Arvinn Gadgil (Director, UNDP Oslo Governance Center): Early starts in grit and idealism

Arvinn works as Policy Director for International Development Policy in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He studied economics at the University of Warwick and at the London School of Economics. He has been a career diplomat and politician and has served as Junior Minister of environment and development and Deputy Minister and State Secretary in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has also been a Senior Director of one of the world’s largest humanitarian NGOs, The Norwegian Refugee Council, and has served on the board of a number of NGOs and inter-governmental organizations. He misses almost everything about The Hill – from sunset walks to beating down grass fires, from bumpy bus rides to Pune to long and lovely conversations with friends on Wada rooftops. As a member of the pioneer batch, he often thinks about how they experienced months without running water, electricity, and no telephone lines (forget internet!) to the outside world. And how incredibly close and rich relationships became as a result.

You were part of MUWCI’s first graduating class. Looking back, how did this experience shape you? What are aspects of the College that still resonate with you?

Just this weekend, I attended a MUWCI friend’s wedding in Spain. So I met many of my classmates there. And I realized that since we were the first batch, we were part of a frontier test of whether this grand experiment would work. And of whether these relationships would last. But even 20 years later – it is still extraordinarily intense, intimate, and rewarding to have conversations with my classmates.

The choices that I make in my life are different from what they would have been, had I never spent two years on the hill. The imprint of that experience is soul-deep.

For example, when it comes to work – the United Nations is a bit like a UWC environment. The moment one starts acting too provincial, you get called out on it. Understanding multiple perspectives and the full breadth and depth of the problems we are trying to solve is not just a “nice-to-have” skill – it is a non-negotiable requirement. If I don’t incorporate the UWC value of intercultural understanding into my work, I will simply just fail.

Could you tell us more about that? How exactly did MUWCI equip you with the skills you need in International Relations?

Firstly, it is important to understand that this ability to cooperate across cultures is a real skill. It is not something that you can just simply decide to do. Yes, you can choose to be friendly and respectful to other people. But when it comes to securing cooperation towards solving wicked problems, it is not necessarily a smooth and pleasant process. Some profound differences are exposed in that process. What I realized at MUWCI was that there is no way around it. If you want to engage with national questions, you need to first understand who you are, where you come from, and how that differs from others. It becomes your imperative as an internationally-minded citizen to compromise and find solutions that work for everyone. And many a time, you end up with better solutions than you could have thought of in isolation.

One of the critical things that we are equipped with as MUWCI alumni – is our understanding of how difficult solidarity can be, yet how important it is to build it. When you work in international relations or national development, as I have for almost two decades now, you can get entirely lost in the mission. If you think about the Sustainable Development Goals, they are all very compelling. But you will become an efficient participant only if you understand how power operates in the world. There will always be an instance of someone wanting things to stay as they are. A big misconception that people have about international development is that fundamentally everyone wants the same thing. Acknowledging, confronting and negotiating real disagreements and differences in priorities is not easy. A UWC is an exceptional education to prepare for that.

One way to go about it is to understand an issue deeply and thoroughly. And the other way – which I think MUWCI students excel at – is simply to ask questions. Basic, but important questions to people about why they do what they do and how they live. As one grows older, these questions rarely get asked with the sincerity they require. Through these questions, you can understand the forces – and not just the figureheads and individuals – that work against a peaceful and sustainable future for all.

Why do you believe that MUWCI is worth investing in?

I would like to say to any conscientious donors who might be reading this that MUWCI might be one of the safest “investments” to be making at the moment. If you’re looking to impact ecology or society positively, there is no safer option than investing in young students. The returns are not necessarily immediately apparent; it is a long horizon investment. But in the span of 10 to 15 years, a student you supported through MUWCI will be well on their way to making a positive impact on the world.


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