Simona Costanzo Sow (UNSSC Learning Portfolio Manager) recently interviewed Nelson Muffuh, a participant in the UN Executive Leadership Programme for Sustainable Development. Originally from Cameroon, Nelson took up his current role as Chief of Staff and Principal Adviser to the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General in February 2017. Between 2012 and 2015, Nelson shaped and coordinated the delivery of the extensive and comprehensive strategic effort to engage stakeholders and ensure their perspectives informed the post-2015 development policy, the intergovernmental process and its outcomes, the 2030 Agenda, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Nelson has extensive experience in strategic influencing and coordination, programme management, partnerships and communications, advocacy and mobilisation, policy and knowledge management. He has gained the experience in the field of sustainable development, climate change, democratic governance and socioeconomic rights, and has served at UN headquarters, as well as regional and country level offices. He has also worked for other public, civil society and philanthropic entities. Prior to joining the UN System, Nelson served as a Senior Programme and Advocacy Adviser for Christian Aid (London), Programme Coordinator for the African Liberal Network/Westminster Foundation for Democracy (Africa/UK) and Programme Coordinator for Transparency International (Berlin). In this interview Nelson shares insights on his personal and professional career journey as a sustainable development leader.

Simona: How would you best describe yourself and your career journey? What motivates you to come to work in the morning?

Nelson: I consider myself and the professional pathway I have enjoyed as being truly blessed and purposeful. My family never failed to remind me that as a teenager I foretold and yearned to work in international relations, human rights, and in the area of peace and security.

I am grateful and humbled by the inspiration, training, guidance, and support that I have benefited from, and continue to receive from my spouse, children, parents, siblings, relatives, and countless teachers and mentors.

I am who, and where I am today because of this immeasurable belief, encouragement from others, and direction.  I have  leveraged all these blessings to ensure that my life choices always reflected my hopes and not my fears. I have drawn inspiration  from  one of my greatest heroes, the wise Madiba (Nelson Mandela).

Simona: As chief of staff and senior strategist and adviser to the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations you are working in support of UN reform. Can you tell us more about it, and how it contributes to achieving the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs?

Nelson: I consider my contribution important, because without a cohesive and collaborative, fit-for-purpose UN development system working with stakeholders and governments at all levels, the integrated 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals will not be as consequential as is needed. This is also likely to delay our efforts to ensure the wellbeing of people, our shared home, and the planet. The 2030 Agenda calls for a paradigm shift and a departure from business-as-usual approaches to ensure all can effectively and collaboratively play their part to lift humanity out of poverty, share the benefits of progress, ensure no one is left behind, and safeguard our planet.

The UN cannot request and expect this new approach from others, and certainly cannot provide efficient support to governments and stakeholders if it doesn’t reform how it works, plans and delivers collectively at all levels. Reinforced coordination alongside joint delivery are the hallmarks of the unfolding repositioning of the UN development system.

Simona: You have also worked to engage stakeholders and ensure that their perspectives informed post-2015 development policy. Could you please share more about this process and  how you see stakeholder engagement and multilevel governance in the future in the UN?

Nelson: The effort to engage stakeholders and seek inputs was comprehensive, global, innovative, extensive, and proactive over the four years of the post-2015 development planning process. Reluctant member states were quickly won over due to the overwhelming interest and pressure from activists, experts and stakeholders plus the supportive posture of UN leadership. At the start of the process, the general consensus was that a renewal of the MDGs package and a limited number of socioeconomic focused goals could be the way to go. Due to the huge engagement, the focus quickly shifted to be more comprehensive, and to embrace the three dimensions of sustainable development eventually leading to the comprehensive 17 global goals.

As experienced through the post-2015 process as well as the ongoing climate process, stakeholder inputs are valued and continue to play a pivotal role.

We have also been able to leverage inputs from different stakeholders. This is seen in our effort to advance the repositioning of the UN development system. It is also seen in the UN Resident Coordinator system, the UN socioeconomic response and recovery framework to the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent UN 75 and Our Common Agenda reports and the countless policy briefs informing the work by the Secretary General to convene Member States and other stakeholders around financing for sustainable development in the context of covid-19 and beyond. The same inclusive approach is informing the recently launched effort to analyze and propose recommendations to address the global impact of the war in Ukraine on food, energy and finance systems.

Simona: What is your most memorable lesson from the UNELPforSD?

Nelson: The reinforcement of the importance of cultivating and safeguarding a dignified reputation as this “currency” travels in advance, and faster, than the person/leader concerned.

Nelson: The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in us having to deal with a new set of challenges and opportunities. What have you learned during this time, and how would you lead differently given the benefit of hindsight?

Nelson: Be at peace with yourself and deliberately seize opportunities and take control without hesitation. It is also important to ensure that your mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing support your efforts to be a better employee, human and leader. Fortunately, my lifestyle and weltanschauung have been transformed over the course of the pandemic and this has positively impacted what I value and how I work, relate, assess, and lead. 

Simona: Are there any important bites of wisdom that you would like to share with fellow leaders who are leading the charge for sustainable development?

Nelson: Embrace and lead the change you want to see in the world. Always try to be solutions-oriented and to seek a path to move forward rather than be distracted by, or dwell on negativity, challenges, and obstacles. People and planet depend on us.