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In Washington, a Seasoned Hand at the UN’s Development Office


After six years as director of the United Nations Information Center in Washington, D.C., Will Davis is now leading the UN Development Program’s office in the capital, promoting the agency’s interests among constituents at Congress, the White House, nonprofit groups and the media. He joined the agency in January. Rodney Bent, a former senior adviser to the United States deputy secretary of state, took Davis’s place at the Information Center.

Besides the UN, Davis, 50, has a background in the US government and in public affairs. His work at the UN Information Center, the main conduit for the UN Secretariat in Washington, involved bringing the UN closer to the necessary players in the capital. At the UN Development Program, he is doing similar networking on a “narrower range of issues,” he said.

UNDP in Washington
Will Davis, who runs the Washington office for the UN Development Program.

As with other UN agencies, the UN Development Program keeps a small office in Washington. The US is the largest contributor to the UN’s regular and peacekeeping budgets, and it announced last month that it would support a “normal country program” in Burma, also known as Myanmar, with the UN Development Program’s office there.

Before the UN, Davis held senior positions in the US State Department’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs, including staff director of the office of regional, global and functional affairs, which tracks its policy issues in Congress. He also worked for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development as a deputy in public affairs at its headquarters in Paris and earlier in Washington; and for the White House as senior director and for the National Security Council as director for legislative affairs.

The UN Development Program concentrates on poverty reduction, sustainable development, crisis prevention and recovery and governance — “trying to help our member states to be better governments,” as Davis described it.

His office in Washington is also about securing appointments with, say, the US Agency for International Development (USAID). He ensures that senior UN agency and other UN officials coming to town meet the “right people,” he said. Helen Clark, the administrator of the UN Development Program and a New Zealander, was in town recently for an International Monetary Fund meeting.

Befriending Burma

The reception the UN Development Program gets in Washington, Davis said, is generally positive. The US government, for example, is keen to “normalize” relations with Burma, Davis said, as democratic moves unfold in the country, and the UN agency already has  projects there on food security, health care (HIV/AIDS prevention), microfinance and gender equality, among others, that the US could help expand.

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Now that Aung San Suu Kyi, the well-known Burmese dissident, has been elected to the Parliament, the US announced it would begin easing economic sanctions in the country and an ambassador would be named soon. Besides strengthening the UN Development Program’s presence in Burma, the US is planning to open a USAID office there.

One focus will be on governance, Davis said, adding that the UN can provide governance training, conferences and help promote “south-south cooperation,” where a developing country works, say, with the Burmese Parliament on improving its work. More tangible help could include election assistance, like procuring ballots, which the UN Development Program did in Yemen and Tunisian elections in the last year. Another possibility is teaming up with the US on disaster-reduction risks, staving off damage like the devastation wreaked by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

The UN Development Program, Davis said, “wants to work with the government of Myanmar to make it an environment for business to go in there,” which means viable judicial systems and looking at property ownership.

The UN agency works in 177 countries, mainly concentrating on the poorest. (Its top contributors are the US, Japan, Norway, the Netherlands and Britain.) Yet the agency has found some of the more developed countries paying it to run programs at home, like Brazil, which has grown economically but still lacks expertise in some domestic sectors.

Davis, an American from Lebanon, Ohio, is working on a one-year contract. He has a political science degree and a master’s degree in public policy studies from Duke and is married to Anne Richard. They have two children and live in Bethesda, Md.

Additional resources

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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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