Erick de Mul – Looking back at a unique and unusual career with the United Nations

Erik de Mul
Erick de Mul (© Eric Beauchemin)

After three decades with the United Nations, Dutchman Erick de Mul was about to retire. He began his U.N. career in Venezuela, then moved to Africa, and then back to Latin America and then back again. The Dutchman also served in Mongolia and Bosnia. His last posting, Afghanistan, was undoubtedly one of his most difficult tours of duty.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: November 5, 2000


You’re listening to Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service. Welcome to Dutch Horizons. I’m Bertine Krol. As you can hear, this week we are going beyond our borders to speak to a Dutchman who’s had a unique and unusual career.

I started in Latin America, Venezuela, then I went to Africa. Equatorial Guinea which is a great school to deal with frustration and absurdities. Because everything was and maybe still is upside down there. So everything one considers normal there is abnormal and vice versa. That’s why it’s a good school. Then I stayed in Africa in Botswana, Tanzania, went back to Latin America, to Guatemala. Then went back to Africa, to Mozambique, went back to Guatemala, went to Mongolia. Then from there, went back to Mozambique, then to Bosnia, then to Brussels. And now I’m here so.

Here is Afghanistan. The man: Erick de Mul, the United Nations Co-ordinator for Humanitarian Affairs in Afghanistan and the head of the UN Development Programme there. In December, Erick de Mul will retire. He ends his 30-year career with the United Nations in what is considered to be one of the most difficult postings in the world. As he told Eric Beauchemin, it’s not a position he applied for.

I didn’t apply for the job because I was happily sitting in Brussels. I hadn’t been there for one year. EB: What were you doing in Brussels? There is a liaison office between the UN and the European Commission notably and also dealing with the three Benelux countries. And then they came and asked me whether I could go to Afghanistan for a few months because they couldn’t find anybody to go there. And after I had thought about it and said, OK, reluctantly I will go for a few months, then they changed it, and said, well now since you have said yes for a few months, why don’t you consider going there as a normal tour of duty which wouldn’t last more than a year or a year and a half, they said. So now I’m here for almost two years. EB: What type of background did you have before getting into this job? It’s hard to say. I joined the UN, the United Nations Development Program in ’71. And except for the time in Brussels which was less than a year, I spent all my life in the field, so maybe they thought they needed someone who has some extended field experience, I guess that’s it. EB: Does it impose a lot of personal burdens on you and your family? Well, yeah, of course. I mean, [chuckle] , first of all you need a partner, whether it’s your wife or your friend or whatever it is, who understands, who is willing and has a certain attitude to life and a certain sharing of beliefs, that that’s important. I’m lucky because I think have the probably the best wife I could have found. She’s been going to all these places with me and has normally shown great enthusiasm to all these places I mentioned, and often others have said you must be or crazy or you have been punished to be sent there. And, that was the reaction from the outside. Inside the family the reaction was always totally different. I’ll give you an example. When I was going to Mongolia in ’90. Just after the change there. Nobody would believe. They said, you are in Latin America. You can stay there. You can go to a nice country there, and why the hell would you go to Mongolia? And in New York, they said, we are reluctantly talking to you about it because this is not something that it’s obvious for anybody to take, especially not for a person with a family. So before you decide, you better talk to your wife. I said, I think you’re making a mistake because I know the reaction of my wife. She will be extremely enthusiastic to go there. You have to convince me [chuckle]. She is already convinced before knowing. Although it may sometimes look more difficult for a couple to go to let’s say hardship or crisis places or difficult places, given the right mix, given the right type of family, it’s much better to have a couple. Now for the children, yeah, that’s an issue. On the one hand, it’s certainly enriching for them. On the other hand, it’s very strenuous. It’s not easy, especially moving around. When they are 7, 8, 9, 10 years old, and they are in a country for a couple of years, have made friends and all that, are in a school, and then you uproot them again, it’s rather terrible. In our case, we had to take the decision to send them to boarding school when they are about 12, 13 years. And we had talked about it, discussed it intensively with them, and they were convinced that they also wanted that. They were fed with going from one place to the other, and they wanted a period of stability which they got. And again, I think we were lucky in finding a good school, and lucky in that they adapted pretty well and basically had a good time. They still talk about that period with great enthusiasm. So again, you have to be lucky.

For the past two years, Erick de Mul has been in charge of the huge United Nations’ humanitarian operation in Afghanistan. It’s helped keep a nation of over 16 million people alive. Two decades of war have destroyed almost everything, from homes and buildings to the economy and even the social fabric. So many men have been killed that women now form the majority in Afghanistan. But in Taliban-controlled territory, women are virtually non-existent. When they appear, women have to wear what are known as burqas or chadri, which cover women from the head to nearly their feet. They’re not allowed to go to school or to work. The Taliban’s treatment of women has outraged many countries. They in turn have forced the United Nations, and its representative, Erick de Mul, to continually raise the issue with the Taliban authorities.

