized by violence, setbacks and numerous false starts, but the negotiating parties realised that military strength alone would not guarantee peace.
India’s Prime Minister, Honourable Mr. Narendra Modi, can change this. He is an exceptional leader much admired throughout the country, leading the world’s largest democracy. Peace with India’s neighbours and peace within, would unleash the country’s’ true economic and social potential, lift people out of poverty, make India a beacon of hope, prosperity and social cohesion.
WM: I understand the Indian Army enjoys great prestige in Indian society and is considered a good career option. So what prompted you to leave the Army?
As Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
I still remember that day when it was announced in the newspaper that I had been awarded a decoration for gallantry for my role in counterinsurgency operations. Suddenly the events that led to my being decorated for bravery played out like a kaleidoscope.
I, didn't feel the euphoria that usually accompanies this kind of recognition. That was the moment I knew that my time to move on from the military had come.
PHOTO CAPTION: Sid Chatterjee is decorated for gallantry. Photo: Indian Army
My award for gallantry in combat made me feel I was being recognised for something that was not going to bring the conflict to an end. I wished that soldiers could be rewarded for efforts to ensure peace and reconciliation, not for the number of people they had killed. I wished my own award recognised my achievements in negotiating with village elders and with belligerent groups towards resolving the conflict.
The primacy of politics and dialogue had failed and this was being replaced by belligerence and hate.
Obtaining early release from the Special Forces was not straightforward, and it took nearly 12 months of negotiation to secure my return to civilian life. I became a civilian on the 1st of January 1997 and set off for my first civilian job as a security officer in the UN mission in Sarajevo, on the 15th of January. That is where I started my career in the United Nations, from pretty much the bottom of the rung, and I am glad I did as it laid the foundations of my new work environment, which was very different from the army.
WM: Well, that was a long time ago. By now you have had two decades in the UN. What are some of the highlights of your UN career?
After a short stint as a security officer in Sarajevo, I went to Iraq, where I got a break from security to work as a UN Coordinator in Iraqi Kurdistan in a place called Suleimaniyah. I spent more than two years with the Kurds in northern Iraq and saw first-hand the impact that the UN can make in terms of improving access to basic services like education, health, clean water and sanitation, and nutrition. This in turn had a huge impact on the Kurds’ ability to find solutions to their own developmental needs and the foundations of democracy were laid. They are a group of people that have seen so much of pain and deprivation, yet they continued with stoic determination. I have tremendous respect for them.
From Iraq I went to South Sudan, which was fighting with the North but where there was also an internal war between the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudan People's Democratic Front. I set up an office in Rumbek South Sudan for UNICEF in 2000 and my boss, a highly dynamic leader called Dr Sharad Sapra, asked me, “Sid, “Why don't we get the children out of the military?.”
PHOTO CAPTION: Child soldiers in Rumbek, South Sudan. Photo: UNICEF/OLS Mann
We began dialogue with Commander Salva Kiir, who was then chief of the SPLA, and with John Garang, the Chairman of the SPLM. In October 2000 we got a written agreement from (now President) Salva Kiir to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) chief Carol Bellamy, agreeing to demobilize 3,500 child soldiers from the frontlines of the conflict. This followed months of discussions, during which we never threw the book at them on the Convention to the Rights of the Child, but instead persuaded them that their political capital would go up exponentially if they became the first rebel army to remove children from their ranks.
To see those children in South Sudan return to a normal childhood and to give them access to education, food, immunization, clean water and sanitation was immensely fulfilling for me. It remains one of my proudest achievements to this day. In many ways this particular event was transformational for me personally. It also filled a spiritual vacuum in my life. Here is a TEDx talk I did on it. (Video)
PHOTO CAPTION: Sid Chatterjee with Commander Salva Kiir, Chief of the SPLA, meet Ms Carol Bellamy, then UNICEF Executive Director, in Rumbek, South Sudan, Oct 21, 2000. Photo: UNICEF
I was then appointed chief of the emergency section in Indonesia, working with more than a million internally displaced people due to the conflict in Aceh and the Malukus. We were at the front lines of providing assistance to displaced communities, negotiating days of peace and tranquillity to access children in order to immunize them. We established an Indonesian version of a ‘school in a box’ programme that enabled us to set up and equip a makeshift tented school whenever belligerent groups burned down school buildings.
Unicef’s then Executive Director Carol Bellamy asked me to lead UNICEF’s response to the emergency in Darfur in 2004. I helped scale up UNICEF’s response to the emergency and led a wide-ranging immunization campaign throughout Darfur. Ensuring we could access every child no matter where they were, which involved negotiating access with the rebel leaders who controlled wide swathes of territory in order to access these children with health, education, clean water and protection.
