Elise Zerrath

Arrived in Geneva: Full of excitement, on a gloomy day in November 2017. The gloominess disappeared; the excitement stayed.

Organization: Associate Expert, Sustainable Development and Gender Unit, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)

Hometown: Lübeck, Germany

Tell us who you are and what you do in Geneva.

I am an aspiring changemaker - trying in my daily work at UNECE’s Sustainable Development and Gender Unit to advance sustainable development in Europe, North America and Central Asia. I have done so in different roles: as part of the organizing team for the Regional Forum on Sustainable Development and the Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting but also as a coordinator for the UN Forum of Mayors.

These different roles gave me important impulses: Beijing+25 was a strong reminder that there cannot be sustainable development without gender equality, the Forum of Mayors made clear that everyone – especially the local level – is needed to realize the SDGs, and the Regional Forum is an annual source for energy and momentum to step up our action to meet the Global Goals.

Besides bringing SDG advocates together in different conferences, I like the escapes from Geneva to the enormous mountains and the mind-blowing world of glaciers and rocks. Switzerland’s rich nature is a constant reminder of what is at stake; why protecting our planet needs to be our priority.

How does your organization reflect the 2030 Agenda’s paradigms of innovation, integration and collaboration in its activities?

The 2030 Agenda has given us enormous tasks which are not easy to live up to. It’s hard to innovate when bureaucracy gets in the way, to collaborate when old habits die hard, to integrate when in-person exchanges are put on hold. The 2030 Agenda demands transformation, agility, audacity – perhaps all easy to realize in a five-person start-up but challenging for an organization with several hundred civil servants.

UNECE is trying hard to move where we need to be: we have adopted a “nexus” approach in our work, focusing on high-impact areas where multiple SDGs converge, e.g. the nexus area on ‘Sustainable and Smart Cities for all Ages’, which facilitates collaboration between experts from different teams. We also established a cross-divisional innovation task force to accelerate our internal innovation efforts. The most important force to drive change within our organization is the tireless commitment of many hard-working colleagues who are willing to roll up their sleeves and take on the 2030 Agenda’s enormous tasks.

What do you find unique about the Geneva ecosystem of actors?

Interestingly, in many respects the ecosystem is mirroring Geneva’s assets: it is incredibly diverse – yet distances are extremely short. The ecosystem carries a wealth of expertise across sectors, yet it is very accessible and feels familiar. Sometimes – like in Geneva – you think you have seen it all and then you take a turn and discover something completely new. The Geneva ecosystem is full of these surprise discoveries.

What do you think is one of the most important assets Geneva ecosystem of actors?

It’s the simple access to a wealth of expertise and thought leaders, all knit together in a network. But there are also its hidden qualities: within the ecosystem of actors, there are no hierarchies to follow, no protocol to observe, just individuals driven by a common desire to trigger change. And that might be one of its greatest strengths, to create a network of like-minded equals motivated by the same global goals.

What is on your mind right now?

Our Regional Forum on Sustainable Development! It’s a huge multi-stakeholder event for a small team like ours. We stand at 1300+ participants (and counting) and are coordinating dozens of different sessions: plenary sessions, round tables, pre-meetings, and side events. Ministers, ambassadors, UN leaders are all on board – in simple words, it’s enormous. The discussions focus on the issues that are on everybody’s mind these days: how can we recover better from the COVID-19 pandemic and how can we use the crisis as a springboard to build a more sustainable future?

What’s your favourite thing to do in and around Geneva?

Even after more than three years, the outdoors around Geneva still blows my mind. Lac Léman always provides a source for peace of mind (I just discovered winter swimming) and, of course, those gigantic mountains exert a special attraction. On weekends, I like to reduce life to its minimum: pack a rucksack, stay in a mountain hut and experience the humbling force of the mountains. And be reminded that it is in our hands to protect these natural treasures.

What is one thing that most people do not know about you?

One of my life goals is relatively simple: to have two smart pet pigs. I am still searching for them – any leads are welcome!