As you know, there are problems with women, and we are now dealing with an edict where the Taliban have said that women cannot work. That edict is there, but in the meantime we have been able to still have a number of female staff operating in Afghanistan. Non-discrimination also means regardless as to where people are and to which ethnic group they belong should be attended to, and that is not always easy either. So it’s always a kind of struggle to make sure that what you do is done in the correct way. The only hope that I have is that we do this as well as possible. That’s one. Then there’s of course an issue in trying to explain especially to the authorities what this part of the UN is trying to do because of course there is some confusion. A certain level of confusion in the minds of the Taliban and also the Afghan population in that they see the UN acting on the one hand in a certain way, and on the other hand, they see the UN acting in a different way, and that’s not always very helpful. EB: Can you give me an example? Well if you see what the Taliban for example are looking for has been, have been looking for since they took over power in 80 or 90% of the country that they are controlling, they were asking and expecting recognition which hasn’t been forthcoming. Then, last year, the Security Council imposed sanctions on Afghanistan. Now this is all under the umbrella or the flag of the UN. So that’s why I’m saying it creates confusion. Because on the one hand they feel that the UN is not treating them in a way that they would expect the UN to treat them and the UN and the member states may have reasons for that. And on the other hand, the humanitarian side is trying to reach out and try to build up some kind of a relationship that would make it possible to do the work that we are supposed to do in an adequate and efficient way. So hence the confusion.

Basically, most of the time is spent on trying to negotiate with the authorities, either as I was saying, getting a recognition that half of the population is female and that they should be attended as well as the male population, and that’s a bit of a struggle. The other part is negotiating with them access, especially when it refers to cross-line operations. There are pockets or places in Afghanistan where there is a sizable number of vulnerable people, but they may just be on the other side of a front-line. So what we are trying to do is to make sure that we also can go to these people, and that is not always easy because you can imagine that people who are involved or focusing on an armed conflict may not be necessarily be interested in seeing all kinds of goods moving to the other side, be it food or be it tents or be it blankets or be it, or whatever it is. That’s one thing. The other thing is the continuous struggle to keep funding for Afghanistan somehow a reality. There is no doubt donor fatigue in the case of Afghanistan, first of all because this has been going on, this war scenario for more than 20 years. In the meantime, there are so many crisis situations around the world that take attention. So Afghanistan is not necessarily very high on the list of the main donors. On the other hand, the plight of the Afghan population is very serious. The people are very poor. This year even the situation is even worse than in years before as a result of the drought. So to try to keep an interest in and that interest translated into funding of programmes and processes is not an easy task, and that’s one of the other issues that we are trying to address.

The United Nations Co-ordinator for Humanitarian Affairs opens one of his last meetings of heads of UN agencies in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Like most UN staff dealing with Afghanistan, Erick de Mul is based in Islamabad. Only a one-hour flight separates the two capitals, but these are two different worlds, a fact lost on no one in Islamabad.

Ideally, one would sit in Afghanistan. The point is that officially we are still in evacuation status. So what is happening is that all those who are working in Afghanistan are there by…on the basis of a special authorisation, a special exception which is a bit of a weird situation, especially when you realise that at any given time there are about close to 50 or even more internationals working in Afghanistan. And then thousands of national staff. EB: It’s a fairly big group. Yeah, it’s a bit awkward, but with reasonable communication which we now have, and we have this flight operation which is very effective, there’s not…it is an issue but it’s not impossible. It’s quite possible to work, to keep a handle on things in Afghanistan. And I try to go there as often as I can. EB: Is it dangerous? I don’t think so. I think it’s as dangerous in Afghanistan as in many other places. Now there are spots where it is not advisable to go, but the same applies to other countries. Wherever there is a frontline you’d better stay away somewhat from that. Why should you go straight into the trouble if you can avoid it? So it’s just a matter of judgement and common sense, and then I don’t think it’s dangerous.

From the outside, the Taliban are often seen as a unified movement, but actually there are a lot of different streams within the Taliban. You have some who are very orthodox. You have some who are more willing to work with the international community.