My work in Darfur was recognised by UNICEF’s senior leadership, and in November 2004 I was promoted and appointed UNICEF’s deputy representative in Somalia. This was a remarkable experience at a very challenging time for the country. I led UNICEF’s humanitarian response efforts spanning the tsunami in 2004 to immunizing children in conflict-affected parts of Southern Somalia to ensuring a back-to-school programme for children in North-eastern Somalia. My office was seen as a pivotal humanitarian and development organization and we developed good relationships with other organisations operating in the country, and with local governments.
WM: Now let us move to some of the more controversial stuff: I understand that you rose from a very junior IFLD 4 position in Sarajevo, in 1997 to a professional level P-5 in Somalia in 2004. That is like seven years and I am told this rarely happens in the UN. There has been some controversy that has followed you around because you are the son-in-law of Mr Ban Ki-moon, the immediate former Secretary-General of the UN. There are those who suspect that maybe this was the reason behind your meteoric rise.
Mr. Ban Ki-moon joined the UN as Secretary General in 2007, after a long and distinguished career as a diplomat. I joined the UN in 1997, a full 10 years before Mr. Ban.
I met my wife Ban Hyun Hee in Darfur in July 2004 and we got married soon afterwards. By then I had already been appointed to P5 level (a senior level of UN management) after seven years of service in some of the world’s most difficult and dangerous places, and a full three years before Mr. Ban’s election as the UN Secretary General.
PHOTO CAPTION: Sid Chatterjee with his in-laws, Ban Ki-moon and Yoo Soon-taek in Seoul.
Yes, I progressed quickly in my career. That was because I was privileged to serve with phenomenal leaders like Ms. Carol Bellamy, Dr. Sharad Sapra and Mr. Rolf Carrier (who was UNICEF’s Representative in Indonesia), who recognized and rewarded results. I am deeply grateful to them.
In 2007, I turned down an offer from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to head up their Nepal office and instead accepted an invitation from the UN’s special representative in Iraq to work with him. Ironically, it was at that point that the gossip about nepotism started, though it is hard to imagine that going to serve in Iraq at one of the most dangerous periods in its history could be viewed as a soft option for a family member!
But soon after my father-in-law’s appointment my wife and I became a target of vicious and malicious media attacks. The period between 2007 and 2016 was difficult for both of us, because, suddenly, our private lives were thrown into the public domain. In those circumstances, it becomes not just about your family honour but protecting the name of the institution too. There was nobody who would speak out to defend you, the UN could not, so it was a complicated situation.
I soon realised that we were left to our own devices to protect our name and honour. The situation got so bad that our prospects for employment in the UN system were in jeopardy, because institutions were wary of bringing media attention on themselves.
It was a tough situation.
Everything that happened from January 2007 was viewed through the distorted lens of nepotism, with no regard for my 10-year career at the UN prior to that. Suddenly, it was all about being the SG’s son-in-law. It was relentless and distressing.
One of the few media houses that presented the story in a fair and just and truthful way was Forbes, which in 2013 published a piece titled, “Misread Nepotism At The U.N.: Why Siddharth Chatterjee's Well-Earned Appointment Requires Explanation”.
I am deeply grateful to Ms. Carol Bellamy, Dr Sharad Sapra, Mr. Rolf Carrier, Ambassador Frank Wisner( former US Ambassador to India) and my former boss at the Red Cross, Ms Goli Ameri. Not only are they great leaders, they also had the courage to speak out publicly in my defence.
WM: I recently saw an interview you did which was published in WION News India, where you were asked about the UN Deputy Secretary General, Amina Mohammed, and her role in the “rosewood scandal” when she was Minister of Environment in Nigeria. You defended her. How come? And for those who may not know what this scandal was, maybe you could explain a little of the details.
Well, the question was sprung at me by WION news, and I could have easily ducked it, but decided not to.
The Nigerian government emphatically rejected allegations of rosewood export racketeering to China levelled against UN Deputy Secretary-General Ms Amina Mohammed, when she was the Minster of Environment. The ministry stated that all the CITES permits signed by the ex-minister were done in line with stringent guidance and procedures.
Having been a target of malicious and fake news myself for close to 10 years, I could empathise with her. I felt it was most unfair to target Ms. Amina Mohammed, whose professional, ethical and integrity standards are excellent and beyond reproach. I have no regret speaking up for her. In my view that was the right thing to do.
