The “How Does a U.N. Official Work?” Transcript
What’s it like to manage the U.N.’s Ebola response? Read a transcript of Adam Davidson’s conversation with the assistant secretary-general for field support.
We’re posting weekly transcripts of Season 2 of Slate’s Working podcast for Slate Plus members. This season’s host is Adam Davidson, the co-founder and host of NPR’s Planet Money podcast. What follows is the transcript for Episode 3, which features Tony Banbury, the United Nations’ assistant secretary-general for field support. To learn more about Working, click here.
In addition to the transcripts, we’ve added some other Slate Plus perks for Season 2 of Working. The members-only version of each podcast will feature a short Slate Plus extra, and we’re also allowing members early access to the podcast—look for it to publish on Sundays. The nonmember version will publish on Mondays.
You may note some differences between this transcript and the podcast. Additional edits were made to the podcast after we completed this transcript.
Adam Davidson: What is your name and what do you do for a living?
Tony Banbury: My name is Tony Banbury, and I work at the United Nations; my job title is assistant secretary-general for field support. Basically, what that is, is making sure that U.N. peacekeeping missions and political missions, in places like South Sudan, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Mali, that they have all the stuff they need to do their jobs. They have the people, they have the planes, they have the bases, they have the food for the soldiers, they have the communications technology, all the stuff that they need to get their job done.
Davidson: And we are right now in New York City. We’re high up in the U.N. Tower looking over the East River. It’s an amazing view. But you’re—so, you’re based here but your work obviously has—it spans the globe. How many missions are there out in the world? How many people are involved in—that you oversee?
Banbury: Yes, I work here in New York at the U.N. headquarters, which recently got renovated over a couple-year period, and so we have a relatively nice, new building, certainly with a beautiful view from the 34th floor. But the work that really matters is the work that is done in the field to support 30 missions. We have 16 peacekeeping missions and 14 political missions.
Some of those political missions are very small. They’re small offices of special envoys of the secretary-general, less than a hundred people. Some of the peacekeeping missions are quite large—10,000 or more troops, a few thousand police, a few thousand civilians, a budget of a billion dollars or more. So, the missions go the full range from quite small, like boutique political missions with a very narrow mandate, to very large peacekeeping missions with lots of airplanes, helicopters, ships, a ton of soldiers, bases, camps, and logistics requirements.
And we basically need to find a way to do whatever it takes to support those missions, give them the tools they need to do their job.
Davidson: You mean, literally, like food and pens and bullets and electricity? I mean—
Banbury: Literally, all of that. And a lot of these missions are deployed in places like the deserts of Northern Mali or the deserts of Darfur, where there is very weak infrastructure. So, if we need to send a battalion of soldiers—a battalion is about a thousand—to say, an area of Darfur in Sudan where there are risks to civilians, there’s nothing there. There’s no infrastructure. There’s just desert.
So, we need to build a base, start with a fence and level the ground, and then construct the buildings and bring in a power system, generators. We need to put in supply lines for fuel. We need to put in the information communications technology infrastructure so they can communicate with the headquarters and the rest of the world. Sewage and waste disposal. Make sure our—the garbage is disposed properly and not in a way that threatens the environment of the local population.
So, it’s really complex to do that kind of stuff out in the middle of nowhere, where the supply lines are maybe 1,000 or 1,500 kilometers—or miles, over 1,000 miles—from the say, closest port.
Davidson: So, what are you doing here? Are you finding ships and buying stuff? Or does the U.N. own all the ships it needs, own all the material it needs? How do you do that? How do you staff and supply a mission?
Banbury: The—well, there are two ways to answer that question.
We make sure that missions either are equipped themselves to say, purchase food locally to give to the soldiers who need to eat—and we put in place contracts and they get it locally—sometimes we do it ourselves. Like, aviation, we do all aviation contracting here. We have the second largest air fleet in Africa. We have hundreds of planes and helicopters serving our missions. All that is done back in—
Davidson: And you own those, or you—
Banbury: We charter all the aircraft. Sometimes it’s a long-term charter, a contract for a year or so. Helicopters, cargo planes, passenger planes, what we call “executive jets” for our very senior officials who are moving around trying to conduct peace negotiations, or troop transport planes. We have a big variety of needs. And so our air fleet ranges from very small aircraft to quite big ones and a whole bunch of different kinds of helicopters.
