Intervening from New York to Save Lives

Intervening from New York to Save Lives

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Published:
January 23, 2016

Paul Mikov, an Adventist in New York City, describes his roles as UN liaison for NGOs World Vision, and now CMMB, working to improve the lives of vulnerable people around the world.

Question: You worked for World Vision for almost ten years, mainly in high-profile roles in New York City, liaising with the United Nations. How would you describe the work that you did? What were some of your primary projects and achievements?

Answer: My role as United Nations Representative and Director of the UN Office for World Vision International spanned across several domains -- the most significant being the UN bodies, departments and specialized agencies, as well as with the permanent diplomatic missions of governments/member states of the United Nations. It was a role that cut across government relations, branding and positioning, humanitarian diplomacy, policy influence and advocacy, and engagements with the academic, corporate and foundations domains for the purposes of resource mobilization and advancement of knowledge.

It was a thoroughly exciting and fulfilling experience, and God blessed in some wonderful ways.

Internally, we managed to leverage what was initially a two-person office into a large team of more than 20 senior staff with diverse expertise, and transformed World Vision into a preferred partner to policy makers on humanitarian, development (especially global health), and child rights issues.

Over the seven years in that role it was inevitable that I woul  accumulate memories of impact and achievement. I am particularly grateful that I was able to help establish one of the most successful public-private partnerships in the history of the United Nations: the Every Woman Every Child initiative on maternal, child and adolescent health. We managed to mobilize $40 billion from public and private sources in order to launch this initiative. World Vision International committed $1.5 billion at the time, which was equivalent to the commitment of the Gates Foundation.

And yet, at a deeper level, I will forever cherish those occasions when my personal interventions resulted in lives being saved, whether by negotiating a convoy of aid to hundreds of thousands of civilians encircled and bombarded by government forces in the Vanni region of Sri Lanka; or when convincing the UN to dispatch a helicopter to the bushes of North Kivu in the DRC to evacuate eight of our staff who were in the line of fire and about to be killed; or influencing the drafting of a Security Council resolution mandating the largest peacekeeping mission on the planet to prioritize the protection of civilians, especially the most vulnerable: women and children. It was a role that in a very real sense had even pastoral and prophetic dimensions to it. And it was that fact that I found most meaningful and fulfilling.

How would you describe World Vision and its work? How was it as a place to work and what was the culture among its staff like? How would you compare the work of World Vision with that of the church’s global NGO ADRA?

World Vision is a large NGO with a huge global geographical footprint and multi-sectoral programming (i.e. long-term development, humanitarian response, and policy and advocacy, with many more cross-cutting fields and competencies).

World Vision is a Christian, non-denominational organization, which takes its Christian identity and heritage very seriously. World Vision is unequivocally intentional about its Christian commitments, constantly seeking that those inform and shape both its identity and its work.

While my observation is obviously provisional and tentative, since I have never worked for ADRA, it seems to me that it may well be that World Vision reflects and grapples theologically and missiologically upon itself, its mandate and mission, to a greater extent than that might be the case within ADRA.

From the perspective of scope, World Vision is a considerably larger organization than ADRA. World Vision’s annual budget is in the vicinity of $2.8 billion, which easily makes it one of the top two largest operational NGOs in the world. This fact, obviously, allows World Vision to have a much greater operational leeway and programmatic footprint.

Another major difference between the two organizations is probably in the degree to which they engage externally. Namely, World Vision has been deploying significant resources into its policy and advocacy portfolio and is typically engaged on most humanitarian, development and human rights/justice agendas, nationally -- regionally as well as globally -- and often in robust and leading roles.

Of course, whether an organization is engaged in the external and policy fora to some extent is a matter of resources and capacity. However, more fundamentally, it is much more a matter of philosophy and culture. In the case of World Vision and ADRA, it should also be a matter of theology.

What have you learned in all your work with the UN? It is such a large, and powerful, organisation. Is it hard to get things done? Do you feel it’s very bureaucratic? Or do you feel you are working with many noble-minded, idealistic people who accomplish great things for the good of the world?

International affairs have always been complex. The UN, which is at the center of it all, is inevitably a complex system and entity.  What most people do not recognize, however, is the fact that the relative effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the UN as a whole is to an immense degree determined by the will of the member states of the UN -- the most powerful ones in particular, chief among them being USA. It is after all a political, inter-governmental entity.