Wycliffe, as the famous 1855 saying by Rev Charles Haddon Spurgeon goes, “If you want truth to go around the world you must hire an express train to pull it; but if you want a lie to go around the world, it will fly; it is light as a feather and a breath will carry it.”
WM: By now you must be acquainted with the sad reality of just how polarising Kenyan elections are. International civil servants like yourself, can suddenly find that either they or their staff are viciously attacked because something they said or did – really quite innocently – has upset one side of the political divide or the other. I noted during the elections in Kenya in 2017, one of your staff and also you personally were attacked by some bloggers. I took note that you came out strongly in your colleague’s defence. Are you saying people within the system should speak out in defence of their staff?
Absolutely. I firmly believe that we all have a moral responsibility regardless of our rank, paygrade or station in life, to stand up for the truth without fear or favour.
I am the face of UNDP so it is easy to attack me. A lot of fake news got propagated after the elections. I can take the attacks but will stand in between when it comes to my staff. The safety, security and reputation of my staff is paramount. I will go to the end of the earth to defend them.
WM: Let’s go back a bit. You were offered the position of UN Resident Coordinator in Namibia in 2009, how did that come about and why did you not take up that position?
Every Resident Coordinator has to pass a UN Resident Coordinator Assessment. Failure rates are quite high. An independent human resources company from Canada carried out my assessment, which I passed in 2008 and was proposed by UNICEF (the agency I served with) to become the UN Resident Coordinator in Namibia in 2009. A post of that seniority and responsibility has to be signed off by the UN Secretary General, and so I made the difficult decision to decline that job offer because of my personal situation. I did not want to expose myself, my wife, my father-in-law or the UN itself to any suggestions of perceived impropriety. Perceptions matter and that is what I have had to deal with since 2007.
Instead I made a life-changing decision, perhaps my best decision. I decided to go back to school and spent a year studying for a Master’s in Public Policy at Princeton University. It was again a leap of faith, I took a year’s leave without pay and there was no right of return to my previous job or to any position for that matter. I would have to compete for any position. It was a big risk and I knew because of my special situation organizations in the UN were reluctant to hire me.
My year of study and reflection at Princeton was without doubt one of the best experiences of my life. I developed intellectually through engagement with teachers and with a fascinating mix of fellow students from all parts of the world and from all walks of life. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity I had at Princeton.
As Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
I would encourage everyone to take a year out of their careers to pause and go back to school. It gives you the freedom to pursue your intellectual interests, develop new capabilities, expose yourself to new approaches and methods and advance your career.
WM: There is one place where you have worked, which was neither the UN nor the Indian Army. I note that you went to work for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. You had a fancy title of Chief Diplomat. How did that come about?
While I was at Princeton, an executive search firm contacted me to check if I would be interested in this position at the Red Cross. I said yes without hesitation and went through a rigorous selection process. I had my final interview in Geneva led by the hiring manager, an absolutely spectacular leader called Ms Goli Ameri, who used to be a former Assistant Secretary of State during President Bush’s administration. She was the Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Diplomacy and Strategic partnerships.
The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is the world's largest humanitarian network. The Movement is neutral and impartial, and provides protection and assistance to people affected by disasters and conflicts. The Movement is made up of nearly 100 million members, volunteers and supporters in 190 National Societies
The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, was led by a humanitarian hero and a champion for the most vulnerable, Mr. Bekele Geleta. It was a privilege to serve with both of them as well as develop a new network of friends and colleagues. The national societies of the Red Cross Red Crescent movement are perhaps the only organization that are primed to go the last mile and can be relied on to deliver humanitarian assistance where no one else can go. These are true volunteers who epitomize the spirit of service, humanity, compassion and trust. It was an honor to be part of this great organization for nearly three years.
The United Nations family in Kenya is very lucky to have a partner like the Kenyan Red Cross, to respond to Kenya’s humanitarian needs. They are a versatile and highly respected organization globally.
WM: So can you then trace for me the path by which you moved from the IFRC to your appointment as the UN Resident Coordinator in Kenya?
I first came to Kenya in 2014 as the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative to Kenya.
In 2016, I was invited by the UNDP to apply for this role and I am deeply grateful to Ms. Helen Clark, the former UNDP Administrator, for giving me the opportunity to apply and compete. I am also grateful to my predecessor Ms. Nardos Bekele-Thomas who encouraged me to take on this position.
PHOTO CAPTION: Sid Chatterjee presents his credentials to CS Foreign Affairs Ambassador Amina Mohamed on taking over as the UN Resident Coordinator in Kenya.
