When you work for the United Nations you have a responsibility, a purpose, to do everything that is in your power to change the lives of those still living in poverty
Meet Pradeep Kurukulasuriya — Director and Executive Coordinator, Nature, Climate and Energy at UNDP who through hard work, dedication, self-reflection, strong values, and an empowering leadership style, inspires us all to play our part in advocating for the most vulnerable communities and identify opportunities for progress on all scales.
Growing up in a tightknit family in Sri Lanka in the ’70s, and having the opportunity to experience life in India, Sweden, Kenya and the UK before I turned 25, exposed me to a full range of life experiences that shaped who I am today. I am the youngest in my family, influenced and shaped by the strong values of my parents, as well as the strength and inspiration of my two older sisters, including the experience of turning what some may call a challenge into an eye-opener to a different world. My sister made my family and I understand that deafness is not a disability but a rich culture, my three children taught me to live in the moment, and my wife has been the rock in my life since we first met at the age of 15.
Life taught me very early on to not be fixated on singular narrow goals as there is so much uncertainty, and that worrying about things that were not in one’s control was not useful. In fact, it wasn’t easy at first to define exactly what motivated and energized me in my career. Two things I felt certain about: I firstly didn’t want to follow a “traditional” career path or job; and secondly, I knew fairly early on that I wanted to do something where I could use my knowledge to help those who did not have the opportunities that I had.
An undergraduate degree in economics was followed by master’s degrees and a PhD in the economics of natural resources, with a core specialization on the economics of climate change. Technical and life lessons gleaned from so many teachers, family, and friends in Colombo, Aberdeen, Nairobi, Cambridge, and New Haven prepared me well for my journey in UNDP which commenced, by chance, in 2005. That is when I started working on climate change adaptation as a consultant with a short-term contract with an amazing team working on environmental finance in New York. After a few years in NY, I moved to the Regional Hub in Bangkok, where working close to colleagues in the field moved me and taught me so much about who and what UNDP means to so many that benefit from the organization’s support. 17 years from the time I started at UNDP, I find myself back in NY, in a role that I feel is more a calling than a job. It brings together my strongest interests in nature, climate change, and energy, with the desire to get things done, and done right, with urgency. I feel privileged to be surrounded by inspiring colleagues, with whom I can work alongside to tackle some of the most complex development challenges in this specific and incredibly consequential moment in time. I feel a daily responsibility to raise awareness of what is happening around us and to do what we can to help those less fortunate, and to encourage everyone to play their part to build a better world. In my humble view, if you work for the UN, you have a responsibility, a purpose, to do everything that is in your power, and more, to change the lives of those living in poverty. “If not us, then who will” is a question that I ask myself as I get ready to work every morning.
Acting as one to demonstrate the highest possible standards in our work
UNDP has a very diverse workforce. Every time I see members of the team that I work with, as well as those that we support (in Country Offices, Regional Bureau and Central Bureau) building on their differences in talents and ideas, I realize that it is a sense of duty to support one another, to provide a helping hand, and to create the conditions of a safe, open and creative space where my colleagues can flourish. In my view, this is how we can, as senior managers, have a positive impact, create the conditions for our colleagues to succeed, and then get out of the way, I hope (!).
In providing leadership on UNDPs’ workstream on nature, climate and energy, my responsibilities range from taking care of the long-term as well as the immediate needs of the organization, so that it is better equipped to play a key role in nature, climate and energy in the development landscape over the next 20 years. For instance, I do my best to ensure we focus on the development impact and results that we are here to achieve, to make sure UNDP supported interventions consider the underlying foundations in which all development work rests. Ecosystems, nature, people, energy — these are all linked and connected to one another, and they are part and parcel of those foundations. Development does not take place in a vacuum. We also need to keep in mind our core values that underpin why we joined UNDP — to have a positive and measurable impact on the lives those less fortunate. I see it as a purpose, a collective purpose that we are all a part of. Yes, a part of my work is to ensure UNDP demonstrates the highest possible standards in our application of fiduciary responsibility and accountability, something that we can only achieve if we all act as one. Building strategic partnerships, working together, and embracing ideas different than our own, are key in addressing our development objectives. These considerations are not extra, are not to be taken for granted, they are the foundational structure of our work.
“Witnessing how small investments turning into radical long-lasting life improvements in the communities we work with makes me realize every day why our this job is so important”
There are so many memories that stand out for me that are incredible examples of learning. One is an effort that many in UNDP were involved in to assist people living in the Siem Reap area in Cambodia to manage the adverse impacts of droughts. The intervention we had financed with our partners in the Global Environment Facility was to enable local communities to adopt solar powered drip irrigation systems in areas that were affected by drought. A little investment completely transformed the villages with an empowering domino effect. It allowed communities to farm and use water more efficiently, to grow crops in periods of water shortage. Multiple cropping periods in a year meant that the communities were able to sell more local produce, which brought higher incomes and the development of new skills, especially for women. Higher incomes allowed communities to save and to invest in broader areas which were also needed.
These changes have profound impacts on the lives of those that live close to or below the poverty line. Witnessing experiences like this continues to motivate me and makes me think nothing is impossible to achieve. In many ways, it is not dissimilar when my grandparents invested in the education of their children in the 40s and 50s, at a time when investment in education was not very high. Those basic investments had profound impacts on future generations including mine. When challenges arise, we need to face them in a smart, selective and tactical way, to start small and lead the way for the massive impact we can have. These types of experience emboldened me, as I am sure it does for so many that I work with, to want to do more.
In this life-changing mission and incredibly rewarding experience of working with UNDP, for all its imperfections that we all work to improve, the most important asset you need is to have a deep passion for what you do. Then you need a mix of humility to understand that most things in life are not achieved in a linear manner, appreciation for those you work with and depend on every day, including your family, personal audacity to challenge oneself, and the capacity to embrace every moment to fulfill our obligation, by virtue of being part of the UN system, of improving our world around us. If we do not take on the challenge in front of us, making use of the platform of the UN, who will?