Siddharth Chatterjee, a former Indian Army Special Forces officer, a feminist and a passionate advocate for youth empowerment within the United Nations in Kenya. Currently, he is the United Nations Resident Coordinator and the UNDP Resident Representative in Kenya.
Recently Siddharth Chatterjee visited South Korea to attend an exhibition on durable growth and sustainable development, where he also made a keynote address on Africa’s youth. Chatterjee joined the U.N. in 1997. He has lived and worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq (two tours), South Sudan, Indonesia, Sudan (Darfur), Somalia, Denmark, Switzerland and Kenya.
In South Sudan, he successfully negotiated the release of 3,551 child soldiers from the rebel army of the SPLA and led the largest-ever demobilization of child soldiers in 2001 during an ongoing conflict. Watch his TEDx video talk on the topic.
A prolific writer, Chatterjee has a blog in Reuters and Huffington Post. Chatterjee has a Master’s degree from the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in the U.S., and a Bachelor’s degree from India’s National Defence Academy.
He was decorated for gallantry by the president of India during his service in the Indian Special Forces where he rose to the rank of Major. He is active on social media; his twitter handle is @sidchat1
Chatterjee is married to Ban Ki-moon’s youngest daughter Ban Hyun-hee and they have a son.
While he visited Korea recently, we had a conversation with Chatterjee, a former Indian Army Special Forces officer, a feminist and a passionate advocate for youth empowerment within the United Nations in Kenya. Currently, he is the United Nations Resident Coordinator and the UNDP Resident Representative in Kenya. Here are the excerpts of the interview we had with him at Songdo Convensia in Incheon.
Q. Your wife and you work in the U.N. How did you meet your wife and what inspires you to work in the U.N.?
I call it the unseen hand of destiny; maybe we were meant to meet. You know that I was a member of India’s elite Parachute Regiment and my Regiment has a history in Korea. India actually provided a medical unit to attend the sick and wounded in the Korean War. With the communist invasion of South Korea in 1950, the U.N. sent out a call to the free world for assistance. The 60 Parachute Field Ambulance from India served in Korea for three and a half years (November 1950 to May 1954), the longest single tenure by any military unit under the U.N. flag.
In 2004 my wife Ban Hyun-hee and I were deployed to Sudan and we had been UNICEF staff working in New York and Indonesia respectively. We were sent there to assist the UNICEF Sudan office in responding to the humanitarian emergency that was unfolding in Darfur. We met in Sudan in 2004 and by 2006 we were married.
We are both passionate about our work in the United Nations. Both our families suffered as a consequence of war and conflict, Hyun-hee’s family by the Korean War and my family by the partition of India in 1947. Both conflicts led to millions of deaths and large-scale destruction. My father as a matter of fact came to India as a refugee from Bangladesh, which was East Pakistan then.
My wife and her siblings and I have grown up in humble circumstances. We benefited from the tireless hard work and dedication of respective parents to improve and advance our circumstances.
We have known and seen firsthand many human tragedies and triumphs from which we have learnt important lessons. We are both deeply committed to advancing dignity, human development and humanity.
As U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently remarked, “We are a world in pieces, and we need a world at peace.” We hope to make our own contributions to that vision.
Q. How would you describe your father-in-law, Ban Ki-moon? What defines Mr. Ban is his humility, his generosity, his very hard work and his kindness. He is an exceptional man, a gentleman and truly wonderful human being, who I have had the honor to meet and know, and call my father-in-law. He is the epitome of public service. He personifies the adage, “service before self.”
Mr. Ban grew during the Korean War. He saw the United Nations help his country to recover and rebuild. That experience was a big part of what led him to pursue a career in public service.
As the eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations, his priorities had been to mobilize world leaders around a set of new global challenges, from climate change and economic upheaval to pandemics and increasing pressures involving food, energy and water. He has sought to be a bridge-builder, to give voice to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
I am inspired by him every day.
Q. You call yourself a feminist. Why this passion about gender equality and women’s empowerment?
I would say my passion for gender advocacy was cemented by my experiences in the Indian Army and at a personal level. My own grandmother was married at the age of 11 and had 15 children, 9 of whom survived. My early years in conflict settings also brought home the reality that women and children are worst affected during wars and natural disasters. While serving in the army as a young officer, I was horrified to find out that a soldier from my unit had raped a young girl.
I remember the sheer fear and trauma that girl went through, and the helplessness of her family.
It was a life-changing moment for me. While the punishment that followed was swift and uncompromising, it was at that moment I swore to fight all forms of misogyny, discrimination and violence.