But we don’t own them, and so we enter into a service contract with a provider, and they provide not only the aircraft but the maintenance, the crew, the insurance. They kind of do it all. It’s a turnkey contact.
Davidson: Wow. And then the stuff—I guess now is the time to disclose that I know you pretty well.
So, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I know a lot more about you than I’m letting on, because you are my brother-in-law. I’m married to your sister. We know each other well, and I’ve even been in the field with you. We spent a fair bit of time together in Haiti. I was reporting and you were running the mission there, which we’ll get to. And so, I want to make that clear, but also when I thought about people I know with interesting jobs you were the first guy I thought of.
You have, I think, the most interesting job of anyone I know. But in a more mundane way, so, on the one hand you have this job that extends out to the most remote and war-torn parts of the world, but we’re in a fairly, like, a nice standard office. You could use this office to be like, an insurance sales office or something like that.
So, just walk me through what happens here. What are your days like?
Banbury: There are four basic things that I do. One is focus on big, strategic issues that cut across our entire enterprise. They’re not related just to our peacekeeping mission in Mali or the Central African Republic. It’s how to put in place better strategies, structures, systems, and contracts so we can do a better job delivering the services we need to missions at a lower cost. That’s one thing.
Davidson: And when you say that’s one thing, is that meetings, is that phone calls, is that—
Banbury: Well, it’s a lot of things, and I’ve been doing this for years, and it involves so many different elements. For instance, we are putting in place a—we have something called a global fields import strategy, which is meant to look at our missions more as a global enterprise. The total value of peace operations for the U.N. is about $9.3 billion, which by the way is over four times the budget of the U.N. headquarters budget. So, we’re much bigger in the field than we are here at headquarters.
Davidson: You mean the entire U.N. headquarters budget, not just your part of it? The whole—
Banbury: The entire U.N. headquarters budget, this big, massive, 38-story building that has all the different elements of the—what’s called the U.N. Secretariat, U.N. headquarters, its entire budget here.
I can go into more detail if you want and maybe later, but just to kind of break out the four main kinds of activities, it’s those sort of strategic issues that cut across the $9.3 billion enterprise.
The second type of thing I do is worry about and respond to and deal with crises or challenges in individual missions.
We have to build a lot of new camps now in the Central African Republic. The peacekeeping mission there is about seven months old. We’re deploying a lot more troops and we have to build camps for them. That’s really hard to do in the country of the Central African Republic because there’s not a developed commercial sector. The construction sector hardly exists, at least for our needs. There is insecurity and there’s very poor infrastructure and transportation. The port of Douala in Cameroon, where we have to ship stuff through, is totally congested. The local officials there are looking to get a lot of money out of us for moving our stuff through.
So, it’s solving problems of an operational nature like that for specific missions.
Davidson: OK, so that’s—so, No. 1 is big systemwide stuff. No. 2 is specific missions calling in and saying, “Hey, we need help with this and we need help with that.”
So, what’s No. 3?
Banbury: No. 3 is, here at U.N. headquarters there are all kinds of bureaucratic processes and meetings and just stuff that goes on in a very large organization.
Davidson: I can tell from your body language and voice, that’s your favorite part! You love the bureaucratic processes.
Banbury: Yeah. And see, the Department of Field Support, we’re very focused in providing field support. That’s what we’re about, we’re a service provider to field missions.
Here at headquarters, a lot of these processes aren’t related to that, aren’t related to what we need for DFS—the Department of Field Support—are much more related to the needs of a large bureaucracy in New York.
And those processes can take up a lot of time and a lot of effort, but the payoff in terms of providing a better level of support for missions can be kind of low. And so I would rather spend my time focusing directly on those first two issues, but very often we have to be—as good team players and organizational citizen colleagues, we have to participate in those processes.