EB: How do you conduct these negotiations? It’s two levels. The negotiation as a process, that is sitting down and talk is not that difficult, and there are enough people to talk to, notably in Kabul and in Kandahar. That is that. The expectations have to be adjusted to realities because even if the atmosphere may be very positive. The discussion may be very civil. The feeling that one is reaching points of mutual understanding is there. All of that doesn’t mean that in the end you will get the result. Exactly for what you were saying is that there are different, certainly different opinions and different ways of looking at things in the Taliban movement. And the people we talk to, although officially they may have a very important position and be in a position of power, there is no doubt when it comes to issues that they consider to be sensitive, there is a need for them to consult. Now, that consultation process is rather lengthy as well. And then they may be up against a situation where it is extremely difficult for them or even impossible to convince some of the people that you could call either more conservative, more hard-line or whatever term you would like to use for that, but it’s not easy. That means that it’s like trying to create a statue out of an incredibly hard stone, for which we not always have the adequate tools. Our chisels are sometimes a little bit blunt. So it takes a hell of a long time. This means that there must also be a lot of frustrations and disappointments. Yeah, but that…in that case, having been around the world for almost 30 years is somewhat helpful because patience comes with age, I have discovered. I can tell you that 20 years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I would have been running away, screaming. Yeah, frustration is there. You roll from one crisis into another one and it goes on and on and on. And let’s say the positives, the moments that you feel that you have obtained something or have a…call it a little success, are few and far between. Overall it is indeed more frustration and disappointment than the more positive issues. EB: Have there been some achievements? Well we thought we had some over the last year. Well, first of all, when I came, all international staff were out of Afghanistan. So the first months what we have been doing is trying to create a situation where it would be possible for the international staff of the UN family to go back into Afghanistan. Well, that worked. Then we started to work on two issues basically: try to get some flexibility on some of the what the Taliban consider to be very sensitive issues. That is women employment where we very gradually, I think, were making some progress in that. There were more women being hired. Some community-based organisations came into being, some of them totally run by women. That’s very positive. And the other issue was education, which is another issue where the Taliban have taken rather extreme positions, basically, not in principle not really giving any attention to it. To the point where, if it all, education would only be for boys and not for girls. And again I think that by working on that quietly and trying to push here and there where it was possible, we have seen a number of schools opened. So there was a time, there was a period of about a year and a half where we had a feeling that we were slowly but surely moving into the right direction. And then all of a sudden, you get again a setback when you get an edict that says that women cannot work. So now we are basically trying to do the same what we have been doing before. The difference being that maybe now we have a bit more experience, so maybe this time around the process will be slightly quicker. That’s the only thing we can hope for.

EB: Do you have the feeling from time to time, you as the representative of the United Nations are trying to impose Western values and that these perhaps should be questioned in a country like Afghanistan? Well, no, I do think we are trying to be sensitive to what they are saying. I think what is also very important in the way we conduct our business with the Afghans and the Taliban is to show them respect, that is to take them seriously, which may not have been the case always, and not everybody may have done that. That’s one, and carefully listen to what they are saying. And sometimes interpret and try to figure what it’s all about. But then, there may be instances where it would be appear as if we are talking about the same thing, but in fact we don’t. You can talk for an hour about education, but if you don’t check it, you may well find out that you are talking about education for everybody while they are talking about education for boys alone, for example. And in that context, I think it’s very important to heavily rely on the national staff, the Afghans who are working for the UN system because they have of course a much better, for them it’s much easier to better understand what is being said, what is being meant, what is behind certain way of expressing things or certain statements. That’s very important. First of all don’t jump to conclusions too quickly because you may be very disappointed, and secondly make sure you have the right people with you who can interpret the things or the discussions in the correct way.

EB: In the 70’s, early 80’s, there was great optimism still in the Western world, let’s say in the developed countries, the industrialised countries that with smart interventions and aid that things could improve quickly. I think there’s a serious level of disappointment that things haven’t worked the way they were expected to work. And if one looks at the continent of Africa that people get frustrated and say, we’ve been pouring in money for the last 20, 30, 40 years, and what are we seeing? Again I think it’s a combination. Yes, some blame can be put especially on the leadership of many countries, I think, but we also have to continuously review our own way of doing things. And I think at times we go on doing certain things in the wrong way and we are slow in adjusting. EB: For example? Well, if I see how in for years and years, countries have been convinced, poor countries including extremely poor countries to take on all kind of loans, not only from international institutions but from bilateral sources and all that, it’s devastating. I think it was totally crazy. Everybody knew that this would not necessarily be terribly helpful. Maybe on the very short term but not on the medium and long-term. If I look at a country that I like very much, like Mozambique. What happens? In the middle 80’s, the country opens up somehow and then the World Bank and the IMF come in, and then the negotiations are too simple. Saying well you take these loans because they are as if grants. Lie. You have a ten-year grace period and the interest rate is very low. So, it’s like you get grant money. A total lie because 10 years later I was there, and I then saw that they couldn’t pay back, and they were forced to and they got into a bind. So these type of things, you know, we have to be a bit more honest. We have to be a bit smarter and use the right tools. Those countries as the one I mentioned – Mozambique – shouldn’t be forced to take loans. They should be given grant money. That’s the only way because what we are seeing now is that most of the developing countries and even middle income countries have a debt around their neck that draws them down. There’s no way they’ll get out of it. So I think there we have made collectively, we have made very serious mistakes.

