“Climate action has to be fast but also fair”. Interview with Isabell Kempf, Head of UNRISD Bonn Office
19 Feb 2020
With a new office in Bonn, launched on 6 February, UNRISD aims to create new interagency collaborations and strengthen research uptake linkages to accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. We sat down after the launch event for a short interview with Isabell Kempf, the newly appointed Head of UNRISD’s Bonn Office, who told us about her vast experience with knowledge challenges at the United Nations, the role of research in the face of the current climate crisis, how science and action can work together, and much more. You can read the lightly edited interview below, or download and listen to the conversation here.
Jenifer Freedman (JF): Isabell, you’ve been with the UN for a while and have worked in different agencies during that time. How many continents have you lived on, and what do you bring from that experience to your new position at UNRISD?
Isabel Kempf (IK): I started with the UN 27 years ago as a young professional, at a very interesting time in Santiago de Chile, when a transition to democracy was under way. I worked there for UNESCO on human rights and environmental education. That was my first contact with a transition period and a lot of new ideas, new actors, coming into the political space. It was a very exciting time for me personally. I had really wanted to come to Latin America because of this idea of social change. I wanted to understand how social change actually happens. I then worked for the Economic Commission for Latin America. I’ve been in most Latin American countries, worked with governments and NGOs there. It was a time I really enjoyed. From there I worked with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for nearly 14 years…
JF: So that was in Geneva, the European continent, that’s two…
IK: That was in Geneva, but not really only in Geneva because I worked on indigenous peoples’ rights. So really the world came to us when I was secretary of the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples. It really was a hub which created an international movement of indigenous peoples. That was bringing the world to Geneva, learning from indigenous peoples from all over the world and meeting people I would have never met had I not worked for the UN in that context. I learned a lot about different ways of negotiating because indigenous peoples don’t work on a majority rule basis, they work on a consensus basis. So it was very interesting, and once you gain the trust of indigenous peoples, I was invited to closed-doors negotiation preparations, and that gave me a different worldview as well, to see that there are many different worldviews, but then of course, also universal claims and rights.
JF: And from there, after OHCHR…?
IK: I worked in the [African] Great Lakes peace process, and here what was really interesting for me was to see the integration between the economic development, peace and security issues, and of course social movements and social justice. That was a very high-level experience because it was part of summits of heads of states, where important decisions about relations between the states were taken. And with a lot of trust building going on as well, because it was a region that had been involved in a major war. In the beginning people didn’t talk to each other, it was even difficult to get them into the same room. And then to see how this peace building, trust building process brought people together, especially the technical people who had a lot in common and wanted to move things forward and come to results. Being able to be part of that and supporting that [process] was really a great experience.
JF: You’ve told us about experiences that you had from the grassroots to the regional to the global level. It sounds fascinating working with all these different levels of interlocutors and different actors in different processes. You’ve had different jobs and different positions in the UN as you just described to us, what’s the red thread that you see joining these together? And how did that lead to the present position in UNRISD?
IK: My red thread has been really the question of social justice and trying to understand the root causes of exclusion and power relations. Starting from indigenous peoples to the peace agreements, because a lot of the conflict was due, particularly in the Great Lakes region, to the exclusion of certain groups within society.
What I would really like to work on now is, first at all, to see how social change happens, and how research, and the work of UNRISD, can help us understand how social change happens, because we’re confronting a crisis―a climate crisis―and action has to be not only fast but also fair. So, how do we make sure we’re not cleaning up and then redistributing, but making sure that people own the process and are part of it? That’s something I’m really interested in, and I think I bring a lot of experience.
[Second,] the interlinkages between the social, the environmental and the economic components of sustainable development. The programme where I worked before joining UNRISD deals with poverty-environment action for the Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs], so it’s really about working with an integrated approach across different central ministries, including ministries of finance, and making sure there is coordination, not only in a horizontal way among different sectors, say energy and social sectors, but also that there’s vertical integration, from the national to the subnational to the local levels. How can you really anchor policies and implement them at the local level? These questions are also part of how social change and policy change happen.
I would like to bring in this real-life experience, the technical cooperation experience, and use more fundamental research, reflection and experience sharing, that is, understandings from different parts of the world, and bring that to UNRISD and to the current debate.
JF: Do you see that taking the form of an action research approach that might be relevant to the work going forward from this office? I guess it’s the question of how we actually see research and action and implementation and operations being integrated…
IK: For that I’d like to use my good networks and my experience within the UN system, because having worked at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) for the last eight years, I think I am able to bring in the environmental perspective and now the social dimensions of [sustainable development], and work within the UN family, because I think there’s a lot of the demand within the UN as well to work with an integrated approach. UNRISD has a lot of experience in this regard, especially on the interlinkages, but we need to bring social justice and social equity into the bigger programmes that have more of a climate change or environment focus at the moment. I think, for example, of UN-REDD or the idea of the Great Green Wall in the Sahel… How can we make sure that social justice is not an afterthought, but it’s really implemented from the very beginning? I already got a lot of expressions of interest from colleagues who work in the sister organizations to work with us in the future, so that we will have policy-oriented research informing these bigger projects.
JF: That responds to one of the next questions that I wanted to ask you, which is, how do you think science (or research) and activism (or advocacy) can be integrated when it comes to sustainable development? You’ve just given us a good idea, do you have any other thoughts on that?
IK: I just want to give a recent example: before the COP in Madrid last year (UN Climate Change Conference COP 25, on 2–13 December 2019), UNEP published an emission gap report, which showed us what countries really would need to do to reduce emissions sufficiently in order to be in line with the Paris Agreement. This was a very scientific report, but it really got a lot of press reactions and it was picked up by social movements working for faster and fairer climate action. That’s the kind of example of how, if we do the research at the right moment and on the topics that are so much in demand, we could have a big impact. I’d like to work in the same direction and make sure UNRISD is not only doing the cutting-edge research, but that it presents it and works with other actors who can then really use it in their own contexts.
JF: So it’s the quality of the research, the timeliness and how it’s communicated. I have one final question for you, Isabell. What do you think is most exciting about this new job as Head of the UNRISD Bonn Office? What are you looking forward to the most? And what do you think some of the challenges might be?
IK: I’m really looking forward to working on neglected issues. For example, one of the call for papers that we just launched is on the impact of financial crises on environmental sustainability. The question of how the environment and climate change action could be impacted, if there is a future financial crisis, has not yet been discussed in depth. So, in short, there’s learning from the past, using what UNRISD has already been doing, and then using that for current and future topics, making sure we work with social actors—may be policy makers, campaigns and social mobilizations—to use research for advocacy, and bring about change.
JF: And do you see any challenges on the horizon?
IK: Well, we are a relatively small organization, so I think we need to work in networks and in partnerships, and we really have to work within the UN family, but also outside with foundations, other research institutes... I’m looking forward to this new landscape [of collaboration]. I think I can use my networking experience, and being an open-minded person as well… I’m looking forward to learning and sharing my experience and the rich research and experience of UNRISD with others.
JF: Jenifer Freedman, Head of Communications and Outreach, UNRISD
IK: Isabel Kempf, Head of Bonn Office and Senior Research Coordinator, UNRISD
Have a knowledge-for-the-SDGs project? Would you like to partner with UNRISD and its Bonn Programme for sustainable development? Throw Isabell Kempf a line at isabell.kempf[at]un.org. To find out more about the programme, click here.