Davidson: OK, and what’s No. 4?
Banbury: Four is dealing with just one problem after another that comes up. You know, one person after another comes into the door, you know, request— “Tony, I need help with this, I need help with that. Can you solve this?” A personnel matter or a financial matter or some difficult situation, and just the—not the big mission crises, “Oh, we have to evacuate people out of Libya.” But the little things that just pile up and pile up day after day, they just come in in large numbers and land on my desk.
Davidson: You mean just being the boss of a multithousand person organization, there’s just—people don’t like their boss, people—whatever it is?
Banbury: Right, right. Being the boss of a large organization and also I think someone who tries to help, tries to solve problems. That’s part of my role or how I see myself as a problem-solver.
The risk I think in any organization, if you’re a problem-solver people come to you with problems to be solved. If you just create problems or are no good at it, they won’t come to you. And there are lots of people like this in the US, hardworking people who try and get the job done and solve problems—I’m not saying I’m only one. But I know I just get a lot of problems that don’t really belong to me that end up on my desk.
Davidson: And then there’s this other dimension to your job, which is dealing with the secretary-general, dealing with ambassadors, just sort of—you don’t have the authority to say, “Hey, I think we should establish a mission in,” you know, “Sierra Leone, and I’m going to just go ahead and establish a mission,” right? Can you walk through how that works and how you fit into that process?
Banbury: Even the secretary-general can’t establish a new peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone. That’s a decision of the Security Council.
The Security Council will ask the secretary-general for his views on a crisis. They’ll say, “Secretary-general, please give us recommendations on establishing a peacekeeping mission,” say, “in the Central African Republic.”
And then people like me and colleagues of mine, we will work to come up with a mission concept for a new mission in the Central African Republic.
I should also be clear, though, that I’m the deputy of the Department of Field Support. I have a boss, the undersecretary-general of field support. I’m the assistant secretary-general of field support.
The way we basically divide our roles and responsibilities is, he tends to focus more on the negotiations with the member states, a lot of the kind of policy committees and agenda setting, and I tend to focus more on operations and the field missions, which suits me very fine because that’s what I like. But we’re quite interchangeable, and I’ll often end up briefing ambassadors and dealing with policy issues, and he will often end up getting involved in an operational issue related to a field mission. We work very well together in that respect.
Davidson: So, one thing that—and I want to get to crises in a sec—but one thing I’ve noticed about you, and that other people have told me about you, which I’m going to say is not true when it comes to your immediate family, your kids, but does seem to be largely true at the U.N.—that you seem to maintain this equanimity. You’re not prone to anger or to like, “Goddamn, why are they—they’re stretching me to thin!” Or something. How do you deal with that every day?
Banbury: I was just explaining to a new colleague who has come in to the U.N. at a very senior level from outside just the other day, that there tend to be a few different kinds of people at the U.N.
There are a lot of people who come into the U.N. full of ideals and they want to change the world and they want to contribute, and they come in, and in a short period of time, within a year or two, they just think, “Oh my God, this place is such a mess! The bureaucracy is terrible; it’s dysfunctional; people are disconnected from what matters in the world.” And they’re so idealistic and are not—do not have sufficient pragmatism—that they can’t function in this environment. They just get frustrated so much and they’re railing against the system, and they end up leaving.
Then there’s a group who come in and maybe initially have a lot of ideals and want to change the world, and then the bureaucracy just brings them down and they realize, oh, even if they don’t work hard they will get paid the same amount, and it’s not worth fighting and struggling so much to get things done. And they become part of the furniture and part of the problem.
The people who really do well in the U.N. are those who maintain their ideals and their commitment to make the world a better place, and who believe in the organization’s great value—the U.N.’s great value—but are pragmatic enough to figure out how to make it work, and understand that there are still going to be problems out there. The U.N.’s full of faults, but for all its faults it represents a unique tool for the world, and a great, great thing for the world to have at its disposal to help deal with problems around the world.