As I was working with UNFPA they first had to approve my applying for the role, which they did. I applied for the UN Resident Coordinator (RC) role in Kenya in 2016. Again, I went through a selection process called the Inter-Agency Appointments Panel and was shortlisted. Regardless of the decision being taken, the final decision rests with the Government of the country where an RC is being proposed to.
I was honoured and deeply humbled by the support and confidence of the Government of Kenya to be the UN’s Resident Coordinator in Kenya.
WM: One more hypothetical: Let's imagine you were given an opportunity to speak to a group of highly influential political leaders at the UN, what would you say to them?
In his New Year’s message on Sunday 31 December 2017, UN Secretary General Mr. Antonio Guterres issued “a red alert for our world.” He called for unity and has said that, “We can settle conflicts, overcome hatred and defend shared values. But we can only do that together."
I would remind these political leaders of the words of the very controversial William Tecumseh Sherman, a Union General during the U.S. Civil War, who once said, “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”
The damage of war goes far beyond what we once believed; society has now reached an understanding about the kind of moral, communal and psychological toll war can have on the soldiers, their families, community and even country.
Perhaps the question we need to ask is if there is a need to bolster our quest for non-violence as a means to resolve disputes and differences.
However, today we have terms like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), chronic depression, cognitive impairment and traumatic brain injury to help explain the symptoms suffered by active and returning soldiers.
Apart from PTSD, combatants also suffer from issues such as mood disorders, depression, anxiety, night terrors, and may be at increased risk for substance abuse, and be more likely to commit violent offences in civilian life.
For example, suicide-related deaths in the U.S. military surged to a record 349 in 2012 — more than the 295 Americans who died fighting in Afghanistan in 2012. Statistics show that there is one suicide death every 18 hours.
When we see terrifying images from across the world of professional soldiers from developed or developing countries carrying out some of the most egregious violations of human rights, we have to pause for a moment to think of the triggers that cause such reactions. Far away from families and friends, the pressure of combat brings the worst out in many. I have seen this first hand. It unleashes a savage, despite great educational, emotional, and spiritual enlightenment.
And I suppose societies too need to hold up a mirror to themselves. After all these soldiers do not come from Mars. They come from the very communities where they are raised, educated, groomed and nurtured.
The toll that war takes on a soldier is clear, but what sort of toll does it take on a community?
These problems don’t just affect the returning soldiers’ parents, wives, children, siblings, friends and neighbours. What are the social consequences of millions of psychologically scarred soldiers returning to communities all over the world feeling hopeless and angry?
And then there is the massive financial cost. A 2013 Harvard study notes that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could end up costing the U.S. between 4 and 6 trillion dollars, including the medical care of veterans, leading to an enormous negative impact on the global economy.
No doubt wars and conflicts are hell — but for reasons far beyond what we traditionally thought. Conflict not only tears apart the people that partake in it, emotionally as well as physically, but also their families, communities, societies and even their countries. It is extremely expensive, not only in money, but also in human capital and lost potential. These costs are simply too great to bear.
My key message to them would be that, if the world cannot find a way out of war, then we may well be defeated as a civilisation.
So I would implore them to get behind the UN Secretary General’s call for peace and prevention of conflicts.
WM: And in your view, what is the UN leadership doing about it?
Today, over 65 million people are displaced or have become refugees, the largest displacement of humanity since the second world-war, due to conflicts, natural disasters or sheer poverty.
There are many thorny issues facing the world, and the UN Secretary General Mr Antonio Guterres and his Deputy Ms Amina Mohamed have called on the United Nations staff and member states of the UN to stand up and unite to tackle the challenges of extreme violence, large movement of refugees, underdevelopment and poverty, and civil strife.
They are together driving some of the boldest reforms of the UN system at the country level, which is where the UN makes a real difference. They are leading efforts to ensure that the UN is more effective, efficient, coherent, coordinated and a better performing United Nations country presence with a strengthened role of the UN Resident Coordinator and a common management, programming and monitoring framework.
They must get the support of the member states of the UN as well as the UN system as a whole. All the UN funds, programmes and agencies need to get behind the SG on this.
WM: No doubt you have had many opportunities to address young university students. Looking back on your own journey, and at how you reached where you are now, what would you tell such a group now, by way of offering them encouragement and urging them to have great aspirations?
I would say drive, determination, perseverance and belief. A belief that you can do it. Everyone needs a little bit of luck in addition to their personal drive and willingness to take risks. In my case, there were plenty of times when I had to take that leap of faith, not knowing how I would land.
