Monday, September 1, 2008

Elia Armstrong: New Ethics Officer for UNDP - introduces herself (but are all these words true?)

05 August 2008
Elia Yi Armstrong as head of the Ethics Office

Vitals: I was born in South Korea and grew up in Vancouver, Canada. I’m married with two daughters.

Coming from: Senior governance and public administration officer, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, or DESA, New York.

Going to: Ethics advisor/head of the Ethics Office, UNDP New York

Her story: I studied social work at first. Later, at the London School of Economics, I learned about social policy and planning in developing countries. I’ve always been interested in development and worked with refugee and immigrant resettlement organisations in the U.K., the U.S. and Canada.

In 1993, I joined the Canadian Government and focused on civil service reform and public expenditure management. I also did an assignment at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris where I began comparative research on public service ethics issues. It was my first multi-lateral organisation experience, and I immediately liked the diversity.

In 1997, I began working for DESA in various capacities. I collaborated closely with UNDP on anti-corruption and public sector ethics projects. It also involved working closely with good governance and anti-corruption advocacy groups such as Transparency International and Tiri. I especially enjoyed doing comparative research on African and Arab countries.

I arrived at the Ethics Office only a few weeks ago, but I can already sense a lot of support and goodwill for the office. “Ethics” means different things to different people, but we all need to agree on what professional ethics means in UNDP. This will help us strike the balance between our duties as international civil servants and our interests as private citizens in a complicated, constantly changing world. I think the independence of the Ethics Office will render it a better resource for staff members and managers when it comes to financial disclosure, conflict-of-interest advice, whistleblower protection and ethics training.

Crowning glory: I was part of the team that set up the Ethics Office at the Secretariat in 2006. In a way, I’d worked towards its establishment even earlier, as I helped devise the UN Staff Integrity Survey and other Organisational Integrity Initiatives. It was a very meaningful experience because it meant that we, at the UN, were practicing what we preached. It was also a great experience to be part of a team that was small but extremely dedicated and efficient.

At a more personal level, I’m a very proud Mom.

Behind the suit: I used to study classical piano, but I don’t play the piano as much these days. Instead, I enjoy reading books and watching movies. Most recently, I saw The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Watching the protagonist look back on his life, in his paralysed body, reminded me how lucky it is to have a second chance in life. I also enjoy cooking because it’s a creative process with instant results, whether they are successes or failures.

Indulgence: Dark chocolate. I’m also a sucker for pinot noir.

Would most like to have dinner with: I’d really like to have dinner with Dag Hammarskjold. He was a unique leader with an incredible insight from which we could still benefit today. He also had a keen interest in ethics and how that should apply to the international civil service.

Inspiration: My father. He was a quiet and pleasant man who stuck to his principles. He had an inherent sense of fairness, justice and compassion.

For those in the organisation who are starting out, I would suggest you get as many different opportunities and challenges as possible. Try to see yourself as part of a larger community. Working for UNDP has a ripple effect — what you do can have an impact on a lot of people in many different places. If you have that larger perspective in mind, the work becomes much more meaningful.

Why it’s all worth it: It is a luxury to be able to do something you love for a living. And working for the UN has been that for me. UNDP is special, because in many of the countries, we are the face of the United Nations.

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