And so, I hope I fall into that category, where I maintain my ideals about the United Nations and my great hopes for its ability to serve humanity, but am pragmatic enough to say, “OK, let’s figure out how to make it work and make it do its best,” taking into account all of its flaws.
Davidson: And we’ll get to the big crises, but you travel—like, how often—like, just in regular DFS job, how much of the year are you traveling? I mean, it does seem to me that you travel a lot.
Banbury: Yeah, I travel a lot.
It’s up and down, and so I might not travel at all for four or six weeks, and then I’ll travel for three out of four weeks. So, I’ve been here for the past month or so, and I’m about to go away for 10 days and come back for a little bit, go away some more. So, it varies.
And there are basically two kinds of travel. One kind of travel is to places like the deserts of Northern Mali, which I actually find the most interesting. It’s really good. But other kinds are like, to fancy meetings somewhere, and so I’m going to be—in the next few weeks I’ll be in Oxford. I’m going to be in Turin, and I’m going to Montreux, for very high level meetings that I’ve been invited to, including with the secretary-general and the top officials of the organization in Montreux.
We meet once a year. The secretary-general convenes all the heads of peacekeeping missions and political missions from around the world. A very interesting meeting, a very engaged discussion, but of course very different than say, a field visit to Darfur.
Davidson: And I’ve seen you travel in the field. Like, you usually have several bodyguards. It’s kind of a big deal. Like, you’re a target in these war—in these troubled areas.
Banbury: It varies. I mean, certainly in Turin I’m not going to have a bodyguard. But if I go to Northern Mali or someplace like that, yeah, the security folks do an assessment and usually they’ll throw a few bodyguards on me.
Davidson: What are the big crises that you were—what’s the word, seconded—to run the operations of?
Banbury: I’ve been in this job for the past five years, a little more than five years. Before that I was the Asia regional director for the U.N. World Food program, and there, yes, I was very involved in the tsunami response and very involved in the response to Cyclone Nargis, which never got nearly the attention the tsunami did but basically the same number of people were killed, over 200,000 people killed from this cyclone in Burma. And that was a huge and challenging response.
Here in this job, in the last five years, there have been four times where the secretary general has, yes, pulled me out of the job and said, please go do X. The first time was immediately after the earthquake in Haiti—absolutely devastating, more than 200,000 people killed. Also, the largest single loss of life for the United Nations in any single incident, 102 U.N. personnel killed, our headquarters destroyed. Friends of mine killed.
And I went down there just a couple of days after the earthquake as deputy head of the peacekeeping mission, but basically in charge of the operational response and redirecting the mission to the needs of responding to the crisis that confronted us.
Davidson: And in Haiti—because I spent a lot of time down there and a lot of time with you—but U.N. peacekeeping in Haiti is probably unlike the U.N. anywhere else in the world. I mean, it’s a huge, huge force in the country. It probably had more capabilities than the government did. So, it was—your job was enormous. I mean, I watched you do it. It was an incredibly difficult and challenging job.
Banbury: It was the most difficult and challenging job I had ever experienced, at least up until that time.
The capital of the country had been absolutely devastated. Port-au-Prince, one of the many tragic aspects of that earthquake, was it struck right at the capitol, a dagger in the heart of the country. It destroyed the city. It happened in the late afternoon when a lot of government employees had gone home, but the hardworking dedicated ones were still at their desks and a lot of them were killed.
And the U.N. did have a large peacekeeping force—just by coincidence, peacekeepers aren’t normally those that get sent to respond to a natural disaster. But because we were there, of course we did.
And essentially what we decided as soon as we got there was, we need to totally redirect all aspects and capabilities of the mission to the earthquake response, basically saving lives—so, supporting all humanitarian activities, etc.—and also to rebuilding the capability of the mission and taking care of the mission staff who had been there and who were so traumatized. A hundred of their colleagues, all of a sudden dead. Many lost very close friends that they had worked with a long time. Some lost spouses, children, just terrible tragic stories. And so we had to take care of our own people while we brought in a lot of new colleagues to really run the response.
