Asfaha Beyene grew up in Asmara, Eritrea, but was forced to leave when war broke out, dropping out of university in Asmara to move to Nairobi. He joined the U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP), the start of a long and rewarding career in the U.N. system and beyond. In this first of a three-part interview, he tells us about joining the U.N. without a college degree, studying for the entry exam, becoming a Professional, and learning the organisation from the inside out.
On being seen as a threat: At that time, we were regarded as the northernmost province of Ethiopia, near the border with Sudan and the Red Sea. Eritrea only separated from Ethiopia in 1993. Then came the 30-year Eritrean War for Independence, a civil war between the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, and the Ethiopian government. Even as boys, we were always suspected by the Ethiopian government, and whatever we did, could be subjected to persecution, or imprisonment.
On following the norm: Back then, maybe 10% of Eritrean students made it to university, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. I was in life sciences, to study either biology or chemistry so I that I could become a doctor, or a chemist, or some sort of agricultural engineer. We didn’t know what we were doing. We told ourselves, all the good students would go to science; arts was left to the weaker ones, that sort of cliché.
On dropping out of college: To cut a long story short: I was through with school. The revolution started, Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by a military junta; I was in my first year of university, and had to withdraw because of the confusion.
On choosing work that lets you travel: I worked for one and a half years at Ethiopian Airlines as a transportation agent, then worked for the airline KLM for three years. My intention was to leave Ethiopia and eventually venture out to Europe or the United States. I didn’t see any future in my own country. But while I was doing this, at KLM, I fell in love with the mother of my only daughter, and got married!
On leaving home forever: In 1978, we emigrated to Kenya, because we didn’t feel safe as a young couple in Ethiopia. You can’t live in Eritrea; it’s a war zone, and all young people had left the country. In Ethiopia there was a communist military junta, with a very exaggerated control of young and old in the government who might object in any way.
When you can’t get a work permit: In Kenya, I was looking for a job, but I couldn’t find work. Work permits are only given to highly-qualified professionals. I was a non-trained, non-qualified high school graduate. To work for the UN, you don’t need a work permit. So I found a loophole to find a job in Kenya. I joined the U.N. Environmental Programme in 1979, and was hired as a clerk, one level above a messenger. It didn’t require a degree, and at that time, there was no inflation of degrees, so they didn’t mind that I had finished high school and only started university, because I had worked for Ethiopian Airlines and KLM, so I had the so-called “relevant experience” to become part of the travel team. As a travel clerk, I would organize the travel of professionals going on mission, we organised meetings for participants, either a workshop or a conference, whatever UNEP organises. I was the most junior of a four-person team.
On speaking English well: My English was not good; coming from Ethiopia, which is not a former British colony, nor a colony of anyone. At that time, our English was not at the standard of the Kenyans, who were trained by the British. Although I had a working knowledge, I had to struggle.
On being an introvert: You’re shy because you’re not exposed; you’re not confident, so you don’t speak well. But I buried my head and worked hard, and while I was working hard, I was noticed, and this is why I could apply to another department. The head of that department had interacted with me: he had seen me working hard, staying late, and so on, so he thought, okay, this guy would be a good addition to my team. He encouraged me to apply, I applied, and I was selected.
On preferential treatment: At UNEP, the decision-makers were all expatriates. I didn’t experience any discrimination. My immediate supervisor was from Somalia, the chief was British. Discrimination can happen when you’re sharing a common pie. But we all reported to expatriates: from England, America, Africa, India.
On getting promoted within the U.N. system: After 1,5 years as a clerk, I saw a position advertised as administrative assistant in a different area: the Fund Program Management branch, focusing on portfolios and different projects. I was in the project control unit, keeping statistics on different projects: the number of projects, the amount of money we spent on each area of activity. It became more interesting than travel; I got my first promotion, but within the same category of general service. In the U.N., there are two categories: general services (G-level), and professionals (P-level). I was in general services, a local staff: someone on the support staff, not one of the professionals.
On wishing the internet existed back then: After a few years, although I didn’t continue my studies, it was not possible then to go to university. These days, you can do all kinds of studies whenever you want, wherever you want. Back then, it wasn’t. I really wanted to continue my studies, to complete my degree, but I couldn’t, so I was simply working. By then, I was in my early thirties, we had our child, and we had to stick to our jobs.
On not being able to go home: Although I wasn’t really interested in politics, I didn’t feel good to go back to Ethiopia. Although I had an Ethiopian passport, I regarded myself as a refugee; my wife and I couldn’t go back to Ethiopia, because we didn’t have any guarantee that we would come out again. My job became not only a source of daily bread, but also a passport. Unless I continued working with the United Nations in Kenya, I wouldn’t be a legal resident of Kenya.
A job as a passport: My job was more than a job: it was my life. I dedicated myself in an extraordinary manner; I was not the cleverest, neither the most intelligent, nor the most trained. But I showed loyalty.
On living from hand to mouth: It was really a struggle. Luckily, my wife also worked as a secretary in the UN, so together, we had two local salaries. We had a decent life, but with a struggle. Being in General Services, I was paid in Kenyan Shillings, a salary – about USD 200 per month – comparable to the local salary of a secretary in Kenya, or an accounting clerk, or an assistant somewhere. Just an office worker, without big responsibilities.
