Empowering Sustainable Development through Good Governance in Complex Political Environments.

UNDP People for 2030
6 min readJun 8, 2023

Meet and get inspired by Klaus Kristensen, Strategic Planning Specialist and acting manager for UNDP Yemen’s Peace Support Facility who shares with us insights of a career led by a constant commitment to achieving #Sustainable Development Goal 16: Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions.

Klaus Kristensen, Strategic Planning Specialist, UNDP Yemen

As a graduate of University of Cape Town, South Africa, with a master’s degree in international relations, and a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies from Roskilde University, Denmark, I have always been intrigued by the intersection of development, conflict, and politics. My interest in this field began in high school and has led me to pursue a career in development. I worked in Southern Africa for Danish and South African NGOs and jumped at the chance to become a #Junior Professional Officer (JPO) with UNDP in Ethiopia when Denmark sponsored the opportunity.

The UN system is perceived as being opaque by many candidates, but there are great young talent programs which can open the doors to the UN system, from the Junior Professional Officer program (JPO) to the recently launched Graduate Programme, or the African Young Women Leaders Fellowship Programme, the UNV/UNDP Young Talent Programme for Persons with Disabilities, or the Internship programme. From my own experience, the JPO program provides a remarkable opportunity to gain insights into the UN system and its individual agencies. If you aspire to have an international career with the UN, have the courage to apply. If you are accepted, one piece of advice would be to continuously remind yourself why you applied and to keep in mind your original motivation for joining.

I joined the JPO program for UNDP Ethiopia as a governance analyst in 2019, just as Abiy Ahmed came to power in Ethiopia. By branding himself as a reformist Prime Minister, there was huge optimism. The country was undergoing significant democratization and reform processes, including holding a democratic election, which would legitimize and institutionalize the new prime minister’s direction. As the second most populous country in Africa, Ethiopia’s stability is crucial to the Horn of Africa, and it drew significant donor and international attention. I felt at the center of what was going on while working in UNDP’s governance and peacebuilding team. My primary focus was on conducting a conflict analysis and engaging national stakeholders on peace mediation mechanisms, as well as providing general support to key democratic institutions like the Supreme Court, the Human Rights Commission, and both chambers of parliament.

At that time, no other UN agency in Ethiopia was working alongside the government in that capacity, making UNDP’s work both specific and unique. The chance to work on governance in such a complex and dynamic political environment was simply fantastic. While the UNDP has a broad mandate, good governance is at the core of its mission. It plays an essential role in helping countries transition from relying on humanitarian aid to charting their own sustainable development path.

Bizuneh Assefa, project officer UNDP Ethiopia, and Klaus Kristensen on field visit prior to the 2021 election. Location in Somali Region of Ethiopia, March 2020

This experience in Ethiopia has heavily influenced my career and provided me with a comprehensive understanding of the opportunities in the UN. It was a steep learning curve with the opportunity to take on responsibilities. It strengthened my strategic awareness and inter-agency coordination skills. While it might seem abstract, working at the nexus between the country’s interests, UNDP’s initiatives, and donors is key.

Today, after spending two years in Ethiopia and close to two years in New York City at UNDP HQ, I now work in Yemen. My current role is strategic planning specialist for the Peace Support Facility project (PSF). The facility is an agile tool to support the peace process, under the guidance and leadership of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen and the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator. We focus on rehabilitation strategic infrastructure, support sub-national level peace initiatives, and implementation of projects with a relatively high-risk profile.

UNDP plays a crucial role in strengthening government capacity and promoting effective collaboration with civil society. Our support helps governments optimize their own development processes. I take pride in working for UNDP because of its commitment to remain engaged in countries, even in challenging circumstances. I believe we continue to provide our support whenever there is hope of doing better.

Yemen remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and aid operation, after eight years of armed conflict causing immense suffering for the Yemeni people. The situation was exacerbated by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, 80 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. As a result, millions of people cannot afford to meet their basic needs. More than 20 million Yemenis are food insecure including 10 million who are one step away from famine.

One of our focuses is to foster trust among communities and local government authorities through dialogues, which facilitates the emergence of leaders who will advocate for their communities’ needs. As a result of local stakeholder consultations, one of our initiatives is on water infrastructure, which seeks to provide safe drinking water to marginalized communities and mend conflictual relationships between communities and local authorities. This project is a testament to our commitment to building peace from the ground up.

Klaus on Roosevelt Island with a view to the UN Headquarters. April 2021

The impact of our work at UNDP can often be indirect, but recently we had a tangible accomplishment to share. We acquired a very large crude carrier, an oil tanker, to replace the FSO Safer, which has been moored off the west coast of Yemen since the beginning of the conflict, with over a million barrels of oil on board. Neglected since 2015, the tanker poses a significant risk to fishing communities on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, which would lose their livelihoods if a spill were to occur. Furthermore, millions of people would be exposed to toxic air, with devastating health consequences. The purchase of the new vessel represents the start of the operational phase to remove the oil from the SAFER safely. The PSF has played a crucial role in providing operational financial support for this mission. Despite the difficulties caused by mistrust between the parties, this initiative avoids environmental damages that could further aggravates the on-going humanitarian disaster.

Working in a UN organization certainly has its own set of challenges, but it’s important to be perseverant and seek innovative solutions. The organization has a well-structured setup that offers proper training and preparation before entering conflict zones. These courses include both programmatic and personal development, such as soft skills and building personal resilience. One of the significant benefits of working with UNDP is the vast network of colleagues worldwide, who work in similar situations. This network allows us to seek advice and find solutions to problems that we encounter, and others’ have found solutions to in the past. It’s all about finding a balance and embracing the bitter with the sweet, as the Danes say.

I believe that when you’re studying at Roskilde University in Denmark, it’s easy to feel that the world is small and a specific direction is predetermined but, the world is incredibly vast and full of opportunities that we may not have considered yet. Working with UNDP has given me the chance to explore a diverse range of experiences and I have met people from all over the world, each with their unique life story. It’s an opportunity that I never thought was possible before joining UNDP.