Davidson: While you’re hundreds of people with one toilet, in really tough conditions—although everyone in the country was in tough conditions—but it was tough.
Banbury: Those were probably the most difficult working/living conditions I’d ever experienced.
Our U.N. Headquarters was destroyed. The buildings that were still standing in Port-au-Prince were—it wasn’t clear which ones were stable and which weren’t. So, our security people said that no one can stay in them, and so we were all basically camping down at the airport in our logistics base.
I went down with a team and we all lived in the office. There was one large room with about 14—12 or 14—people working there, and the men slept in one room and then there was a side room that the women slept [in], on the floor, on cots, or whatever.
Outside that building there were hundreds and hundreds of people, NGOs and all kinds of folks living in tents. And yeah, we all shared one lousy, stinking bathroom with one shower. It was really terrible and awful, and the lack of food—the food was terrible—it was a pretty horrible experience.
But 102 U.N. people had just lost their lives and over 20,000 Haitians had. The country desperately needed us. We were working insane hours and we had to get the job done.
And I think the U.N. mission played a very instrumental role in that critical period, in helping to get the country back on its feet.
Davidson: All right, and now let’s talk about your last job, which probably was your most important job I would think. Talk about your most recent non-DFS job.
Banbury: Back in September—now, Americans will be much more familiar with this than with the Central African Republic—the Ebola crisis had spent out of control.
Horrible images on TV screens of people dying in the streets of Monrovia. Projections that a million or more people were going to contract the disease by January. The numbers of cases increasing exponentially, and doubling every three weeks or so, at the peak in September.
And clearly the crisis was getting much worse. Whatever was being done by various actors—U.N. agencies, NGOs, governments—it wasn’t solving the problem. The crisis was rapidly and dramatically deteriorating. So, again, the secretary-general removed my from my DFS job and appointed me as his Ebola crisis manager. I walked into my work one day, and it was the same in the case of the Central African Republic, the same as the case in Syria with chemical weapons. And with little—really no warning—I was just told that, “Hey, you have a new job. Guess what?”
Davidson: And how does that work? Does someone say, “Oh, does Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general, wants to meet with you?” Does his—does he have an aide come and tell you? How does that literally work?
Banbury: Either his chef de cabinet, what we call chef de cabinet—chief of staff, basically—who is a very, very powerful figure in the United Nations, just like the chief of staff to the president of the United States, kind of that role—or—either the chief of staff contacts me directly, or tells my boss and my boss kind of hints at it and says, “Oh, the chief of staff wants to see you. They think they might want you to go do whatever.”
So, I get a hint of it, and 20 minutes later I’m in the office being told, “We’re going to send you to go to do this or that.” And that’s what happened in this case, and I said, “I don’t know anything about Ebola or public health,” whatever. And essentially they said, “Really, this is a crisis and we want you to be the crisis manager. Go figure it out and tell us what you think.” And —
Davidson: Because your job is not to be the subject matter expert. Your job is to get the right team together, including subject matter experts, to figure out how to solve the problem.
Banbury: That’s right. My job is more of a crisis manager rather than a subject expert. It’s like, a commanding general isn’t necessarily going to know Air Force and infantry and military engineers and all of that, but he or she needs to know how the whole thing fits together and have some kind of strategy.
So, in this case I did what I always do at the beginning, which is to just try and learn, really learn as fast as I can as much as I can about the crisis, the nature of the crisis, what’s really behind it, and what needs to be done, what are the objectives? And simultaneously build a team, build that multidisciplinary team of subject matter experts from across the U.N., political, humanitarian, human rights, information, security, logistics, all of that.
And I always say, I don’t want a representative giving you an agency like UNICEF, or a representative of the Department of Political Affairs, I want someone with expertise in politics or in food aid or whatever to come together as part of a team. Not representing their agency, but part of a team working together for the U.N. as opposed to as part of the U.N.