From General Services to P-level: There was an opportunity to compete for one professional level position, within the Fund Management branch in which I was working. We were 17 people competing for the job; I was one of the few without a degree; most of them had at least a first degree. The competition was intense: we had written tests, an oral interview, another exercise summarising a text and answering questions on political, geographic knowledge and current affairs. Obviously, I prepared for it.
How did you prepare for the U.N. exam?
I read all relevant subjects: all the relevant professional knowledge that I needed to know, about project development and management: what are our projects, what is UNEP, what are our areas of activity and expertise, whom do we compete with, what are our internal projects, what are our external projects, what is our mandate, how do we cooperate with other UN agencies. I interviewed senior staff, to know what they did.
I had a subscription to certain magazines – I used to go to the library and read the Economist to familiarise myself with current affairs, so that if I’m asked what is happening in the United States, which party is ruling and which party has failed, what is happening in the UK, and in India, I would know a little bit. Current affairs is important, since we are serving the globe, and in situations around the globe; you don’t have to be an expert politically, but it’s good to have an idea.
On becoming “Professional”: To be “Professional” in a developing country like Kenya, it means you change your life completely. From 1 January 1987, my salary quadrupled, and on top of that, I started getting my salary in American Dollars: 70% of it was in dollars, and 30% in shillings. I got all sorts of additional entitlements: the best was that I could send my daughter to an international school, and I would be paid 80% of the expenses. I would also be entitled to duty-free imports. At that time, in Kenya, as a developing African country, electronic items were the most expensive items you could think of. I could import a car tax-free, which is slashed by half. I could import a television, a radio, anything you want. Our life changed completely: we became expatriates.
On risking a new hire: You see, when you select someone, judging from the CV and half-hour or one-hour interview, you normally take a leap of faith and say, this person looks good. But once they come and join you, they might be good, or not so good. I believe there are only good people, but in the wrong job. You can easily be disappointed.
In the end, all employers are selfish. They don’t employ you in order to help you, I don’t believe many people use nepotism and then employ their friends and family.
On wanting to work with the best: If a person is a competitive person and wants to succeed, (s)he wants to have the best person next to him. All of us see it selfishly.
I don’t agree with the sentiment that you would hire someone in order to help him. I always hired someone selfishly: because I needed them. That’s what I believe happened: they thought, this guy is going to work hard for us, he’s going to be loyal, I would be very happy to have him next to me.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the most competitive person, I didn’t have impressive skills and education, and I wasn’t by any means genius or clever. I was just a normal person. but I became comfortable to anyone who selects me as his junior colleague or subordinate.
On becoming employee of the year: People want to work with someone who makes them look good. Honestly, I’m not good at that. I don’t work to make someone look good. But, I am loyal, so I just work to be good at work. Then, of course, once they notice you, they say, we need this guy.
That’s what happened to me, even after retirement. I didn’t want to work, after thirty years of service with the UN. But my current employer keeps on telling me, look, Asfaha, just be here with us. They just want me to be there with them, and be part of the operation, giving advice, solving problems, firefighting and attending to all sorts of daily challenges. That’s what I have been doing right from the beginning, and that’s why people want me to be next to them.
On becoming the right-hand man: My boss got a promotion, he became Deputy Executive Director (the second-in-command at UNEP) and had this substantive responsibility of Fund administration. The whole system of fund management that we use to catalyse the UN system for environmental projects was under his responsibility. At the same time, normal administrative services (like human resources and budgeting, accounting, procurement, travel, building management) also came under him. He had a very big responsibility. At one point, he asked me to be his special assistant.
On developing a strategic perspective: Instead of doing a specific job in the project pipeline – on project control and management – I would support him on his day-to-day activities. Everything that came to his desk would pass through me. If the job needed to be done by others, I delegated it; if it was for him, I’d pass it on to him, and brief him on exactly what it is, and he’d give me feedback that I’d follow up on. That actually gave me a good opportunity to see what the organisation is all about.
Rather than looking at one department and one aspect of the work, it gave me an opportunity to see the general raison d’être of the organisation. I started thinking more strategically, rather than operationally. That was a transformation in my professional life.
I started understanding what the organisation (UNEP) is all about: its relationship with other UN agencies, its relationship with governments, the different aspects of its work, who is the governing body of UNEP, Who are its members, what is their mandate, what is the relationship between UNEP and the U.N. Secretariat in New York? How does UNEP fit into the international sphere, how does it relate to UNESCO, to FAO, to other organisations? Then I could begin to understand.
On understanding the U.N. ecosystem: We had a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with each organisation. E.g., FAO, being about food and agriculture, we’d say, okay, we have projects on forestry, let’s encourage FAO to think of the environment, as they are doing their mandate only through food and agriculture. With UNESCO, an authority on education and training, we sought to introduce environmental subjects in schools so that there is public awareness and expertise on the environment. World Health Organisation (WHO) on health: environmental health is very important. World Meteorological Organisation: UNEP and WMO are the ones who started the climate convention.
Instead of looking at it as an administrator pushing a project for approval, releasing the money when the progress report comes, that kind of micro-level operational work, I had the opportunity to follow in my boss’ footsteps on a daily basis and see, at a macro-level, how the organisation fits into the international community and into international development.
Thank you, Asfaha!
Interested in joining the U.N. ? Download our free guide to preparing for this year’s U.N. Young Professionals Programme here.
UNEP headquarters photos by Arthur Dahl, Tigrinya photo by Veronica Buscema, and the rest of the photos from Asfaha Beyene with kind permission.