Despite monitoring multiple global crises, Rebeca Grynspan has never lost her faith in the power of change. As Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), she is assessing the impact of the war in Ukraine on cash-strapped countries still reeling from the pandemic.

“We don't have to be naive, but we have to believe in change, because change has happened. And we can make it happen again.”

A trio of crises – climate change, COVID-19, and the war in Ukraine – are setting global development by decades, with vulnerable countries worst affected by global food and energy shortages. In this episode, Rebeca Grynspan reflects on these setbacks, their disproportionate impact on women, and why the world can never give up on the promise of development.



Transcript and Multimedia



Rebeca Grynspan 00:00


I always say that we have to believe in change to make it happen. If you don’t believe that change is possible, you don’t mobilize anything. But the truth is that a lot has happened in the world. With all the obstacles, we don’t have to be naïve. We understand that the world is difficult. But we have to believe in change because change has happened, and we can make it happen again. 



Melissa Fleming 00:25


From the United Nations, I'm Melissa Fleming. Welcome to Awake at Night. I am just so inspired by Rebeca Grynspan. She is such a passionate person. She had a distinguished political career in her home country - Costa Rica. And has now become the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, an organization that is dedicated to making the world a better place for developing countries. Rebeca, you recently wrote that we're facing a perfect storm of crises - climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine. What does that mean? What do these crises mean for the world?


Rebeca Grynspan 01:27 


It means to lose in one year 20 years of progress. That's what it means. It means that whatever progress you did in poverty in two decades, you lost it in one year. We are back two decades. That's what it means.


Melissa Fleming 01:49


That is really sad.


Rebeca Grynspan 01:52


It's heartbreaking. 


Commentary By Rebeca Grynspan

Weathering a 'perfect storm' of cascading crises

Climate change, COVID-19, the war in Ukraine – these crises threaten to derail development for 1.7 billion of the world’s most vulnerable people. The international community must take swift, coordinated action now to put the SDGs back on track.

read full commentary

Melissa Fleming 01:55


And, okay, maybe we couldn't see the COVID-19 pandemic coming. But certainly, climate change.


Rebeca Grynspan 02:03


And certainly, the world can do more. Yes. We need more solidarity. We need the international financial institutions to come very strongly to try to cushion the blow. To help countries to help their poor, their vulnerable. Yes. And it’s true that countries themselves have a lot to do. You know, the two sides have to do much more, yes. Governance issues, institutional issues. Corruption has to be fought. That is absolutely true. But it is also important to recognize the progress that was made, you know, in terms… in many of these dimensions.


Melissa Fleming 02:48


So, we were going in the right direction?


Rebeca Grynspan 02:50


We were. 


Melissa Fleming 02:52


In development. 


Rebeca Grynspan 02:53


But now everything is regressed. Look at women’s rights. Women are the hardest hit in the pandemic. We asked people to stay at home to control the pandemic. And now women are staying at home because they have nowhere to go. They lost their jobs. The support system has been weakened to the ground, yes. And, and they cannot go back to the labour market. So, they stay at home. A recommendation is now, I don't know. It's like terrible.


Melissa Fleming 03:26


It has terrible consequences. 


Rebeca Grynspan 03:27


Yeah. Absolutely. 


Melissa Fleming 03:29


It saved some lives. But it also destroyed some.


Rebeca Grynspan 03:34


No, we had to do it. But because we didn't think about women in our recovery. We didn't think about women and how to make them go back to work. Because there were very few women taking decisions with respect to the pandemic. So, they are being left behind.


Melissa Fleming 03:54


So, you're talking about having regressed 20 years as a result of these three shocks. What is keeping you awake at night?


Rebeca Grynspan 04:06


That it will continue.


Melissa Fleming 04:09


That it will get worse?


Rebeca Grynspan 04:10


Yes. That it will get worse. And I think that, you know, I was part of the government of Costa Rica when we had the lost decade. When we had in Latin America the debt crisis. I know what it means. Nobody has to tell me. 


