The thing about Caribbean people, Catherine Pollard says, is that even though we come from little places, we have big vision. It’s part of the reason she has excelled in her roles throughout her 30 years at the United Nations, starting as an auditor at the United Nations Development Programme in 1989, to becoming the first undersecretary for Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance.
“The Caribbean doesn’t just get involved in these things (international relations) just for the Caribbean’s sake. The Caribbean actual wants to be able to influence events around (us), I think. To use a trite saying, (we) really want to make the world a better place. And getting a better deal for the countries of the region.”
Pollard, 59, recently spoke to WMN at her office on the 32nd floor of the UN Secretariat building in New York.
And despite rising to top level of senior managers at the international organisation, Pollard acknowledges the legacy of those before her, who created a pipeline of excellence through which she, and several other Caribbean nationals have benefited.
“When I joined the UN in 1989, we actually had a lot of very senior people (from the Caribbean). The deputy administrator of the UNDP at the time was Jamaican, G Arthur Brown and he is still one of the most revered senior managers.
"Many people of distinction have served in the UN and other international organisations as well. And you might ask why, and for very much the same reason. I remember people used to tell me in UNDP, 'how come you all have so many resident coordinators—you all are such a small region.' I think it’s because we have an excellent education and we have a healthy curiosity about the rest of the world.”
Pollard was born in Georgetown, Guyana. Her father, Brynmor Pollard, was an international lawyer and she credits him with her lifelong interest in international politics.
“It’s in my blood,” she laughs.
He also instilled in her a work ethic that helped her through her rise in the UN.
“I have always just thought about myself as a professional and as a person making it, and I happen to be from the Caribbean. I think of all of that very positively but I certainly don’t see it as I’m from a small country and have reached this far. I don’t see it a constraint. It just happens to be a fact. I suppose that’s just how we were brought up to think that the sky’s the limit. It’s up to us and how we deal with people and as my father used to say to me, 'just make sure every morning when you look at the mirror you can look yourself full in the face and you know that you’re fine.'”
She studied accounting at the University of the West Indies Mona campus, Jamaica and worked for six years at auditing firm Deloitte, Touche and Thorburn (which no longer exists).
“Then I decided I no longer wanted to be an auditor and wanted to do something different and my mind tuned to maybe the international sphere. And I did send out applications to international organisations and they all nicely wrote back to me to say they didn’t have any vacancies at the time.” She forgot about it but just as she was considering a move to the private sector, the UNDP called looking for accountants.
“They had seen my application on file, and asked, was I still interested.
"It came as a complete shock and I said, 'well, yes.' Within a week they had sent me a ticket to come up to New York for an interview. I had my interview, went back to Jamaica and two weeks later they called me back and offered me the job.”
The contract was for a year.
“Everyone in my life thought I was crazy. I had a good life and the prospect of even a better life (but) I thought to myself, I don’t mind being a little fish swimming in a big ocean. I want to see what the ocean is like. I decided that if after a year they don’t like me or I don’t like them I can come back to the Caribbean. But 30 years later here I am.”
First of her name
Pollard jokes that when asked once where she thought she’d see herself at the UN, she thought she’d leave the organisation as a P5 – the highest level for a mid-career professional, just below senior management. Instead, she’s the first to hold her title. Her new role is one that was created out of reforms implemented by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres as a way to better evaluate the administrative work of the organisation, a process that started two years ago. Her unit was officially created in January.
She’s in charge of policy and strategy related to management areas and looking to ensure strong accountability frameworks, which is the compliance part comes in. She oversees the budget of the organisation and the financial comptroller reports to her, managing the financing, investments and cash for the organisation. She also oversees human resource policy, setting the standards for staff rules and regulations as the framework through which the UN implements its administrative policy. And finally, she also oversees the implementation of the Secretary General’s administrative authority that he has decentralised to all the heads of the various entities of the organisation around the world, monitoring the UN’s key performance indicators through set frameworks. Other tasks include managing the budgets for all the peacekeeping operations, and the financial situation, and of course, defending the UN’s budget to member states.
“It’s like jumping into surfing water, lots of high waves and you’ve just got to be able to stand up on the surf board and be able to ride the waves. It’s a lot of issues being dealt with at the same time.”
And it’s been an interesting time for her so far because when she assumed her position in September, the UN was in the throes of one its worst liquidity crisis in years. The United Nations operating budget depends on annual pro-rated contributions from its member states, but some have been tardy. The biggest contributor of the UN’s operating budget (22 per cent), the United States, for example, traditionally pays its contribution in November, although the UN’s financial year starts in January.
As such, under Pollard, the organisation has had to take some drastic cost-cutting measures, including limiting overseas travel and even shutting down non-essential services like the escalators at the headquarters.
Her job, therefore, often requires nuanced diplomacy skills.
“I think one of the things I’ve managed to do thorough my career is to engage with all member states. To be seen to be neutral and to engage and be honest with all of them on various issues that are important to various groups so I think that is very important.”
But, she understands it can be a blueprint for best practice when it comes to transparency in governance.
“This is new for us. This is the first time we really have put in place such concrete measures. I won’t say it’s an experiment but it is a new way of doing business for us so we certainly hope it will be successful and yes, we can be good practice for other UN organisations and even other governments who might be interested to collaborate.”
Pollard’s responsibilities are plenty but she manages them with poise, an equal mix of unflappable Caribbean cool under pressure plus a real passion for the mission and message of the United Nations.
“I call it a temple of ideals. It has a wonderful mandate and in the time that I’ve been here I have travelled the world, I have met many different kinds of people, seen many different cultures and really understood the diversity and richness. It’s also made me appreciate my own culture in terms of the Caribbean and understand it better.
“I never realised how diverse and multicultural a society we are until I actually stepped out of it into the UN world and it made me realise how fortunate we are. Just like I never thought about weather before I came here (laughs). It’s given me an appreciation and I think what’s also kept me grounded in terms of my own journey in the UN.”