Sebastian von Einsiedel
The following interview was conducted by SIPA student Ophelie Namiech for the UN Studies Newsletter.
After graduating from SIPA in 2002 (MIA – International Security Policy), Sebastian von Einsiedel started an interesting career in international affairs both in New York and in the field. Working after his graduation with the International Peace Institute (IPI) allowed him to build a network in the broader UN community and he eventually joined the Organization in 2004 and worked for the research staff of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change.
After some years spent at Headquarters, Sebastian joined the UN Mission in Nepal as a political affairs officer. In 2008, he returned to New York, first to work with the Secretary-General’s Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force, and later serving with the Policy Planning Unit of the UN Department of Political Affairs. Sebastian shares with us some insights on the nature of his work as well as valuable advice on how to maximize our chances of starting a career at the UN.
Inside the UN: Sebastian’ Work at DPA
Q: Can you describe the work and mission of the Policy Planning Unit where you work?
SVE: The Policy Planning Unit works primarily on thematic rather than country- or region-specific issues. Our main areas of focus are conflict prevention, mediation and peace building (DPA has currently 14 political missions deployed in the field, many of them in post-conflict settings). We try to learn lessons from past engagements with the hope to improve UN policies and response mechanisms over time.
For instance, we look at security implications of drug trafficking and organized crimes, explore UN strategies of response to unconstitutional changes of government or examine the relationships between terrorism and conflict prevention. The type of typical tasks includes writing talking points, speeches or policy papers for senior UN officials and liaising with key stakeholders on any given issue (UN Departments and Agencies; Member States; Regional organizations; and think tanks).
Q: Which aspects of your work do you find the most/least interesting?
SVE: Our work tends to be quite substantive and from where we sit, we occasionally have the opportunity to meaningfully influence policy development at the UN. The Department of Political Affairs is currently in the midst of a transformation to become a more operational, field-oriented, nimble actor in conflict prevention and mediation. Partly as a result of this transformation, the Department’s leadership is remarkably receptive – even keen on – new ideas and policy initiatives. Some of these policy initiatives reach the level of the UN Secretary-General and his cabinet, which is of course very gratifying. For instance, on the question of unconstitutional changes of government, we developed policies and mechanisms to guide the UN system on how to respond to situations of Coup d’Etat. Besides, in DPA the quality of the staff is very high and it is a pleasure to work with a great number of young, smart, dynamic, idealistic and hard-working colleagues.
That said, working at the UN can also be quite frustrating on occasion. Especially some of the most capable and initially enthusiastic UN staffers tend to feel somewhat discouraged after a few years with the Organization. Often, the human resources system is suboptimal and colleagues get stuck for many years at the same level without ever getting promoted. Like many large bureaucracies, the UN feels at times excessively hierarchical and even more senior colleagues sometimes complain that they feel like “glorified desk officers”. Moreover, the UN is a highly politicized environment and we work on issues on which there is sometimes considerable disagreement among Member States (or among UN Departments and Agencies).
As a result, UN documents are often somewhat bland, losing their punchiness in the process. Also, sitting at UN headquarters, it is sometimes hard to see the real impact of your work on the ground. I therefore recommend any young UN colleagues to spend some time with UN field missions because it is on the ground, that the UN makes the biggest difference. However, despite these flaws, I never regretted my decision to seek a career with the United Nations.
Indeed, I very much enjoy my work.
Q: What are the most important skills needed for this type of work?
SVE: DPA is looking for people with a range of skills. Most graduates from grad school programs in international affairs or other relevant field who seek employment with the UN have a very good education and already two or three years of relevant work experience. It is difficult for any candidate to distinguish him or herself in this highly competitive environment. I would mention the following skill sets as ones that would help candidates stand out among the lot: First, relevant language skills. Speaking
French is of course important because many of our main Missions are in francophone countries. And if you speak Arabic, Chinese, Kiswahili (especially as someone not hailing from a region where these languages are spoken), this is a major plus. Second, relevant field experience and regional expertise. If you’ve spent a couple of years working in a fragile, conflict, or post-conflict state, that immediately makes you more interesting to DPA.
Everyone has thematic expertise. Few people, however, can claim to have serious expertise on West Africa or the Great Lakes region. In light of the fact that DPA is becoming more and more field-oriented and operational, we are also looking for people who know how to run things, who have experience that will help them set up a
field mission or a mediation initiative in the field. I also found it very helpful in my work to have at least some background in International Law, given that much of the language used at the UN is couched in legal concepts. Good drafting skills are very important at DPA as written documents are ultimately the main currency in which we trade. You also need good team and personal skills. You have to have a good feeling of how to work with people and a degree of humility helps a lot.
Q: How does one get into UN?
SVE: It is rare for people to enter the UN straight after grad school. You need to first build-up a little bit of a record of practice in your CV. Even at the entry level, most staff has worked for a few years with NGOs or think tanks before joining the UN. Again, we do not necessarily want to see how much academic expertise you have on any given subject, but what your work record shows, your experience and ability to engage people.
Technically, there are three ways to enter into the UN. You can get in via the front door, by taking the yearly national competitive exam. The latter is reserved to selected under-represented countries. It is a very complex and lengthy process. At the entry level, even if you pass the exam, it can take 2 to 3 years before you get your contract. You can also enter through the side entrance, and work for a UN agency as a consultant or as UNV for a field mission. Finally, you can also access the UN via the back door, by joining a think tank or an NGO working around the UN and develop relationships that may help you eventually land a job at the UN.
From SIPA to the UN: How to Productively Use Our SIPA Experience
Q: How did your Master at SIPA help you get this job? Are there any courses or activities you would advise us to focus on at SIPA to prepare ourselves for a possible future career at the UN?
SVE: A large majority of UN folks have a degree from US or UK Universities – among them Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, SIPA, SAIS, Fletcher, Georgetown, or Kennedy School. I would recommend students take international law classes at SIPA as well as a good
IR theory class, (Prof. Jervis’ class for instance). Such a class helps you think conceptually about international affairs which help especially if you work in policy planning. Another piece of advice would be to try to get some of your writing published.
Publications can really differentiate you from the rest of the students and shows that you can write well. In the meantime, it is important for you to accumulate field experience and live in conflict zones to strengthen your regional expertise. Field experience should really be your priority as the UN is now a field-oriented organization. At the end of the day, the UN is not just looking for mini Kissingers but for staff who know how to manage initiatives and engage with people.