Of course, the UN is also a large bureaucracy, and like any other bureaucracy, it has its shortcomings, imperfections and inefficiencies. My experience has been that, yes, you encounter mediocrity within the UN, both at headquarters and in the field.

Nonetheless, it has also been my observation that some of the brightest minds on the planet work for the UN or in support of the UN’s mandate and mission. I have encountered genuine idealism and love for humanity among people who work at the UN.

The issues the world is facing are complex and defy simple solutions, and too many times the UN is “the last stop before hell” (to quote the title of a recent documentary).

I do not want to sound like a self-appointed apologist for the UN. But, again, most people do not realize how extensive the UN’s scope of work is. For instance, the UN is involved in maritime matters and regulates the law of the seas; it is involved in feeding millions of hungry people on a daily basis; it manages scores of peacekeeping missions around the world; it is involved in helping governments with elections and population censuses; the UN runs the world’s meteorological office; works on nuclear matters; and is even advancing debates and policies on human activity in outer space, and much more. And it does all of that with a total budget that is just a fraction of the annual budget of a single department of the US government.

All of the evident and inevitable imperfections notwithstanding, the UN has great convening power on the world stage, and often provides valuable thought leadership. Just yesterday I was walking by the headquarters of Pfizer, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies on the planet, and was impressed to see Pfizer’s whole massive HQ building here in Manhattan plastered with the most attractive marketing visuals of the recently adopted and UN-inspired Sustainable Development Goals. It seems UN’s leadership is increasingly embraced even by the corporate sector.

You haven’t been employed by ADRA, but you do have extensive church work experience for the Ohio and Southern California Conferences. What did you do for the church? How would you compare working for the church with working for an outside employer?

For about eight years I had the wonderful privilege, which afforded me much joy, to pastor several churches in the Southern California Conference. My last pastorate was as the senior pastor of the Camarillo SDA Church. In Ohio, I helped with development work for about a year-and-a-half in an effort to save the oldest academy in North America. [Mount Vernon Academy.] Unfortunately, we were not successful.

The differences between SDA Church and non-church employment can be significant, and of course depends on the role in question as well.

For the past year, you have worked for the CMMB-Healthier Lives Worldwide in New York. What does your position entail?

I am the Vice President for Institutional Partnerships. As the title suggests, it’s my responsibility to help advance the interface and hopefully partnerships with corporations, thought-leading foundations, select UN specialized agencies, government agencies for international development (e.g. the US Agency for International Development or USAID), academia and select domestic health systems.

Many of these entities are already engaged, or aspire to be increasingly engaged, in the areas of maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health internationally. Millions of children continue to die before they turn five years old from preventable diseases or minor health issues that we in the developed world take care of with a pill or antibiotic. Hundreds of thousands of mothers die while giving life in childbirth, also from minor and easily preventable complications. The issues are staggering and they amount to a massive moral imperative. Beyond the ethics behind it, the health of women, children and adolescents is critically important to almost every area of human development and progress in the developing world. And this is only on the side of global health, not counting scores of other humanitarian or conflict propelled crises.

And so, it becomes crucially important to engage the private sector, major foundations, governments and other partners and trigger their imagination as to the kind of force for good they could be around the world if they were willing to deploy some of their knowledge, resources, competencies and capacities. Many lives could be saved and large parts of societies transformed.

What do you believe the global NGO community should focus on to diminish the number people living in poverty and hunger around the world? What is the answer to the world's problems?

These are huge questions. In an ultimate sense, God and the Person of Christ are the answer to the world’s problems, which are many and monumental: climate change, population growth, violent conflicts, the widening gap between rich and poor, increasing numbers of refugees, and a global shift in political-economic power spheres.

At a more mundane level, the responses to abject poverty and hunger around the world will have to be multi-faceted, smart and robust. First, there must be a sustained shift from tackling the symptoms and consequences of poverty to addressing the root causes. The alternative amounts to no more than “putting out fires.”

