How a Junior Professional Officer Position in Afghanistan shaped my career at UNDP

UNDP People for 2030
7 min readOct 26, 2023

Meet Harald Thorud, Team Lead Norway for the UNDP Nordic Representation Office and get inspired by his career journey marked by an unyielding commitment to make the SDGs a reality by 2030.

Harald Thorud, Team Lead Norway for the UNDP Nordic Representation Office

I assume the primary reason I initially wanted to join the United Nations (UN) was due to my interest in international relations and love for travelling and experiencing different cultures. As a student, I applied for an internship with the UN secretariat and spent three months with the Department of Political Affairs in New York, gaining insights into the UN system, and establishing important connections. Later that year, after finishing my studies, I returned to New York and worked as a trainee for the Norwegian Permanent Mission to the UN during the General Assembly, which provided me with further exposure and fueled my desire to work within international development. Then later on, I worked for the Embassy of Afghanistan in the Nordic countries, which gave me a particular interest in Afghanistan and international development.

When a Junior Professional Officer (JPO) position opened in Afghanistan, I eagerly seized the opportunity. I was fortunate to be selected and had the chance to spend two very exciting years in Kabul working on election and gender empowerment projects. Looking back, I realize that my JPO assignment set me on the path to where I am today.

Other UN agencies may offer similar opportunities, but the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was the best fit for my interests in governance and still is today. We were the ones working side by side with the Election Commission of Afghanistan and the government and people of Afghanistan. I was at the very beginning of my career, and it was already very hands-on. It made me feel like I was making a real difference.

Harald with the local project team managing the UNDP Youth Empowerment project in Dera Ismail Khan District in Khyber Pakhtunkwa province in Pakistan in 2016

UNDP offers significant responsibilities to young professionals, such as managing projects and teams. It provides the opportunity to work in diverse sectors and countries, gaining exposure to different perspectives and adapting to various circumstances. Personally, I’ve felt this leads to both professional and personal growth. The best learning, in my opinion, comes from on-the-job experience.

The JPO programme provided me with invaluable experience, both professionally and personally, and I would not be where I am today without the support of Norway and the UNDP JPO programme

After two years in Kabul, I transferred to Bangkok for a third year as JPO with the Asia-Pacific Regional Centre. During my 1.5 years in Bangkok, I supported electoral programming across the region and was lucky enough to travel and work on many exciting projects

After 3-years as a JPO, I was fortunate enough to secure a regular position with UNDP. I worked for UNDP and the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs in New York and Pakistan on peacebuilding and conflict prevention programmes between 2014 and 2021.

I believe there is often a lack of awareness regarding the concrete work we carry out on the ground. I would like to shed light on my past career, where I had the opportunity to participate in a series of missions related to electoral needs assessments.

These missions took me to various countries such as Somalia, Cambodia, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands. At the request of the respective governments, our team was tasked with evaluating the requirements for electoral support. Our primary objective was to determine whether the United Nations should provide assistance for their upcoming elections. This involved analyzing the political climate and assessing the government’s willingness to ensure a fair process. The insights gathered from meetings with political actors and discussions on prevalent issues formed the basis of recommendations. The experience was incredibly fascinating, particularly the two-week immersive engagements where we witnessed firsthand the challenges and opportunities in each country. I had the privilege of visiting Somalia multiple times, which added another layer of interest to my work. These experiences were truly exciting, allowing me to actively contribute to promoting democracy and electoral integrity.

Harald having meetings with former FARC combatants during a visit of the UN peacebuilding fund to Riosucio in Colombia in 2017

In 2021 I moved back to my home country Norway and took up a position as the Head of Office for the UNDP Representation Office in Oslo. In my current job, which I enjoy very much, my main responsibilities are to supervise a small team establishing and nurturing partnerships with key actors in Norway and the Nordics, advocating on behalf of UNDP. Part of the role is to understand the trends and movements of the government of Norway and maintain constant communication with Norwegian partners. We also act as a link between our country offices and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), ensuring that any issues of concern to Norway are addressed promptly. Our team is currently focusing very much on Ukraine, to understand the needs of our colleagues on the ground and link them with Norway’s priorities. I also manage an international project on fisheries crime and I am part of a working group developing a new initiative between the UN and the private sector.

I help organize high-level visits to Norway, including that of the UNDP Administrator, the Regional Bureau Directors and UNDP Resident Representatives from countries such as Afghanistan, Moldova, Myanmar and Ukraine. I also have helped facilitate international visits, such as the recent trip for colleagues from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) to the UNDP country office in Uganda. I also took part in a visit of UNDP Goodwill Ambassador Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, the Crown Princess of Sweden, and the Development Ministers of both countries, to Kenya, where they met with government partners, local beneficiaries and witnessed our projects firsthand.

One of our most significant initiatives last year was the launch of the Human Development Report, which highlighted the negative trend in global development over the past few years, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and conflict in Ukraine. As part of our work, we are constantly seeking new strategies and approaches to get back on track with achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“I think that maintaining optimism is crucial, as it provides a foundation for making a positive impact. I think this is particularly significant for young people today who bring a genuine drive for pursuing the right goals.”

We are also closely monitoring and responding to crises, such as the aftermath of the earthquake in Syria and Turkey, as well as keeping a close eye on the ongoing situation in Sudan. Additionally, we are committed to supporting those in need, particularly in Afghanistan, where we facilitated Norwegian support for the Area Based Approach to Development Emergency Initiatives (ABADEI) Day programme, a multi-stakeholder initiative aimed at helping the poorest during a time of significant turmoil.

UNDP has an extensive presence with offices in 170 countries around the world. Even in situations where other organizations may pull out due to political unrest, we remain committed to working for the people. I have witnessed this commitment in various field offices. By collaborating with local governments and civil society organizations, we can implement projects that truly make a positive impact on people’s lives over time. The opportunity to collaborate with governments as trusted partners enables us to support positive transformations in the long term.

Harald on his way to Fasher, Darfur during a review of the UNAMID Peacekeeping mission in 2018.

While other organizations may rely on secondary data, we can always reach out to our colleagues to get a real sense of what is happening in their countries. UNDP has more offices than most countries have embassies, and presence in places where others do not, such as small islands in the Pacific and remote regions across the world. This is what makes UNDP unique. This gives us an unparalleled ability to understand the complexities of development challenges and to work towards finding effective solutions. So, I think UNDP is an excellent platform to reflect on how we deliver development and to rethink our approaches to meet the complex challenges we face.

What sets UNDP apart is its unique purpose. Unlike private companies or working for a government with primarily national interests, UNDP operates with a broader mandate, serving a larger purpose. This sense of working towards something greater contributes to a fulfilling and meaningful career.

While realism reminds us that we can’t single-handedly change everything, it is important to believe that together we can make a difference.

I think that maintaining optimism is crucial, as it provides a foundation for making a positive impact. I think this is particularly significant for young people today who bring a genuine drive for pursuing the right goals.

Working with UNDP offers the opportunity to collaborate with exceptional professionals from around the globe. It provides a platform to explore the world, learn, and gain diverse perspectives. For those considering a career with UNDP, especially in the field, I highly recommend it as it is a rewarding nature, both personally and professionally.