Self-confidence, regardless of how much people doubt your ability, is crucial. That is what kept me going, because all the odds were stacked against me and there were many points when I could have failed.
You get attacked for your successes and your failures, and, as you rise, there are inevitably people that will be jealous and many who will dislike you. I always keep the wise words of Winston Churchill in mind, “You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
So having a thick skin is crucial, find strength in adversity and never giving up.
WM: What would you say to any of them who might then ask you what you now believe – after all these experiences – to be the key to your style of leadership?
I owe my foundations in leadership to the National Defence Academy in India and my unit, the 10th Special Forces battalion where I served. These are two institutions that were central to my all around development, my ability to withstand stress and adapt to rapidly changing situations. Above all it imbibed a sense of loyalty, courage and a “never give up attitude”. You learn about the true meaning of Espirit de corps, the sense of camaraderie, how to earn the respect of those you command and how to reward that respect by returning it. You are set some of the most difficult physical, mental and emotional tests and many strong people can’t cope. It's not your physical stamina that sustains you over three days in the desert on a navigation exercise with very little food and water, it's your willpower.
The culture is, a leader leads from the front and knowing the right balance when to lead from behind.
Courage and integrity are crucial, whatever the situation. Stand up and stand by your staff, be loyal to them.
My principle is that when something goes wrong, I will take the hit for it and will stand by my staff. When things go well and we are successful, I will ensure the credit is passed on to individuals and the team.
To me real leaders are visionary in their aspirations but practical and flexible in their approach, ambitious for their staff and the organization, while being demanding, they must be sensitive and compassionate towards their teams. And when a leader is having a bad day, try not to show it.
I have always requested a 360-degree performance review. Getting honest and reliable feedback is necessary to test one's own perceptions, recognize previously unseen strengths, and become aware of blind spots in one's self-perceptions.
WM: I saw your article in Forbes where you threw out a challenge to President Obama and President Putin on the matter of the war in Syria. I think the title was Obama And Putin Must Stop The Appalling Slaughter Of Syria's Children. What prompted that?
Sid: I wrote that piece in 2013 following heartbreaking research from the Oxford Research Group report, ‘Stolen Futures – the Hidden Toll of Child Casualties in Syria”. It was damning in that it shows that children were specifically and deliberately targeted. 11,420 children were killed in Syria between March 2011 and August 2013. Among them, 389 were killed by snipers, 764 executed, and 100 tortured. It highlighted the depravity on all sides of Syria’s war.
Nelson Mandela once said, "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children."
Perhaps there's something else that needs to happen in terms of the way we see ourselves as a species and the collective nature of humanity. How can we prevent conflict, resolve it when it happens, and protect the most vulnerable from its impact?
Children continue to suffer in war, as horrifying images from gas attacks in Syria show, and President Donald Trump correctly called an “affront to humanity.”
The United Nations Secretary General, Mr. Antonio Guterres, has described Syria as one of the worst conflicts of our time. But every day millions of children around the world are caught up in crises and disasters, many of man’s own making.
Consider this. In 2016 alone, one billion children around the world experienced physical, sexual or psychological violence. Globally, one in four children suffer physical abuse, one in five girls are sexually abused at least once in their lifetime, and more than 240 million children live in countries affected by conflict.
A growing number of boys and girls, some as young as eight years, are being abducted and sent to the frontlines as child soldiers, or fall prey to sexual violence in times of war. These experiences sear their psyches with macabre memories and condemn them to a terrifying and hopeless future.
On the issue of children, values must be the guiding principle, not Realpolitik. As President John F. Kennedy once said, “Children are the world's most valuable resource and its best hope for the future”. That future should not be jeopardised.
Frankly, it is difficult to find another species that treats its offspring with such cruelty.
WM: You came to Kenya in April 2014 as the head of UNFPA and now you have been the United Nations Resident Coordinator since 2016. In all this you have carved out for yourself a reputation as one man who is very passionate about women’s rights. Tell us about both your roles in this and what you may have achieved?
As mentioned, my firm belief in fighting gender inequality started as a young boy.
However, one particular incident remains etched in my memory to date. While serving in the army as a young officer, I was horrified to find out that a soldier from my unit had raped a young girl. I remember the sheer fear and trauma that girl went through, and the helplessness of her family.
It was a life changing moment for me. While the punishment that followed was swift and uncompromising, it was at that moment that I swore to fight all forms of misogyny, discrimination and violence.
So when I came to Kenya, it was as if the unseen hand of destiny brought me here. At UNFPA I had the opportunity to deal with the terrible tragedy of high maternal deaths, discrimination and violence at the centre of the country’s political, social, cultural and economic dialogue.