In many of the countries I worked in, disease outbreaks and lack of water and sanitation were the order of the day. Reproductive health services, including midwifery outreach services, antenatal care, management of prenatal complications and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS were not readily available in conflict regions.
These problems had particularly harsh consequences among women and children.
The years I spent in fragile environments will always remain a poignant reminder of the disparate harm that women are predisposed to whenever one form or other of humanitarian crisis arises. Some were victims of rape and torture, and others were widowed at young ages, their husbands murdered or kidnapped.
Regrettably, even in peacetime, many societies still exhibit levels of patriarchy and misogyny that are simply appalling. The psychosocial status of the women who survived such atrocities are issues that continued to preoccupy me.
When I joined the U.N. in 1997, I felt the need to advocate against all forms of discrimination against women and children.
Q. How would you describe your own leadership style?
The Army teaches you some very important lessons on leadership.
The culture is, a leader leads from the front and knowing the right balance when to lead from behind.
My principle is that when something goes wrong, I will take the hit for it and will stand by my staff. When things go well and are successful, I will ensure the credit is passed on to individuals and the team.
As a matter of principle I have always requested a 360-degree performance review. Getting honest and reliable feedback is necessary to test one’s own perceptions, recognize previously unseen strengths, and become aware of blind spots in one’s self-perceptions.
I did my last 360-degree review in 2015 and for purposes of transparency I posted it online.
Leadership is an ongoing journey of self-actualization.
Q. How can Kenya and South Korea collaborate?
Kenya is a beacon of hope in a region mired in instability and a regional economic hub.
I can see huge potential. Kenya and South Korea should seek a robust and multidimensional partnership which can be mutually reinforcing. Kenya can learn a lot from South Korea’s growth model.
In 1950 the GDP per capita of South Korea was $876 and Kenya’s was $947. In 2016, the GDP per capita of South Korea rose to $27,539 and Kenya’s to $1,455.
South Korea over the past four decades has demonstrated incredible economic growth and global integration to become a high-tech industrialized economy. In the 1960s, GDP per capita was comparable with levels in the poorer countries of Africa and Asia. In 2004, South Korea joined the trillion-dollar club of world economies.
While the majority of these Kenyans are occupied in the agricultural industry, technological advances and the rising prominence of the service industry threaten to render many of these superfluous unless urgent shifts in growth models are undertaken to create quality jobs.
In fact youth employment is a very high priority for the president of Kenya, His Excellency Uhuru Kenyatta. President Kenyatta has said harnessing the demographic dividend in Africa will depend on the continent’s commitment to create sufficient job opportunities to absorb the rising number of new entrants in the job market and the preparedness of the young people to take up the jobs.
Lessons from economic structural transformation abound especially from South Korea. Once an agricultural country like Kenya, South Korea spent much of the 20th century driving modern technologies and is now regarded as one of Asia’s most advanced economies. Among the focus areas for the country were facilitating industrialization, high household savings rates, high literacy rates and low fertility rates.
What South Korea achieved was fast economic growth underpinned by a strong industrial base that led to full employment and higher real wages. When the 1997 financial crisis threatened employment and welfare of its citizens in 1997, the country engaged in ambitious structural adjustment that introduced social protection measures for workers, the unemployed and poor people, in addition to reigniting the drivers of growth.
South Korea’s population is shrinking and Kenya and the rest of Africa’s population is rapidly expanding. South Korea’s investments and public-private partnerships with Kenya can open up immense opportunities of youth employment in Kenya and give access to large markets for South Korean companies in Kenya and the rest of Africa.
Kenya in my view is a window to the rest of Africa with well-developed human capital and overall macroeconomic stability. With a median age of 18 years, Kenya can lead the way in reaping a demographic dividend, ensuring gender equality and women’s empowerment and achieve its Vision 2030. Vision 2030 aims to transform Kenya into a middle-income country and providing a high quality of life for all its citizens by 2030. We have as a U.N. family in Kenya committed to walking this journey with the Kenyan government and the Kenyan people and I hope South Korea will join us too.
Q.You have had a unusual career track, from a soldier to a humanitarian and development professional. How did you manage this transformation?
I owe my ability to adapt and embrace adversity and diversity to the foundations of my alma mater, the National Defence Academy and to the Special Forcesunit I served in. My year of study and reflection at Princeton University was perhaps one of the most significant intellectual growth spurts and sharpened my understanding of public policy. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity I had at Princeton. I encourage everyone to take a year off in their careers to pause and go back to school. It gives you the freedom to pursue your intellectual interests, develop new capabilities, expose yourself to new approaches and methods and advance your career.