EB: You were talking about the frustrations and the disappointment. What is it that actually keeps you going in this job? Well, I’ve been doing this since ‘71, as I said. I’m still a believer that something can be done. But it’s not always easy, but it’s a basic feeling I guess, well it’s always more complicated or more complex than one can explain I think, but it’s kind of a feeling that there is a hell of lot of unfairness in this world. And that whoever can try to do something about it should do it. And if you have the luck of the possibility to get involved, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s great. And then, yes, you know that there are frustrations but that’s something you have to learn to live with as well. EB: In your long career, has Afghanistan been one of the most enriching experiences or simply one of the most frustrating? It’s always both. Unfortunately I must say that when I started, when I was young and enthusiastic and all that – I’m still enthusiastic but not young, that’s the difference now – I had expected much more. This was ’71. I thought I would join the UN then and I thought that within a period of 15 years more or less, I would be out of a job because the world would have changed, and the so-called poor countries would be in a different state. That is very disappointing. That hasn’t happened and in some cases, you see things that instead of having moved forward have moved backward. So the places I have been where you could say there was a positive trend where countries started to scramble out of their difficulties. I have been to a few in my experience, so that is frustrating overall. Nevertheless, whatever country I have been, I have always looked at it as a kind of school because every country is different. Even I have had two countries where I went twice, but the situation had changed quite dramatically so it was as if they were different countries. But it’s a great learning experience, and it’s always enriching, even if things are difficult, and even if things are not working the way you would want it to work, but it’s extremely enriching. That’s why I often say I was lucky I could do this type of work, because when I was a young kid, I liked to go to school. This type of work is like being in school all the time because you keep learning, provided you keep somehow an open mind of course. EB: How do you feel that it has changed you as a person? Well I have learned a lot, yeah. I think I probably came from a fairly liberal background anyway and in Holland, it’s a liberal country and all that type of thing. Nevertheless, I discovered that I had plenty of prejudices. And I think little by little, I have been trying to or have been able to get rid of them. I’m not sure that I have gotten rid of all of them, but hopefully most of them. EB: Will you also be leaving the UN with a sense of achievement, that you have in spite of the fact that things haven’t improved in many countries, that you have actually achieved something during your 30 years? Yeah. These are little things, but you have to treasure them. And if you see that here and there, one was able to make somewhat of a contribution, that’s fine. I mean you cannot expect much more. Yes, especially when one is younger, one has very high expectations that things can move very quick. I’ll give an example. The first time I went to Guatemala was in the early 80’s. Military regime and all that. Terrible! Very difficult and very frustrating and things were not really moving and sometime I was wondering what we were trying to do there. I went back a couple of years later when the first elections had taken place. Democracy was starting, and I was extremely excited. I thought, you know, this is going to work. This is going to move. And then what I learned there again is that I had to adjust my expectations. That process was going to take much longer than I thought it should or it would. So after I left in three years, I was disappointed. That process that started then, instead of taking let’s say 3 or 4 years to come to a certain point or a certain level, it has taken 10, 12 years. But that’s fine. At least it’s still on the right track. So what I’m trying to say is that one has to adjust one’s expectations. You have to set them high, otherwise you become complacent, but then have to accept that certain things need that time. You cannot push it. Sometimes you can try and then it breaks and then you have more damage than you have done good. So one has to be patient, one has to be realistic and indeed give it time.

During Erick de Mul’s two-year stint in Afghanistan, his patience has often been pushed to the limit. Nonetheless, he does feel that he and the United Nations have managed to make some progress.

I do think there are some developments that you could say, yes, that may have made a little bit of a difference and all that, but again not enough. There one would have liked to have seen much more. First and foremost, although it’s not in our brief or our terms of reference, one would like to see peace in the country and that is still eluding us. Although hopefully we try to make a contribution to that as well. But if one sees the poverty and the suffering of the Afghan people to the point where again this year, also as a result of the drought, one has to fear that people may decide once again to leave the country because they are running out of options, running out of things to survive. That’s very sad. So there one would have hoped things would have gone differently, would have gone quicker. And that maybe we could have done more. But again I think it’s the same as what I saw in Guatemala. It needs more time [chuckle] than maybe I thought in the beginning when I came.

Erick de Mul, the United Nations Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs in Afghanistan, who’s scheduled to retire in December after a 30-year career with the UN. My thanks to Eric Beauchemin. I’m Bertine Krol.