PHOTO CAPTION: The First Lady of Kenya, flanked by CS Foreign Affairs Amb Amina Mohamed, former UN Resident Coordinator to Kenya, Ms. Nardos Bekele Thomas and Sid Chatterjee. Ms Margaret Kenyatta was recognised as the UN Person of the Year 2014 for her invaluable efforts to advance maternal and child health in Kenya. Photo: UN Kenya
My role in Kenya has been the most exciting of my entire career. When I got here I found an incredible team of UNFPA staff determined to change the game and claim our space in matters of maternal health. I decided that the first move would be to get behind what the First Lady’s Beyond Zero Campaign aimed at ending maternal deaths in Kenya. Kenya is lucky to have a truly remarkable First Lady in Margaret Kenyatta.
Her passion, dedication and sheer determination is exceptional and frankly unparalleled. Her clarion call, “no woman should die giving life” resonated to every corner of the country and beyond. That became the tailwind for UNFPA’s own efforts.
Working with the University of Nairobi, we discovered that 98% of maternal deaths in Kenya were happening in only 15 counties. Armed with that data for my first meeting with then Health Cabinet Secretary James Macharia and the First Lady, I proposed we should get the Governors from the 15 counties to commit to ending the scourge of maternal mortality in their counties, and to support them with targeted interventions.
It was a success. Despite initial doubts from several quarters that we could do it, we gained the support of the Kenya Red Cross and the World Bank and ran a sustained and highly focused campaign. 15 County Governors from the counties which have the highest burden of maternal deaths signed a communique on ending preventable maternal and new born mortality in Kenya.
Change has been dramatic. Kenya had a maternal mortality ratio of around 488 deaths per 100,000 live births. In a matter of a few years, this dropped to 366 deaths per 100,000 live births. Our efforts were recognized by the World Economic Forum. We were invited to Kigali and then to Davos and Durban because of the gains that these counties had made.
Our next frontier is universal healthcare, so that no Kenyan is denied access to medical help through lack of financial means or lack of facilities. With the clear support of the government, I am confident we can achieve this.
Kenya is a beacon of hope in this region. A rapidly growing population offers opportunities for growth and innovation, but this demographic dividend can only be achieved through focusing concerted efforts on ensuring youth empowerment. We also need to ensure that women and girls have rights over their bodies and can plan their families. That will help unlock Kenya’s demographic dividend.
As the UN Resident Coordinator, I have worked with the UN country team and we have come up with five priorities in the new United Nations Development Assistance Framework, which will start in June 2018.
First is to help the government to create five million jobs by 2022. A million young people enter the labour market every year, but there are barely 100,000 new jobs, most of them in the informal sector. We need to dignify technical jobs, so the skills of a plumber, mason or carpenter are respected, encouraging young people into areas of high demand and helping them establish their own businesses.
Number Two is to address drought and hunger. By 2030, agriculture will be a trillion-dollar industry in Africa, with the potential to employ most of its youth, and Kenya must seize this opportunity. Young people’s energy and ideas could transform the sector.
Third is universal health coverage. We must not be afraid to think creatively. We know, for example, that it will be difficult for Kenya to produce enough doctors and nurses, so why not train community health workers to do some of the mundane, non-medical tasks that currently take up much of their precious time? We could train a million school leavers to perform immunizations, for instance. We need to think of new ways of addressing old problems.
Fourth is ensuring that development leaves no one behind and that is perhaps one of the best weapons to defeat the scourge of violent extremism. The principle of Vision 2030 is about making sure that it's an inclusive process. As the UNDP Administrator, Mr. Achim Steiner, emphasizes, “let’s leave no one behind and reach the farthest behind first.” That is how you start to lead on issues of inequality and inequity. So the focus needs to be on the counties with the worst human development indicators.
Finally, we need to expand cross-border cooperation to encourage economic development and opportunity. The existing cross-border programme with Ethiopia, and the new road that connects Isiolo with Addis has seen the number of young people from Marsabit County joining Al-Shabaab drop exponentially. The road is a route to commerce and opportunity and economic integration.
President Kenyatta said he wants to turn this area in a ‘Dubai’. We will work very hard to make that happen.
WM: Speaking about violent extremism we are seeing this as an increasing phenomena globally, but particularly so in Africa. What is your take on this critical and highly sensitive issue?
Very importantquestion Wycliffe.UNDP recently launched a ground breaking report, based on deep research and interviews with former extremists and those incarcerated. The report debunks a lot of myths and perceptions on the scourge of violent extremism. I would encourage everyone to read the report titled, “The Journey to Violent Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment.”