Melissa Fleming 04:30


What did that mean? What was it like?


Rebeca Grynspan 04:32


What it meant is Costa Rica that was really, you know, a country with a social safety net, doubled the poverty rate 40%. In the debt crisis. When we… 


Melissa Fleming 04:47


What did that look like? Where were you at the time? 


Rebeca Grynspan 04:49


You know, the terrible thing, Melissa, is that when you are in a crisis, people take decisions that will affect all their lives. The crisis is over, but their lives have been hit forever. You know, that's so sad. Don't you think that a boy or a girl that had to go out of school during the crisis will never come back. So, their life is decided. They will always be in unproductive sectors. They won't have the skills and the education that will allow them to overcome their situation. Girls will get pregnant too early. Boys will be in very bad works in the informal sector. And the families cannot take it back. Or if malnutrition goes up in the less than two-year-olds during the crisis, they will never recover. And these are children that have never taken that decision in their lives before their lives are decided forever. So, what can be more unjust than that?


Melissa Fleming 06:07


I have the feeling that you have a lot of personal stake in this, and that you feel very disappointed.


Rebeca Grynspan 06:16


Yes, I am. Because it's not that we don't know. We know. We know what is happening in the women's world. We know what happens when a crisis hits. So, I am disappointed that we cannot prevent the consequences. But we need to be listened to. And we need the political will and commitment to development to make it happen.




Melissa Fleming 06:53


I think, you know, development is kind of an elusive concept for a lot of people. Why are you so passionate about development?


Rebeca Grynspan 07:02


Well, maybe, you know, I have asked that myself to myself. Yes. And I think that my parents are immigrants. And they came to a country that allowed them to have a decent life.


Melissa Fleming 07:19


They're immigrants from?


Rebeca Grynspan 07:20


They’re immigrants from Europe. They were refugees during the Second World War. 


Melissa Fleming 07:27


So, they were Jewish?


Rebeca Grynspan 07:28


They were Jewish. 


Melissa Fleming 07:30


They fled the Holocaust.


Rebeca Grynspan 07:31


They fled the Holocaust. And they went to Russia. You know, fleeing Poland. 


Melissa Fleming 07:37


What year was that? 


Rebeca Grynspan 07:38


That was in 1936. Around that.


Melissa Fleming 07:42


So, they were already feeling the antisemitism and they need to leave.


Rebeca Grynspan 07:47


Yeah. They knew that the Germans were coming to their towns. They were not together, yes. They were very young at that time.


Melissa Fleming 07:55


They individually fled. 


Rebeca Grynspan 07:56


Well, my father with almost all his family. That was unusual. Yes. And my mother with her two sisters, but she left her parents behind. And they were killed during the Holocaust. They never saw them again. Yes.


Melissa Fleming 08:17


They both fled to Russia?


Rebeca Grynspan 08:21


They both fled to Russia, because Russia was open to the immigration that was coming from Poland and you know, getting away from the Nazis. And when the war was over, they both went to camps. My mother to a Red Cross camp trying to get to Palestine. Because they couldn't go back to their homes and to their towns. So, they tried to flee to Palestine. But then the Brits had the protectorate. And when they were in their illegal journey to Palestine, the Brits put them in Cyprus because it was not open for immigration. And they met in Cyprus.


Melissa Fleming 09:15


And fell in love.


Rebeca Grynspan 09:16 


And fell in love. They came to Costa Rica already married. And so, as I was saying, I know what it means to get to a country that respects human rights and where you can make your living in a decent way. And that you have opportunities. And that your children can go to school and make their way. And I was the Vice President of Costa Rica. I'm first generation born there, yes. It says something about my country, you know. It says something about how open a society is and how opportunities can be given, you know. And that's why I'm so passionate about development. Because I know what it means.


Melissa Fleming 10:05


So, you grew up in what we always assume is like paradise. I have these images of this amazing country that is beautiful. Also doesn't even have an army. And what was it like growing up there?


