My Time at the United Nations Executive Office of the Secretary General
Master’s in International Policy student Anna Nguyen ’21 reflects on her fall internship, during which she helped to carry out research and propose a digital transformation strategy for the United Nations System.
By Anna Nguyen ‘21
My 12-week internship with the United Nations in the Fall Quarter 2020 was not only a fruitful learning experience but also an important addition to my resume, as well as a crucial steppingstone for me to break into the international policy and governance space. I had the chance to work directly with one of the most capable and vital teams in the United Nations Secretariat: the Executive Office of the Secretary-General (EOSG), Strategic Planning and Monitoring Unit (SPMU).
UN 75th General Assembly and Digital Cooperation
The start of my internship coincided with the UN 75th General Assembly. Due to the ongoing global pandemic, the General Assembly was fully live-streamed on the official UN website as well as on the its YouTube channel. On the positive side, this increased the accessibility of UNGA debates and discussion to the general public by making them available on-demand online.
I had the chance to listen in and take notes on many of the debates and discussions, including one directly relevant to our team’s work: discussion on Digital Cooperation, Action Today for Future Generations, which took place on September 23, 2020. The panel discussion consisted of many esteemed leaders, experts and heads of states, including the Queen of Sweden, the President of the Swiss Confederation, the President of Microsoft, the Inventor of the World Wide Web, and many more. The discussion focused on three themes: connect, respect, and protect. The theme “connect” explored the options to finance the Universal Global Connectivity, which envisions that by 2030 every adult should have affordable access to digital networks as well as digitally-enabled financial and health services. The second theme, “respect,” addressed how we could realize human rights and empowerment in the digital age. The third theme, “protect,” discussed combatting cyber threats and online harms to children.
Internet Governance Forum (IGF) Global Data Governance
I also had the chance to tune in to one of the IGF’s discussions on Global Data Governance Framework, which is another crucial area of focus that is gathering much attention globally. It is inevitable that we need to set up a global framework that that will allow us to harness the power of data while addressing the risks and threats appropriately. During 2019 G20 Summit, Japan initiated the “Osaka Track,” modelling “Data Free Flow with Trust,” which works on establishing global norms to promote cross-border data flows and simultaneously provide safeguards against the misuse or abuse of data, and reaching a consensus across countries, cultures, and different stakeholders on a broad range of issues including access to data, the protection of privacy, and cybersecurity. The European Union (EU) was the first to establish a comprehensive framework, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), to protect personal data of EU citizens. Since then, various actors adopted their own regulatory frameworks including Brazil, Japan, India, and the state of California. IGF’s panel discussion agreed that the GDPR is a great starting point on how a global framework should be structured. GDPR provides a strong value-oriented approach to information rights, the right to be forgotten, right to rectification of personal data, principles of data portability and privacy by default or encryption. However, there are many areas in GDPR that need adjustment and improvement in order to fit with the global context, taking into account the nuances and the varying political, economic, and cultural context of the different continents, countries, and regions. The panel discussion was a fantastic first attempt at bringing experts and leaders from various parts of the world (imcluding Europe, North America, Asia, and Latin America) to to brainstorm, debate and conceptualize on the future global data governance framework.
UN75 Declaration — The Common Agenda
On September 21, 2020, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the UN, the Heads of State and Government issued a Declaration of the Commemoration calling for the reinvigoration of multilateralism, strengthening international cooperation with 12 commitments. The declaration mandates that the Secretary-General provide recommendations to advance the common agenda and response to current and future challenges. Our team is working intensively on the 12 commitments with experts, thought leaders, young thinkers, interactive and inclusive participation by civil society, and the private sector and consultations with the Member States. We consolidated the commitments that the Secretary-General has made in his statements in various events, functions, speeches, to various stakeholders. We brainstormed and proposed innovative recommendations in response to current and future challenges.
Digital Transformation Strategy for the UN System
Two of the 12 commitments in the UN75 Declaration include “we will upgrade the United Nations” and “we will improve digital cooperation”. The UN System has much to improve on in its data and digital aspects, and therefore needs a strong digital strategy in order to be fully prepared for the digital future, leveraging digital technologies to accelerate the realization of the 2030 Agenda. Contributing to this vision, I helped to carry out research and propose a digital transformation strategy for the UN System. The strategy consists of assessing where the UN is on its digital readiness, current state, the vision of the future, incorporating leading practices from digitally-advanced governments and multilateral organizations.
An important portion of the digital strategy focuses on consolidating and learning from leading practices used by digitally-advanced governments and multinational organisations, including the European Commission, UN Development Program, the governments of Singapore, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Norway. Key elements of a great digital strategy are strategic foundations, strong governance and monitoring process, innovative digital solutions that are user-centric, multi-functionality and cross-cutting platforms, strong digital culture and workforce, digital interoperability between platforms and between agencies, integration with the data ecosystem, digital security and privacy, co-creation and collaboration not only within the UN System but also external stakeholders. We also carried out a survey for all entities in the UN System to self-evaluate on their digital capability and digital culture. We then carried out a deep analysis to identify the current pain points and areas of improvements so that we could incorporate these insights into our digital strategy.
Training and Skill-Building Activities
The internship presented me with many opportunities to learn more about the UN System and build useful skills. Regarding the UN System, I completed three training modules on ethics and integrity, prevention of sexual harassment, and safety procedures while being on a UN Mission. I had to chance to speak to many colleagues, learned about their journeys with the UN, and deep-dived into the various career paths within the UN.
Regarding skill building, I had the chance to attend workshops such as “Strategic Foresight” and “Data Management.” Furthermore, I curated a list of proposed speakers and topics of frontier technologies and their implications for our team’s “Tech Talks” series, where we speak to a leading expert on a specific topic/frontier technology and how it will impact the UN, global governance, international cooperation, and the future generations.
Overall, my internship experience with the UN was a fantastic learning experience. There were many challenges, including the fact that I had to work remotely and unable to work at the NYC headquarters building in person, the difference in time zone, and simultaneously juggling school and internship commitments. Above all, I am thankful for the opportunity to take on the challenge, to learn, to network, and to expand my horizons. I am thankful for the amazing SPMU team that I had to chance to work with, to speak to daily and weekly, to have tea breaks and play fun games with. I am thankful for my direct supervisor, David Michael Kelly, who, despite his busy schedule, provided me with valuable guidance, teaching and mentorship. I am hopeful that this will be the start of my work and engagement with international governance and global cooperation going forward.