Bottom line is, deprivation, marginalization, underpinned by weak governance, are primary forces driving young Africans into violent extremism.
PHOTO CAPTION: The signing of the Kenya-Ethiopia cross-border programme by the Foreign Ministers of Kenya, Amb Amina Mohamed and Ethiopia, Dr Tedros Adhanom overseen by the Heads of State of Kenya and Ethiopia. December 2015 Photo: UNDP Kenya
The report also finds that, many of these extremist movements erupt from borderlands and under-served areas. Large swathes of the population are extremely poor and there are chronically underemployed youth. That is why the Kenya-Ethiopia cross-border programme is particularly significant. I really applaud and commend the vision and leadership of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia and President Kenyatta of Kenya, for moving this forward.
This programme has brought two National Governments, two regional authorities, and two United Nations Country Teams together to advancing peace, development and empowerment in this area.
I am confident that not only can this programme be replicated, but may potentially be the key to resolving intractable border problems globally.
WM: Given your background in both the military and as a global technocrat, in your view what would be the best way to go about addressing this challenge?
We need to address security challenges through a development lens. I would add that if we were to urgently invest in 4 E’s- Education and skills, Empowerment of youth, women and girls, a Marshall plan for Employment in Africa and Equity, Africa will not only reap a demographic dividend, it would prevent irregular and forced migration and perhaps prevent and defeat violent extremism.
PHOTO CAPTION: Many migrants use the dangerous sea route crossing between North Africa and Italy in search of a better life. Photo: REUTERS/ MARINA MILITARE
I recently had the privilege of co-authoring an article with the former President of Ghana, Honourable John Mahama, titled, “Promise or Peril: Africa’s 830 million young people by 2050”, where we discuss Africa’s youth population. Africa has a median age of 19 and has a rapidly growing youth population, which is expected to reach over 830 million by 2050. Whether this spells promise or peril depends on how the continent manages its “youth bulge.”
According to the World Bank, 40% of people who join rebel movements are motivated by lack of economic opportunity.
In the wake of the Second World War, the Marshall Plan helped to rebuild shattered European economies in the interests of growth and stability. We need a plan of similar ambition that places youth employment in Africa at the centre of development.
WM: When someone has had the kind of successes you have had on the one hand and on the other hand also undergone a great deal of anguish – we might almost say injustice - at the hands of critics, there is always this need for vindication in the long run. Here’s my question within that context: ten years from now, what would you like to look back as having happened in the next five years? In other words, what would you look back on with the greatest satisfaction?
You know Wycliffe, the difficulties my wife and I had through 2007 to 2016, made us stronger and taught us to be resilient. As a matter of fact much of the negativity thrown at us, from within and outside the institution and those that tried to hurt us, only made us tougher and smarter. So I am grateful to them too and hold no grudges. I have learnt a great deal and developed immensely from this experience.
I am really grateful that I am now in Kenya. It is a time of monumental change and opportunity.
As you are aware, His Excellency President Uhuru Kenyatta has announced his Big Four plans, inter alia, affordable healthcare, food security, manufacturing and affordable housing as his main concerns for the next five years. These priorities align well with the outcomes of the new United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) for Kenya.
PHOTO CAPTION: Sid Chatterjee discusses youth employment with President Kenyatta. Photo Credit: State House.
In the next five years my hope is that we scale up our partnership with Kenya and all development partners to achieve the Big Four. I am confident Kenya can do it and serve as a model for many other countries in Africa and throughout the world.
The year 2018 presents incredible challenges and opportunities. Here is my New Year’s message to Kenya(Video).
In several ways, 2017 was not an easy year, first because the UN globally is facing an ongoing funding downturn to which no agency is immune, but particularly in Kenya because of the turbulence and uncertainties associated with last year’s general election.
Despite these challenges, I firmly believe that 2017 was a year of notable achievements, when we once again asserted the value and credibility of the UN system in Kenya to the Government and people of Kenya.
I thank all UN agencies that stood at the forefront of the drought response. It is the credibility and trust we enjoy that led to resources coming our way from the Flash Appeal to support the humanitarian response. The Government of Kenya sees the UN family as a partner they can trust and rely on. We must continue to remain vigilant and ready to support the Government and people of Kenya as the indications for the coming year do not look so good.
Despite shrinking resources, we are expected to do more. These past years, we have responded on time, effectively and coherently; and our work is helping people feed themselves, care for the sick, empower more youth and women and promote models of development that reduce dependency.