Rebeca Grynspan 10:23


Well, you know, these were years that Costa Rica was poor. And we lived part of my childhood in the rural areas. So, that put me in contact with the rural Costa Rica. You know, where I remember going to the house to spend part of my vacations with the lady that the worked in my house. Yes. And there was no electricity in her house. And I saw that Costa Rica that I knew when I was a child coming out of poverty and bringing electricity to almost 95% of the country. And making education universal. And making health accessible. So, I saw that growing up, you know. 


Melissa Fleming 11:19


What did your dad do? How did he manage to go from refugee? And your mother to making a living?


Rebeca Grynspan 11:26


We had a small store in the rural Costa Rica. And from there, we moved to the capital, to San José. He had a little factory of textiles, like, you know, many of the Latin American countries industrialized through textiles. And he made a good living for all of us. But in his mind and my mother's mind, there was nothing more important than education. And we grew up, you know, with this absolute certainty that we will go through school. And through high school. And that we will go to university and study. Not all women then were able or did have that dream, you know, to be professionals. 


Melissa Fleming 12:25


And you were three… 


Rebeca Grynspan 12:26


And we were three sisters. The important thing maybe was that Costa Rica declared education free and compulsory for girls and boys. 


Melissa Fleming 12:35


All education.


Rebeca Grynspan 12:36


Well, primary education first in 1870. Even before many European countries. Free and compulsory for girls and boys. Primary education. And Costa Rica did that in 1870. And we were one of the poorest countries of the region. So that's where I get my inspiration from, yes. Because those leaders decided that the future generations were more important than their immediate needs.


Melissa Fleming 13:19


It sounds like that's a reflection also of your parents who are Holocaust survivors. Did they talk to you about the importance of education? And obviously, your father worked very hard to enable you to get to where you've gotten, and we'll talk about that. But…


Rebeca Grynspan 13:35


My mother was, you know, a woman of the 22nd century.


Melissa Fleming 13:42


In what way?


Rebeca Grynspan 13:43


Because, you know, she didn't care about the prejudices or the roles that were defined, at least when I was growing up, yes. She would always support us. Even in the things that maybe were not expected to be done by women at that time. Yes. And so, she was a force and a very important part of our security to pursue our dreams, yes.


Melissa Fleming 14:13


Which was not being a housewife.


Rebeca Grynspan 14:16




Melissa Fleming 14:18


Just curious, though. To what extent did they bring this as, you know, refugees from the Holocaust? Did they bring those memories with them into exile? And did they talk about it?


Rebeca Grynspan 14:33


Yes. I think that the first thing that my parents brought were values, you know. My mother… My father was a very hardworking person, and my mother was so loving of other people. Despite her very difficult experiences, she liked people. She believed in the human being, let's put it that way. And so many times I asked myself if I have the right not to have the same. Because, you know, I haven't gone through such difficult experiences. So, if she did, and she believed that society could change, and that life can be built for the better. You know, I don't dare to think I [inaudible] follow her steps. And the other thing, I have talked about this with my sisters. That for them loyalty and solidarity and friendship was so important because they made it through. Because they had that. In a war, you cannot make it alone. You need the family. You need the friendships. You need the solidarity of other people. And that was very important in my house.


Melissa Fleming 16:04


And what do you need? What did they need to be able to establish themselves in a completely different country speaking a totally different language?


Rebeca Grynspan 16:15


I cannot imagine how that was, you know. They learned Spanish and they loved Costa Rica so much.


Melissa Fleming 16:23


What did it look like? Your family home. 


Rebeca Grynspan 16:26 


Well, we were three terrible girls with a lot of friends that were always around. And my mother was like, she loved the idea of us being part of a group in our society. Yes. And she loved people coming to the house. So, I remember, the first one that came with the friends will take the salon, yes. The second one will take the terrace. The third one will take the kitchen. But she will never say no. She will always be this welcoming person, you know. And my father preferred a lot of boys coming in and not one. He was a loving father. A man of his time because he never allowed my mother to work. But a man of his time. But he wanted his daughters to be independent and to be professional. Yeah.