So, learn, assemble a team, and it became very apparent to me within a week that what was missing in the crisis response was the role of crisis manager. We had a lot of entities on the ground—UNICEF, WHO, Médecins Sans Frontières, governments, NGOs—carrying out various kinds of good activities. Running an Ebola treatment unit or doing social mobilization. But they were isolated islands of good activity without an overall strategy, without an overall coordinated response, without clear objectives.
Hey, what do we need to do to end the crisis? No one could define it and no one had defined it. And I realized that no matter what we did in terms of trying to bring support in—you know, we could bring in Ebola ambulances or build treatment centers—but to what effect? You know, we needed someone to kind of run the response and no one was doing that, and no one could. And the crisis had gone well beyond just being a public health crisis, and there were lots of logistical, humanitarian, political, social, information dimensions, and thus we couldn’t just rely on the public health community to lead the crisis response.
It wasn’t just about doctors and a treatment center, it was much, much more. We needed a crisis manager.
And so, I was appointed on a Monday, Sept. 8. That Saturday on a late-night conference call with one colleague just coming out of Guinea from an assessment mission, and another colleague in London, we decided that we needed a mission. So, I recommended that to the chief of staff of the secretary-general that Sunday. She agreed. She said, “Write it for the secretary-general.”
I wrote it up at home, the home you’ve been in. I wrote it up on my computer looking out on the water and gave it to the secretary-general Monday. He approved it right away and said, “Write it up for the General Assembly and the Security Council.” We did that Tuesday and Wednesday. It went Wednesday night to the Security Council and the General Assembly. Thursday the Security Council voted on a resolution on Ebola. It had the largest number of co-sponsors in the history of the United Nations, 134 co-sponsors for a Security Council resolution, almost double the previous record.
So, 15 members of the Security Council, and 134 members joined those 15 expressing support as—for the resolution. And then the General Assembly voted unanimously Friday. The mission was established that Friday. So, we went from conceiving the mission to having it established in basically five working days, by far a record for the United Nations. Nothing ever comes anything close to that.
Davidson: And then you were in Africa fairly soon after.
Banbury: Well, right after the establishment of the mission by the secretary-general, the immediate question became, “OK, who’s going to run it?” And I had a repeat of that exact same appearance—experience with the chef de cabinet saying, “OK, we want you to now go run the mission.” I said, I can’t go run the mission I have my job here, my family here, your nieces and nephews, who are the most important thing to me, more important than war.
And I just didn’t see myself in that role. Again, I don’t have a public health background. And they said, “No, please just go set it up, establish it, get it up and running, and you can come back by Christmastime.” This was, you know, by now mid- to—the second half of September.
So, I agreed to do that, and a few days later went to Ghana where we were setting up our headquarters. Two days after that I was in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and I spent the next three months in West Africa setting up this mission, trying to figure it all out, what had to be done, what should the goals be?
And we established these very ambitious goals for case isolation and safe burials and all that stuff that the health experts said needed to be done in order to end the crisis. And then it was all about an implementation plan, what needed to be done, by when, who was going to do it, what were the resources necessary to get it done, where were the supplies going to come from, how much was it going to cost? How were we going to monitor the performance and the implementation of the plan, so we can identify if there were gaps or weaknesses where we were falling short.
All basic crisis management stuff that just hadn’t been done. And so, we kind of put that all in place.
Davidson: And then you didn’t quite make Christmas, but you came home in January. And so now you’re back at your job. Is it—how do you adjust?
I mean—is that a letdown? I don’t know, how do you adjust? Is it a relief to be done with those high-intensity periods? Do you now crave more of it? Are you kind of looking forward to the next time you’re working at that intensity?
Banbury: The Ebola mission was definitely the most sustained hard work I’d done.
I mean, it was the same pace and level as the tsunami response, as Nargis, as the Haiti earthquake, but it lasted longer. We were working 12, 14 hours a day, minimum 12, maybe on a Sunday it was 10 or something. Not a single Saturday or Sunday off between Sept. 8 and Jan. 4. I mean, it was insane how hard we were working.