Poverty is largely and fundamentally propelled and perpetuated by structural issues, and at the level of policies, and systems. This makes poverty a justice issue. Hence the necessity to engage to influence policy formation, and to advocate for the most just arrangements to prevail in the social, economic and political spheres of people’s daily realities. Obviously, so much more could be said here.

Second, a whole new ethic is needed, the logic of which would be mainly informed by the common good. It’s an ethic that relativizes dominant notions of parochial, tribal, or national interests, but rather seeks the wellbeing of the whole and all. And Christianity, including Adventism, should lead on both of these fronts, because alleviating the world’s challenges not only requires new forms of cooperation and technical expertise but also a dialogue and engagement on values.

It seems to me that Christ’s costly call of discipleship entails that we take our faith and commitments to the values and principles of the Kingdom of God beyond the confines of our churches and dynamically engage our faith and commitments with the most pressing issues of today. Not because we don’t believe in the “tomorrow” or “not yet” of the Kingdom of God, but exactly because we believe and know that the Kingdom has already come and is operational in the world. The Church must be a “sign” of this Kingdom, its values and purposes. Christ and his prophets are the models for us to emulate.

Do you feel the Adventist church is doing its part in really serving vulnerable people in local communities and around the world? What is it doing well? What could it do better?

Obviously, the Adventist Church has done so much great work in the service of vulnerable people around the world over the past 150 plus years of its existence. It’s fair to say that its overall contribution has substantially surpassed its size and presence on the stage of history.

It’s a relatively well-known fact by now that the Adventist Church has been particularly strong it the health and education sectors. Adventist schools, for instance, have educated millions over the years, which has for many meant being pulled out of poverty or prevented from ending up in poverty.

Nevertheless, an argument could be made that the social and prophetic potential of Adventism is so much greater, and that even some of its most peculiar “offerings” could be conceived and deployed in ways that would not only be fresh, more compelling and exciting, but would also result in exponentially greater impact and consequence, both from the perspective of the “world” as well as the Kingdom of God.

How has your Adventist education and experience informed your work?

I am profoundly grateful to God for the trajectory of my life so far, and the roles my Adventist experience and education have played in it. It’s not a mere platitude to say that I would not be where I am today, or where I have been so far, without my Adventist upbringing, experience and education. I grew up in Macedonia (at the time part of Yugoslavia), where other religions and ideologies dominated. Adventism helped nurture within me a differentiated worldview and expanded my horizons beyond those options; it dispatched me into a much larger world.

What keeps you in the Adventist church?

History, longevity, family, the enduring conviction that Adventism has a great contribution to make in the world and can offer a positive view of God.

I understand that after leaving Yugoslavia you studied at Newbold College in England, then Fuller in California, and have been based in the US since. Have you ever felt any desire to return to your roots?

I certainly have. In fact, when we first moved from the UK in 1995, our plan was to go back to what is now the former Yugoslavia. But, God has been closing and opening doors in a way that has kept us here in the US. Hopefully the hybrid of European and American in us amounts to some value-add.

You have presented lectures at many conferences and taught a number of courses, including at Washington Adventist University, Columbia University -- and you have one on human rights at Fordham University this coming semester. Is there a main, crucial lesson you hope your students will take away? You obviously bring extensive real-world experience to the classroom — do you feel you also have a natural affinity with teaching?

I do feel I have an affinity with teaching. Many years in school and several years “behind the pulpit” have perhaps predisposed me towards teaching and pontification.

In the class this semester at Fordham University my main goal will be to help students understand the social and political developments and implications surrounding the demise of the Cold War, and the resulting expansion of human rights norms, policies and systems within the broader area of protection of civilians. Hopefully, also, the class will  inspire students and trigger their imaginations to operate as agents of change on behalf of those whose dignity and wellbeing have been denied.

You have spoken a lot about the intersection of faith and humanitarian work. How do you feel they can best co-exist? Obviously, religion can potentially get in the way. Is it best to try to keep them totally separate?

Separating the two should never be an option. Our faith should not be compartmentalized. In fact, humanitarian action is at its best when informed by faith. People appreciate authenticity, and so a believer’s engagement in humanitarian work should ideally be an authentic expression of his/her faith. Religion gets in the way whenever it seeks to instrumentalize humanitarian assistance or development aid. This is why authenticity is the corrective to this temptation.

 

 

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