Melissa Fleming 17:38


You held… I mean, you went on to hold several ministerial positions in Costa Rica. How did you get there?


Rebeca Grynspan 17:47


Yes. In fact, I studied through the university, and I had some political activity in the university in different groups. I married and we went to do our postgrad in the UK. And when we came back, I planned my life at the university, yes. I wanted to be a university professor and researcher. And somebody mentioned my name to one of the ministers of the government that was looking for an economic adviser. And he was the minister coordinating the government. So, he called me for an interview. And I remember, I talked to my husband. Then I said, ‘This is not the place for me. I have not been in politics or in the party. So, I will go because you have to go. But I will say that it's not the job for me’. And I did that. I went to see him. And I told him, ‘You know, I've never been in the public sector. And I've never been in a national political party, or in government. So, thank you so much that you thought about me, but I think I am not the person you're looking for’. And this person that at the end was… became a very good friend of mine, and somebody that I loved a lot. He looked at me and he said, ‘Well, maybe this is the time to start. Come on Monday’. This is absolutely true, you know. 


Melissa Fleming 19:27


He didn’t give you a choice. 


Rebeca Grynspan 19:29


No. And I went home. And you know, my husband asked me, ‘How was it?’ And I said, ‘I have to go in on Monday’. I don't know what to do, you know. And I didn't expect that answer, yes. And I started to be his advisor, his economic adviser. And everything took off from there.


Melissa Fleming 19:50


And then tell me about your ministerial positions. 


Rebeca Grynspan 19:53


In the next government I was same - the Vice Minister of Finance. And I was asked to take that post even in the former government. But I was pregnant with my second child, so I said, ‘It's impossible’. I cannot even finish the government. I have to, you know, give birth before that. So, I said no. And the same party won the elections. And Oscar Arias came as President of Costa Rica. And they asked me again, to go into that vice-ministerial job, but I was breastfeeding. And so, I said, ‘I cannot. I am breastfeeding. You know, I just gave birth’. So, they came back to me. And I always tell the story. And they asked, ‘For how long will you breastfeed?’ And I said, ‘Well, six months’. And they said, ‘Okay. We will wait for you.’


Melissa Fleming 20:53


That is a beautiful story. I think most women would really wish that reaction. 


Rebeca Grynspan 21:00


Yes, it’s true. It’s true. And they really wait for me. I started to go to the ministerial, you know, meetings and whatever during that time. And when I stopped breastfeeding, I went fully into the job. After that, we lost the elections. But I was very involved with the candidacy of the next president to be. And we didn't know if we will win, but we did. And he asked me to be his running mate.


Melissa Fleming 21:38


So, you became Vice President of Costa Rica.


Rebeca Grynspan 21:41


I became Vice President of Costa Rica. Yes. 


Melissa Fleming 21:42


Madame Vice President. Wow, that's impressive. How long did you do that?


Rebeca Grynspan 21:48


Four years.


Melissa Fleming 21:50


And what was it like being vice president of a country?


Rebeca Grynspan 21:52


Hard. But I don't know. It was hard. 


Melissa Fleming 21:57


What was hard about it?


Rebeca Grynspan 21:58


Politics is very hard. Yes. 


Melissa Fleming 22:01


In what way? 


Rebeca Grynspan 22:03


First of all, because people are ready to think the worst of you. Probably, you know, there is this thing of being a politician. You know, it's a bad word, not a good word. On the other hand, I had a lot of satisfaction and a lot of learning. I learned so much from the people. I went to all places of Costa Rica. I was in charge of the programme to combat poverty and a coordinator of the social sector. And I went to talk to people in so many places, in so difficult circumstances. 


Melissa Fleming 22:49


What struck you the most from those visits?


