The climate crisis and the war in Ukraine will take centre stage at the United Nations this week as more than 140 Heads of State and Government from around the world gather in New York. Gianna Pontecorboli discusses this with Maria Francesca Spatolisano, a close associate of Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, who recently returned from an extensive trip to Africa and Asia, where she once again sounded the climate alarm.

by Gianna Pontecorboli (from New York)

The high-level debate of the 78th United Nations General Assembly opened yesterday, 19 September. Heads of State and Prime Ministers from around the world are taking to the podium to share their hopes and concerns. They are doing so at a time when public confidence in the ability of the international organisation to solve the most dramatic and urgent problems of the day has been deeply shaken. Seen from the inside, through the eyes of a woman holding a prestigious position and with extensive experience as a European civil servant and diplomat, the international organisation also has many unexpected and unknown facets.

Since 2018, Maria Francesca Spatolisano has been one of the closest and most valuable collaborators of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres. In her role as Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, she is also the highest-ranking Italian official in the Secretariat.

Atlas of Wars asked her a few questions on the eve of what is expected to be a tense General Assembly, with many controversial and divisive issues to be discussed. Her experience as a high-level diplomat, first with the European Union – as a civil servant and ambassador to UNESCO, in Monaco and Andorra – and now at United Nations Headquarters, allows her to look at events from a particular perspective, one that is at once professional, political and feminine.

What are your predictions for what will happen at the United Nations Headquarters during the upcoming Assembly, especially in the areas you are involved with? Do you think that there is a possibility of making some concrete progress in solving the many problems that the world is facing?

We all hope that something positive will come out of it. At the Secretariat, we are working hard to make it meaningful and concrete. In the area of sustainable development in particular, the Summit organised over the weekend before the start of the debate was an important opportunity for the United Nations to engage with the rest of the world.

Maria Francesca Spatolisano, a close associate of Secretary-General of the United Nations

All those interested in our work were present, and on Sunday several sessions were held open to a specialised audience to discuss a series of steps with real impact. We hope that these specialist participants will make a constructive contribution. For example, there will be twelve initiatives at the Summit where we hope to make a concrete and positive contribution in the medium and long term. One of these could be a commitment to create green jobs, i.e. sustainable and non-polluting jobs. We expect a commitment for some 400,000 workers to be announced in the next few days.

When we talk about sustainable development, one of the most acute problems is certainly that of creating a financial system that is better adapted to today’s needs and more accessible to the poorest Countries. What do you think the Summit will achieve in this area, and how will the participating banks respond?

In this respect, too, we are seeing positive signs. Of course, the issue cannot be decided at the UN, but the fact that it is being discussed will certainly have an impact and create the right pressure. It’s clear that the money is in the banks and it will be up to the banks to make it available to those who need it, whether it’s for building infrastructure or simply for survival or education. In the longer term, what we hope to achieve is a renewed sense of trust in financial institutions, not only international ones, but also local ones, because they are all necessary. It’s important for citizens to have confidence in institutions, including local ones, because they are instrumental in creating solutions for everyday life, such as education or healthcare, and all of this is aimed at reducing inequalities.

In the past, you have had extensive experience as a delegate of the European Union in various areas of the United Nations. What has it meant for you to return to UN as an official? Have you noticed any changes?

I was a delegate at the UN 15-18 years ago in various sectors, so when I came back I was already familiar with the dynamics of the UN. But coming as a delegate and as an official is very different: the role of the delegate is much stronger. The role of the Secretariat is to support the needs of the States, but not to direct. It is the States that decide what we are going to do. Today, from what I have observed, there are differences that reflect the differences in the world. Certainly, in the past there was greater coherence with the goals of the United Nations Charter, culminating in the adoption of the Programme for Sustainable Development. This enthusiasm for international cooperation now seems to be contradicted by events in many parts of the world, making our work more challenging. But that’s not always the case. When it comes to humanitarian intervention and sustainable development policy, for example, there is still plenty of room for good cooperation. But when geopolitical tensions come into play, the catastrophe is clear, as seen in Russia’s violation of the United Nations Charter. The pandemic also created tensions between North and South, as many countries in the South felt neglected, even though solidarity networks were in fact activated.

The position of women will also be discussed during the General Assembly. Beyond the tragedies faced by women in Countries such as Afghanistan or Iran, what is your personal experience of the true attitude of the so-called “Western world” towards the female universe, and what issues remain to be resolved? Can you give any positive examples?

There has been progress in the Western world, and I think there are three areas where women are favoured. First of all, access to digital technology is extremely high and equal for men and women. Another positive aspect is the ability to participate fully in political life. Participation is not yet equal, but it is on the increase: there are 26.7% women in national Parliaments and 35.5% at local level. The situation is slightly less favourable in large companies, where women’s participation is around 28%, but even here it is on the increase. In Western countries, women are legally equal to men in all areas, while in other Countries, unfortunately, there are still significant differences. Today we can see that the gap between the Nordic countries and those in southern Europe has narrowed; for example, Spain and Finland are similar. What is slower to change is culture and discrimination, which is sometimes not even consciously perceived.

Based on your personal experience, what challenges do you still see today for a woman who wants to have a significant international career, and what advice can you give to young women?

I can say that, as a young official in the European Union, I had some conversations with my superiors at the time that were not always easy. It’s clear that progress has been made and that there is greater respect for women’s work, but it’s also true that the situation is not easy. I, who consider myself a feminist, always say that true equality will only be achieved when a completely incompetent woman is in charge of a structure, as is the case with many men (!). All joking aside, I think the most important thing is to persevere. Many doors will be closed, but not all, if you are competent and have a certain determination. Your image should be that of a problem-solver rather than a problem-creator. Mobility is also an advantage: moving around is not bad for your career, and you have to learn to take some calculated risks.

This article has also been published on Lettera22

On the cover, the headquarters of the United Nations. In the text: Maria Francesca Spatolisano (Photo: United Nations)