And you’re right, I came back in January instead of December because the holidays were coming, it was really hard to attract people to the mission to get them to work there, and I thought it would be very unfair of me and send the wrong signal if I was saying, yeah, people, come spend your Christmas fighting Ebola—oh, but by the way, I’m leaving.
So, I agreed to stay until January. It meant in the end four months of work at that pace. And I did the math adding up—just kind of back-of-the-envelope kind of math—adding up the hours worked on weekends and the extra hours per day, and I ended up working—and this was the case for many of my colleagues—working the equivalent of three extra months in those four months, in terms of the hours. It was really insane.
So, when I came back here on Jan. 4, I was totally exhausted and needed some days off, and you know, just rest, sleep.
Davidson: No, I think I saw you that day and you were—
Banbury: You saw me the day I came back. Yeah, you saw me right off the plane, yeah.
Davidson: And you were—yeah, I had never seen you like that. You were a zombie.
Banbury: No, I was pretty—pretty shattered.
Davidson: You can look at your work in Ebola, you can look at the Central African Republic, and there are—not because of you single-handedly; you had a big team and you probably made lots of mistake, I have no doubt—but there are thousands of people alive, maybe tens of thousands, I don’t know, hundreds of thousands, who would be alive if those missions hadn’t been successful, right?
Banbury: Well, you’re absolutely right to say it’s a big team effort. And the Ebola response was very much a global effort. And one of the most rewarding aspects of that job—there were many—was to see the global effort.
It was great to work side by side with the governments of these countries, and not—a government isn’t a thing, it’s a bunch of people. And so working with colleagues who became friends in Liberia, in Sierra Leone, in Guinea—good people, cool people—and I was complaining because I haven’t had a day off in two months or three months—these people haven’t had a day off in six months. Government workers working as hard as any human possibly could, I think.
Davidson: And you probably get paid a lot more than they do.
Banbury: I’m sure I get paid a lot more than they do. And they were doing it for all the right reasons.
And working with NGOs, Médecins Sans Frontières, and I haven’t always agreed with MSF on some of its positions in certain crises and criticism of the U.N. In the Ebola response they were great, and I really enjoyed working with the MSF. I spent a lot of time with them.
Working with the U.S. military, the U.K. military, the African Union. The Cuban doctors who were there. I really felt like part of a global response; it wasn’t a U.N. response, it was a global response—for a very important cause.
And that’s very rewarding.
And I was also privileged to work with a great bunch of U.N. friends and colleagues. I mean, really friends. The team that I was able to assemble started being called—I didn’t choose the name, but it was the “Dream Team.” These were, you know, mostly young people but hard-charging, dedicated people who still had their ideals, but didn’t let the realities of the world get in their way of finding a way to solve problems. And so, they were very hands-on, flexible, figure out how to get it done, no ego, no drama, just focus on getting the job done and doing whatever it takes.
And that is—it’s a great environment to work in no matter where you sit, but for me as head of the team, seeing people work that hard and really being the beneficiary of their hard work, in some ways at least—I felt extremely lucky.
Davidson: All right, I think that does it. Is there anything about your job or about your work that I haven’t asked, that you think people would want to know or that people misunderstand?
Banbury: I started my work in the U.N. in field missions, on the Thai-Cambodian border, working in refugee camps as a human rights officer. And I can just say after spending almost my whole career here now, twentysomething years, the United Nations really is a great, great place to work. Particularly field missions. Working for the United Nations in the field, whether you’re a human rights officer or a political affairs officer or a logistician, it gives you the ability to be part of a noble calling and making a difference in a place in the world where they really need help.
And there are—you know, be a teacher, that’s a great job. I’ve never done it—but I’m sure you get also a lot of reward from that. Or, a solider in the US military. There are lots of ways—I always say to my kids, you know, a garbage man is providing a great service to our community and we should be grateful to them. So, there are lots of ways to contribute to society.
But for me, the United Nations is certainly one of the best that they can find anywhere in the world.