Rebeca Grynspan 22:53


You know that one thing that struck me is that people will do two things. First of all, many of them will give me a letter telling me their story, and what is the support they will need. And that tells something about my country, yes. People knew how to write and read. You know, they were always so reasonable. Reasonable asks. The support they wanted was the things that our government should do. And that is the second thing that always stayed with me. They expected me to answer.


Melissa Fleming 23:41


How did that make you feel? That's an enormous responsibility.


Rebeca Grynspan 23:45


They wrote to me, and they expected me to respond because I was a public servant. And I thought that that was so beautiful about democracy. It was their right to ask the government to support them. And it was my duty to respond.


Melissa Fleming 24:08


At that time, you were also a mother. And being Vice President and also being a mother. How did you manage that? Those two roles.


Rebeca Grynspan 24:19


Well, let me tell you that it was more difficult when I was Vice Minister, because my kids were even younger, yes. They were newborns. And so, I quit being Vice Minister after two years of being on the job. Because it was too much. You know, I have blackouts in my memory from that time. At the end, I said, ‘This society is not ready for us doing this job with such young kids.’ You know, until that moment, I had this syndrome that many of us women have - to be superwoman. You will do everything at the same time, you know. And perfectly well done. And you will be the best mother and the best professional and the best vice minister. It doesn't work that way, you know. 


Melissa Fleming 25:14


But was it your… Was it an incident where you came to that realization? 


Rebeca Grynspan 25:19


Yes. The person that was with me all the time, that I knew very well, that was taking care of my kids, she left. And then I started to rely on people I didn't know. And suddenly I realized that I didn't want to regret this in ten years-time.


Melissa Fleming 25:42


So, you made a choice. 


Rebeca Grynspan 25:43


And I made that choice. 


Melissa Fleming 25:45


I can relate to that superwoman. So, what would you recommend to women who want to have a professional career but also want to be the best possible mothers they can be?


Rebeca Grynspan 26:02


Well, firstly, I would say that we have to fight together for society to understand that we want both. And there has to be a way to make it work. Because care is very important. Because family is very important. But we are important too. And we have dreams. And we are also people, human beings, with expectations, with things we want to do. The care system is very important. A society that takes care as a central part of what they have to do and provide. I think that is very important. And the second thing that I will say is that let's not try to solve everything alone. There are other women that are going through the same thing. It's important to talk. And the third thing is that I would tell women that life is not linear. You know, there are many reasons to go back and forth in many of the things we have to do. And the important thing is to keep your dreams alive, you know. 


Melissa Fleming 27:28


And you took a break and didn't suffer any professional consequences. You then rose to be Vice President. And then what led you to the United Nations?


Rebeca Grynspan 27:41


Well, I suppose that I have always been a public servant. I think I have a vocation.


Melissa Fleming 27:46


To serve.


Rebeca Grynspan 27:47


Yeah. To serve. Yeah. And well, then, to go to the international understanding. How the international set-up in decisions were so important for my country. So, to be in the United Nations was fantastic for me. It was part of… You know, I always thought that the most important thing for humanity that happened in the 20th century was the Human Rights Declaration. So, to come here was [inaudible]. 


Melissa Fleming 28:24


And now you are leading an organization that not many people know very much about. Can you just in a few words, tell us… describe the work of your organization that you now lead in Geneva?


Rebeca Grynspan 28:39 


Yeah, you know, UNCTAD is the organization that has been making research and proposals around trade but for development. Trade, investments, science and technology transfer, intellectual property rights, financing the global economy, are part of this framework of how do we use trade for development. Not trade for trade, yes. But trade as an instrument for developing countries to be able to come into the global economy.

Melissa Fleming 29:24


I'm sitting with you here in the studio today in New York City, because in addition to your work on trade and development, leading this agency in Geneva, you have been now asked by the Secretary-General to lead a crisis group that is looking at the repercussions of the war in Ukraine on the rest of the world. Why were you asked to do this?


Rebeca Grynspan 29:54


Well, when this started, and we started to track what was happening with prices.


