“I want to understand what is at stake”

Recently appointed by the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs in UN DESA, Thomas Gass, from Switzerland, describes himself as an unconditional supporter of inclusive development and multilateralism. In his video interview, he explains how his experience in development cooperation and as a Member State representative will be an added value to the UN’s work on setting an inclusive sustainable development agenda in the coming years.

“I believe that 2015 is our next big opportunity to place sustainable development, poverty eradication and other important issues center-stage. And I hope that through my work as coordinator and facilitator within DESA, I will be able to play a catalytic role in this process”, said Thomas Gass, during our interview, a few days after his arrival at UN DESA. A week later, he jumped into the High-level segment of the General Assembly, and was impressed by the positive energy that emerged from this gathering.

A sense of global hope

After a G20 summit where the issues related to development were somewhat eclipsed by the Syrian crisis, Thomas Gass was encouraged to see how poverty alleviation and sustainable development were centrally placed in this high-level segment. He was heartened to hear how many Heads of State started their statement by saying how valuable the MDGs were, even representatives from states, which did not rally around the MDGs when they were first formulated. “It will motivate me to look towards those statements of ambition and of vision rather than to the challenges of negotiations that may come.  The GA debate had a sense of global urgency but also interestingly a sense of  hope. Most of the speakers said “we can do it”, underlining the UN’s relevance in the area of poverty alleviation and sustainable development.”

“We all need to sing from the same song-sheet.”

Thomas Gass, ASG of UN DESA

“We all need to sing from the same song-sheet, and the Secretary-General report “A life for dignity for all” is that song-sheet. With the resolution that was approved in terms of the process leading up to 2015, we also have instructions from the governments to move ahead.”

From Kathmandu to New York

Thomas Gass took office on 3 September as one of the two Assistant Secretary-Generals of UN DESA. He brings with him wide-ranging experience in bilateral and multilateral development cooperation. From 2009 to 2013, he served as Head of the Mission of Switzerland to Nepal (Ambassador and Country Director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation), where he established the Embassy of Switzerland in Nepal, and ensured the delivery of a development cooperation programme of up to 33 million dollars a year. He also chaired the Donors of the Nepal Peace Trust Fund, the main instrument for international support to Nepal’s peace process.

Before his posting to Nepal from 2004 to 2009, Mr. Gass was Head of the Economic and Development Section at the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the UN in New York, where he represented Switzerland’s interests, in particular in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), its subsidiary Commissions, the General Assembly and the Executive Boards of the major UN Funds and Programmes. During this time, Mr Gass was the Chair of the Donor Group of the UN Global Compact.

In 2006, he was the Vice-President for Western European and Other Group (WEOG) of the Commission on Population and Development, and in 2008 he was the Vice-President (WEOG) of the Executive Board of UNDP/UNFPA. In 2007, he successfully facilitated the landmark TCPR/QCPR Resolution, the periodic review of the General Assembly operational system for development.

Mr Gass also served as Policy and Programme Officer for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, as Deputy Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Guyana, and as Regional Director for Europe with the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome.

“I want to listen and understand”

When talking about his ideas for the Department, Thomas Gass is prudent:  “I am not a CEO who comes in with a ready-made restructuring proposal. I want to take time to hear all parties, to understand what is at stake, what are the challenges of all our teams before investing my energy to move in one direction or another.”

Inclusive development and multilateralism are key to Mr. Gass. Regarding the upcoming High-level events to be convened by the President of the General Assembly (see article), the new ASG sees them as an opportunity to bring a refreshing perspective on the process leading up to 2015 that will be very structured and systematic. “I hope we will take the opportunity of these events to also bring non-conventional stakeholders to the discussion.” For him, the recent tendency to include civil society in the consultation processes is crucial and reflects an evolution at the country level, both in the North and in the South. Governments know they do not wholly dominate the development of their country. All stakeholders have to share their expertise in order to  build adequate and sustainable infrastructure. The UN needs to remain open and keep listening to the voice of those who will promote this approach at the national level.

The goals, including the MDGs and those coming from the Rio+20 process, cannot be achieved without the support of all stakeholders, including the private sector. “To succeed, stakeholders have to find a seat at the table in order to develop an ownership of the objectives and the processes”, explains Mr. Gass.

Negotiator and passionate

As the Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs, Mr. Gass would like to keep in touch with substantive issues: “I have a substantive background in management and utilisation of genetic resources for agriculture. I know a lot about the importance of agriculture research to secure food and income for humanity, but I also easily develop passion for many different subjects. I have worked here in the basement of the UN as a negotiator, for example on behalf of the Friends of Mountains, a group of about 45 countries supporting sustainable development in mountain regions. In 2006, as the Vice-President of the Commission on Population and Development, I chaired the negotiation of an extremely interesting resolution on ageing. By learning about the subject, I realized how important and vital it is  for humanity to deal with ageing issues in a very deliberate way.”

“I don’t want to lose touch with the field reality that I experienced in Cameroon, in Guyana, in Nepal, and in the Andean countries.”

“I don’t want to lose touch with the field reality that I experienced in Cameroon, in Guyana, in Nepal, and in the Andean countries, where I monitored and developed projects that made a difference for people who depend on the support of the international community to elevate their livelihood”, he added.

For Thomas Gass, this new position is a culmination of several sets of skills he developed during his career. “I see this position more as the result of investments in my different competencies than as a springboard to get somewhere else.” The new ASG brings a very concrete understanding of the challenges of development cooperation, has a sound knowledge of how states interact with each other and demonstrates flexibility in relation to interoperability of organizations, agencies and partners. “I am looking forward to combining efficiently and effectively these three sets of skills, which I developed during my career, and I hope they will allow me to play a useful and catalytic role in enabling the UN to rise to the challenge ahead.”

Born in 1963, Thomas Gass holds a PhD in natural sciences from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and an MSc and engineering diploma in agricultural sciences from the same Institute. He is married and father of three adult children.