UNESCO puts its values into practice, empowering women. A conversation with our former director

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© UNESCO

Yolanda Valle-Neff spent more than two years with us at the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe, Venice (Italy), where she acted as Director from April 2012 until her retirement in August 2014. In this short interview with her, we would like to recall all the years she spent with UNESCO and pay tribute to her dedication and personal commitment.

Yolanda Valle-Neff joined UNESCO in 2002, as Director of Budget. Alongside the responsibility that came with this position, she also represented the Organization in the UN Chief Executive Board’s High-Level Committee on Management (CEB-HLCM). Prior to joining the organization, she had a broad background of professional experience, working for multinational companies – for instance, as Financial Manager for Kraft Foods – and as Director of Budget, Finance and Administration for international and humanitarian organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the French Red Cross. She was also Vice-Chair of the Finance Commission of the International Red Cross (IFRC).

Could you tell us about your background prior to joining UNESCO?

I learned a lot from all my previous positions, in particular how to apply private sector techniques for maximizing profit to the non-profit sector in order to enhance the effectiveness of the organization. In the private sector, the goal is to make a profit by developing the business while reducing the costs; in humanitarian and international organizations, the goal is to implement the programme of work, putting your available resources to good use, which means investing all the budget, but in an effective manner – a subtle, yet important, distinction that I also incorporated into my years of teaching at the Institut d'études politiques de Paris (also known as “Sciences Po”) and took with me during my years with UNESCO.

Could you discuss your professional experience – in particular as a woman – with UNESCO?

Throughout my career, I have often reflected on what it meant to be a woman in the workplace, particularly as I was the first woman to hold a number of senior managerial positions in the companies and organizations that I worked for. I was the first female senior manager for Kraft Foods and the first woman to hold the post of Director at the OECD – at the time, the OECD did not have many women Ambassadors, so I was very much in a minority.

All this has now changed, but those were important milestones at a time when women were still figuring out how to succeed in what was then perceived as a “man’s world”. When I joined UNESCO in 2002, I was pleasantly surprised at the change in environment – I saw so many women holding top-level positions in the Organization’s managerial and ambassadorial ranks that I thought: this is an Organization that puts its values into practice, empowering women ...

Could you explain what your vision has been in leading this Office?

I very much enjoyed each of my visits to the South-East European region: its cultural and natural beauty and the welcoming nature of its people are unparalleled. However, while a great deal of progress has been made in mending wounds over the past two decades, there is still much work to be done in terms of fostering intercultural dialogue and scientific cooperation across borders. All of our Member States in this region have demonstrated their strong commitment and willingness to achieve this goal.

The role of a Regional Director is a very unique and important one – it is the only position in the UN system that truly incorporates all aspects of the Organization – from the backstopping of administrative and support services, to the direct intervention of programme activities and the diplomacy and leadership roles required as a representative of the Organization.  I found it incredibly rewarding to be working in the field, able to see first-hand the impact that our activities have and to better understand the real issues that we are working to tackle in close cooperation with our Member States and other key partners.

My only regret, in hindsight, is that I did not seize the opportunity to work in a field office sooner. While my time in Office was, regrettably, too brief to fully explore all corners of the region, I very much look forward to returning to it as a tourist and continuing to get to know the wonderful people and places that make up this diverse and fascinating part of the world.

What have been the main achievements of the office during your tenure? Can you single out any particularly significant initiatives implemented in the region?

In the UNESCO Office in Venice, as in everyday life, change is constant. But while people and programmes have come and gone over the past few years, colleagues have worked hard to build on past successes and ensure continuity and positive outcomes for Office activities. Particularly salient examples in this respect are the re-conceptualized Council of Ministers of Culture of South-East Europe and the efforts made towards the designation of transboundary Biosphere Reserves in the region. I was extremely impressed with my colleagues’ ability to react quickly to the needs of Member States, as it was the case with our Antenna Office in Sarajevo following the disastrous floods in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

Despite my short tenure in Venice, I was personally very proud of the steps taken during that time to further strengthen Office relations, both internal and external, such as with the Office Governing Bodies. Considerable effort was devoted to listening to the Scientific Council and host country in order to increase the visibility of this Office with our local partners, among them Municipal and Regional governments and universities.

A future course for UNESCO’s sustainable presence in Venice has been set by a series of initiatives in the field of art, architecture and the environment, organised in collaboration with Member States of the region, such as the Art Camp with Andorra, Art Night with local partners, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Biennale of Art participation, Albania’s Biennale of Architecture participation, AFEX and the Office’s Venice-based contribution to the Universal Expo in 2015.

None of this would have been possible without the integration of interdisciplinary activities within the Office. As a Regional Bureau for the two UNESCO sectors, Natural Sciences and Culture, it is only natural that we should engage in more cross-sector activities. Under my supervision, in order to facilitate this process, teamwork was improved, by configuring the office in such a way as to encourage exchange between departments. I believe that the continuation of this practice will help to further enhance both the effectiveness of the Office and the quality of its results.

You retired after an extensive, active career. Looking back, what are the memories you cherish most? How will the future unfold?

I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to live in the enchanting city of Venice, an experience I will reflect upon fondly. Of course, I will always regret that I did not have more time to enjoy all that it has to offer and to spend more time working with my colleagues in Venice and Sarajevo, who I found to be a wonderful mix of very dedicated individuals. I was pleased, therefore, to return for a brief visit on 20 November, on which occasion I had the honour of presenting two valued members of the team with medals to celebrate their 20 years of work at UNESCO.

I am looking forward to embarking on my next adventure, that of opening an art gallery in Sologne, the Loire Valley Castles area, and in Paris, in cooperation with a group of contemporary artists, whom I am keen to put in contact with some of the emerging artists from the South-East European region. I hope, therefore, that I will have the opportunity to return to both South-East Europe and Venice, and to continue to support and promote the diversity of cultural expressions that these two unique places have to offer.