Martino Miraglia: from UNDP in Brussels, through Algeria, to UN-Habitat in Nairobi

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ROME, MARCH 26 – Martino Miraglia (31), born in Florence, studied Political Science and Communication at the University of Florence, and eventually obtained a Masters in Internal Relations from the Université libre de Bruxelles. During his studies in Brussels, he was hired as an intern for UNDP. Since then, he has navigated the world of the UN from a variety of positions, and is today stationed at the UN-Habitat Headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

What interests, educational and professional experiences brought you to where you are today?

I became interested in international cooperation during my second year at the University of Florence. I studied Political Science and Communication, and quickly came to understand that the international dimension of this field of study interested me the most. I then moved to Brussels to pursue a Masters in International Relations and my passion for international cooperation consolidated with a focus on development: local development, development from the ground, grassroots activities in civil communities. I decided to apply for an internship at the UN.

I was lucky because I was accepted at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in Brussels. After the internship, I was called back as a consultant supporting the UN/UNDP Director in coordinating the whole UN system in Brussels, which at the time counted a total of 26 sister agencies. Rather quickly, after 2-3 months, I moved to the unit dealing with local governance and local development: the UNDP ART initiative, UNDP’s Hub for territorial partnerships and SDG Localization. From 2018 until the end of 2019 I was not directly contracted by the UN, but rather by an Italian Association of local municipalities (FELCOS Umbria) providing services for a UNDP project in Algeria – the UNDP-EU CapDeL Programme. To Nairobi and UN-Habitat, where I am based today, I arrived through the JPO programme.

What are your main tasks and responsibilities in your current UN-Habitat position? How do these differ from your previous positions?

At UN-Habitat, I am a project officer. I am the technical lead and coordinator of UN-Habitat’s work with regards to local and regional governments, SDG localization, and voluntary local reviews. I therefore work extensively with local governments and on local governance related matters.

When we speak of SDG localization, we are referring to the process of implementing the SDGs locally, of realizing them on a local scale, in line with the national frameworks and priorities. It is a two-fold process where the local meets the national in a mutually reinforcing manner. Bringing the focus back to the local implementation of SDGs is important because, at the end of the day, successfully implementing and achieving these goals depends largely on what happens at the local level, on local action and on the leadership of local and regions governments.

All the positions I have covered so far were arguably quite different from each other. Compared to UNDP, which is the big mother of sustainable development efforts and therefore a very powerful agency, UN-Habitat is smaller and more specialized. It’s a more competency-based agency, dealing with a very specific niche, namely local and urban development. I find this to be rather stimulating because it really allows you to learn a lot about specific activities and work.

My experience as a consultant in Algeria was also much different in nature as compared to that of a staff member. When you are on the ground you are there to deliver specific outputs, training and researches. It was beautiful because I was never sitting in front of a laptop, I was always giving trainings, being in touch with people.

What is the role of governance in regards to local and urban development?

Everything is about governance. Governance is the way we structure our societies around a specific institution, its the way we jointly define the way ahead, its how we govern ourselves towards the future. Effective, good and inclusive governance is key for a resilient and sustainable urban development.

What challenges arise in working with governments and civil society in fragile contexts?

It can be quite difficult. The work on governance is usually most successful in places where democratic governance systems are already in place and levels of decentralization exist. In places where these systems are inexistent, or simply volatile and corrupt, it can be rather challenging. The biggest obstacle is overcoming ineffective and corrupt institutional structures which are eradicated in the territory. It is possible, but it requires political will, a will to establish that kind of institutional governance structure that is transparent and efficient. Another significant challenge is the participation and inclusion of communities, because in many fragile contexts governments simply do not have the right instruments and mechanisms to involve civil society and communities in their decision making processes.

What challenges do you face in trying to reach out to and involve local communities?

That depends on what your goal is: do you want to reach out in an ad hoc way -which boils down to asking questions and then leaving- or are you trying to install and propose some mechanisms which would transform this participation into something structural and intrinsic? Achieving the second goal is obviously much more challenging, because it requires you to take a step back and create governmentally led processes capable of ensuring a continuous, self-feeding inclusion at the communal level.

In your opinion, is the UN doing enough to engage and involve young people?

I have mixed opinions. On the one hand, a lot of people I know, especially at UN-Habitat, started as interns. The reality is that, if you are good at what you do and lucky enough that your competences and qualities are required, you have a very good possibility of growing in the organization. They will always find a way of keeping you, no matter how difficult is the funding. On the other hand, in many UN agencies interns are not paid, meaning that only those who can sustain themselves can apply for such positions. I think that everybody should be given a possibility to participate.

What advice would you give to a young person looking to work for UN-Habitat, or the UN more generally?

It’s important to understand that the UN is a big machinery. It works with very specific rules, and the better you understand the rules of the game and how to move inside of them, the better it is. It is also a very vertical organization: instructions and decisions come from the top down, which means that if you want to professionally advance in this environment, you ought to be proactive and hard working, but also be aware of your place and who you are responding to.

Another incredibly important factor is networking. The network you build around the institution is key, it is really important to broaden your opportunities. Networking is what brought me, for example, to live in Algeria as a consultant, something I would have never imagined doing. Don’t be shy, always introduce yourself and your competences, let yourself be known. This is not only pivotal for the evolution of your career, but also to build connections with the people you work with. None of us can work alone, we need partnerships and a good team spirit. (@OnuItalia)