For instance, the Joint Programme on Reproductive Maternal Neonatal Child and Adolescent Health (RMNCAH) has led to notable progress on coherence, service delivery, partnerships and key health outcomes, especially in under-served counties. This was not only recognised by Forbes “The UN and Philips Bring Hope And Health To Africa's Most Challenging Region”, but also acknowledged by the Government of Kenya and the World Economic Forum. This became the basis for the SDG public- private partnership platform to leapfrog universal health coverage in Kenya.
Here is Kenya Foreign Minister's Speech, Ambassador Amina Mohamed, at the UN General Assembly on Friday, 22 September 2017, where she spoke specifically to the SDG platform in Kenya to leapfrog achievement of Universal Health Coverage in partnership with the United Nations in Kenya and emphasized the central importance of maternal and child healthcare.
The Cabinet Secretary informed the General Assembly of efforts made in her country to accelerate implementation of the SDGs as well as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. She also spoke of Kenya’s assistance to refugees and efforts made to combat human trafficking.
This is a wonderful endorsement and recognition of the UN's role in "Delivering as One". The Government of Kenya is already planning for a similar platform in partnership with the UN on Zero Hunger, SDG 2.
Partnerships with the private sector and development partners have unlocked significant resources and technical assistance to deliver significant improvements in areas previously considered little more than lost frontiers.
Our network of more than 25 UN agencies in Kenya has continued to offer creative programmes and campaigns on a wide-range of issues, including human rights, peace and security and sustainable development. In addition, we have put in place wider collaboration with the private and public sectors to make our programmes robust and our outreach more effective.
Kenya’s cross-border programme with Ethiopia, the UN Delivering as One programme, is finding great interest locally and globally and has the potential of not just unlocking more resources but can be replicated elsewhere too.
These are only a few examples of real progress; changes that are not abstractions but which have been documented in terms of mothers and new-borns saved, girls retained in school and the vulnerable fed. It is work that has made a real difference in the lives of people, but which could not have happened had we not worked together.
But we have challenges ahead. The SDGs which the UNDAF now seeks to support are broader and more challenging than the MDGs, because they encompass more goals such as peace, justice and strong institutions.
To that extent, much of the hard work lies ahead. Inequalities persist and progress has been uneven across the counties in Kenya. Our youth in Kenya remain on the periphery of development, and millions are left behind.
These are extraordinary challenges, but they also present extraordinary opportunities. The coming year is a chance for all our agencies to re-evaluate and to innovate. The question before us is, how can we do our work better? How can we stretch our resources more effectively?
The coming of a new year reminds us anew of the enduring value of the United Nations, as the place where citizens expect solutions to problems. I believe that each of us has a part to play in lifting up people all across Kenya, in finding solutions to today’s urgent challenges.
PHOTO CAPTION: US Ambassador Robert F Godec and Dutch Ambassador Frans Makken, strong advocates of ending FGM. Photo: UNFPA Kenya
WM: Last question. Is it true that you run a half-marathon every Sunday? If so – and really that cannot be said to be out of a need to get some exercise - what inspires you to run?
Yes, as far as possible I run a half-marathon or 21km every Sunday. I also try and run to the office 2 to 3 times a week. I stand at work for at least 4–5 hours a day and keep myself moving. And I also do a headstand two or three times a day.
PHOTO CAPTION: Sid Chatterjee does a headstand in his office. Photo: JBC
Running is therapeutic and it also acts as a catalyst for ideas. Most of the ideas for the opinion pieces I publish on my blog in Huffington Post and Reuters come when I am running.
I wake up at 3am each morning to read, write and reflect.
I dote on my six-year-old son. He is the centre of my existence. I suppose I also keep fit for his sake. I must admit, if there is one thing I look forward to, every day and every second, it is the joy of seeing my son grow.
Wycliffe Muga and Siddharth Chatterjee had this conversation at the UNDP office in Nairobi, Kenya. Wycliffe Muga is a columnist for The Star where he was previously Opinions Editor, and also Weekend Editor. He was for 10 years (2006-2015) the “Letter from Africa” correspondent to the BBC World Service (Business Daily). He is a former columnist for the Kenyan Daily Nation newspaper, and the monthly magazines, Nairobi-based Diplomat East Africa, and the London-based African Business; also, a former Contributing Editor (Science and Technology) for the East African Flyer magazine. In 2006 he was listed by the Financial Times as Kenya’s most influential print commentator.
Mr Muga is a Fellow of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a winner of numerous journalism awards and media fellowships.