Melissa Fleming 30:01


You were already tracking the rising food prices and fuel prices as a result of COVID-19.


Rebeca Grynspan 30:06


Exactly. Exactly.


Melissa Fleming 30:08


And then.


Rebeca Grynspan 30:09


And then when this comes, we saw the danger for the developing countries that had already exhausted all they could have in the fiscal space, in the debt space with the pandemic. And so, we got alarmed. And we did this very rapid assessment of some of the things that were happening.


Melissa Fleming 30:36


What was happening? What were those things that were happening? This is like almost just a few weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.


Rebeca Grynspan 30:44


We saw the disruption in trade. We started to look at the evidence in terms of the countries that the imported an important part of their food from Ukraine or Russia. And so, we started to look at the numbers and see what was happening also with the logistics on top of what happened in the pandemic.


Melissa Fleming 31:08


This is trade in the food that is going to keep people alive. This is the energy that is going to keep the economies going. And these are economies that were already on the brink. And your… As I remember it, your alarm bells were ringing, because you thought that this could push these countries over the edge.


Rebeca Grynspan 31:32


Absolutely. And we were also tracking debt. 


Melissa Fleming 31:35


I know you've probably travelled to many of the places that are facing this shock. And what is it like for somebody who, you know, was getting by on maybe a meal a day? And what is it like for them now?


Rebeca Grynspan 31:54


It’s desperation, you know, in a way. Because what you feel is that you don't deserve it, yes. And your kids don't deserve it either. To skip a meal. To not be able to go to school. To not be able to pay your health bills. You ask yourself… You've been a citizen doing what has to be done, yes. You work. You to try to raise your family. The only thing you want is the opportunity to be able to raise your family in an atmosphere that will give them opportunities that will allow for decent a decent life. And suddenly you are not able to provide.


Melissa Fleming 32:46


Something like a distant war can upend your life. 


Rebeca Grynspan 32:52


Derail your life.


Melissa Fleming 32:54


Even if you’re a continent away.


Rebeca Grynspan 32:55


Yes. You know, I was also for a while the Minister of Housing of my country while I was also the Vice President. And I remember so vividly that when it rained, I didn't sleep. In my country it rains a lot. And in the worst months of rain, knowing that there were people living in shanty towns, in very fragile hills, for example. And I would think, because we were not able yet to provide the solution to those people, and that a tragedy may happen, you know. That something may happen because the land will slide because of rains or whatever. And I remember that feeling of not being able to provide a solution being very, very strong in me. And you feel the same thing here. Yes, in a way.


Melissa Fleming 34:03


Is there anything that makes you hopeful, Rebeca?


Rebeca Grynspan 34:05


I am an optimistic person. Because I have seen change happen. I always say, Melissa, that we have to believe in change to make it happen. If you don't believe that change is possible, you don't mobilize anything. We need to believe that change is possible. And even all that I said about for example, women rights, yes. But the truth is that a lot has happened in the world. My opportunities have been much wider than my mother's. So, you know, collective action, and movement, commitment to make change happen, can achieve a lot. With all the obstacles, we don't have to be naive. We understand that the world is difficult, and interests are sometimes on the way of the things that have to be done. We don't have to be naive, but we have to believe in change, because change has happened. And we can make it happen again.


Melissa Fleming 35:19


Rebeca, thank you very much for joining me on Awake at Night.


Rebeca Grynspan 35:23


Thank you so much, Melissa, for this conversation. This has been nice. Thank you so much.


Melissa Fleming 35:32


Thank you for listening to Awake at Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of global crisis. 


To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured, do visit On Twitter, we’re @UN and I'm @melissafleming. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and please do take the time to review us. It helps more people find the show.


Thanks to my editor Bethany Bell, to Jen Thomas, Adam Paylor and the team at Purpose and to my colleagues at the UN: Roberta Politi, Katerina Kitidi, Geneva Damayanti, Tulin Battikhi, Bissera Kostova and the team at the UN studio. The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah and produced by Ben Hillier.


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