Minority refugee to UN official, staying focused on relationships

By Bonnie Price Lofton | December 11th, 2013

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Devanand Ramiah (Photo by Jon Styer)

Devanand Ramiah, MA ’02, grew up in a refugee camp as a member of a displaced minority group in war-torn Sri Lanka and now carries significant responsibility in the Secretariat of the United Nations in New York City. (He is also a member of the board of reference of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, a volunteer role.)

His journey with the United Nations began soon after receiving his master’s degree as a Fulbright Scholar at CJP. Ramiah joined the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in late 2002 as a peace and development analyst in his home country, as it moved toward a bloody end to its civil war in 2009.

In 2010, the UNDP shifted Ramiah to its headquarters in New York City, where he started as the conflict and prevention specialist for Asia and the Pacific and is now a team leader for the UNDP’s bureau for crisis prevention and recovery.

Walking toward his office in the Secretariat building diagonally across First Avenue from UN headquarters, Ramiah pointed at door after door and named some of the countries represented by his colleagues: Egypt, Somalia, Gambia, Colombia, Finland, Canada, Kenya and Serbia. During an elevator ride, warm pleasantries were exchanged and visitors introduced. … All of which lent support to Ramiah’s characterization of his colleagues as being committed, hard-working people who do an amazing job of working well together despite cultural, linguistic, and religious differences.

In a speech to attendees at EMU’s 2012 Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI), he assured them “you are in the right place,” and encouraged them to master written English, if they had not done so already. He said he felt ambivalent about native speakers of other languages, like himself, having to embrace English for formal communication, but in UN circles where employees have hundreds of native languages, a shared language is necessary.

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Devanand Ramiah socializing with other graduates of CJP in New York City (Photo by Jon Styer)

Among the lessons Ramiah offered from his UN work are:

1. Relationships are essential both for sustaining oneself as a peacebuilder and for doing the work of building peace. He advised his SPI audience to use the CJP network for feedback and support. And he stressed the importance of remembering the humanity and needs in each person, no matter how much one disagrees with his or her actions and viewpoints.

2. Conflict analysis and conflict sensitivity are critical in this field. Doing a proper analysis at the front end, based on being sensitive to ways in which conflicts might be sparked or worsened, before planning interventions is in keeping with the “first do no harm” principle, and it allows one to identify and build upon peacebuilding work that is already on the ground.

3. Bridging the divide between theory and practice. Ramiah noted that UN personnel struggle with bridging the gap between great projects on paper that aren’t implementable in reality. “Are there capacities on the ground to implement this project?” is a question that always needs to be answered. “Sometimes we design a space craft and give it to a bicycle shop to implement,” Ramiah said wryly. CJP, however, does a good job of showing how to bridge the gap, he added.

4. Genuine change comes from those who own it. The international community too often takes a “tool kit” approach, bringing in the same set of tools to each setting, rather than recognizing and working with the actual capacity of people in a given setting.

5. Systemic change requires some trained peacebuilders to work within large bureaucratic structures such as the UN, but there is also the occupational hazard of settling into being the “quintessential bureaucrat and becoming arrogantly egotistical without realizing it.”

When UN officials travel around the world, they are often kept “in a bubble” with armed protection against assaults. Ramiah offered two remedies: (1) returning to work in the field, at the grassroots, at regular intervals; (2) making a point to step back, to think, to reflect, to ask sympathetic outsiders, “Am I – are we in my group – on the right track?”

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