As part of our “Americans in the UN” project to share the stories of Americans who work for the United Nations, we connected with Deborah Greenfield, the Deputy Director-General for Policy at the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Prior to joining ILO, Greenfield served as the Deputy Solicitor for the U.S. Department of Labor.
Originally from New York City, she earned a Bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College, and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.
Watch the full interview:
Below please find excerpts from the interview, which have been edited for context and clarity.
What is your message to Americans about the importance of the UN?
Deborah Greenfield: I don’t think that we are going to solve any of the problems that individual nations face unless we work collectively because we live in a world in which we’re all so intertwined.
How to do that? There are many ways to do it, but we have to do it together. That’s what the [Sustainable Development Goals] are all about, and we all have a responsibility to address those critical challenges because they affect all of us. And the UN is the stage on which we have to do that.
From your experience, what is an example of how the UN has made a difference in someone’s life?
DG: I was in India about six months ago looking at a program called “Barefoot Technicians,” in which we train young people to work alongside building engineers who are trying to build enough homes for everyone in India, which is a huge job – enough roads, enough irrigation facilities, enough toilets. And these young people learn to use simple tools, but they can free up some of the engineers’ time.
There was a young woman in one of the programs who said that with the training she had, she was able to return to her village and was “someone,” she had status in her community. To me it was so moving to see how work and skills create that sense of meaning, and purpose, and belonging in a person’s life.
How did you first hear about the United Nations?
DG: You know, I think I’ve always known about the United Nations, maybe because I grew up not far from the UN. But certainly, growing up in the [1960s], the UN was a relatively new organization and was really at the forefront of peacemaking and humanitarian development in so many countries around the world. It was also the height of the Cold War and so the UN played such an important role in trying to stabilize international relations.
What motivates you to work for the United Nations?
DG: Working for the ILO is an opportunity to devote myself to the issues. I’m really passionate about, and those issues are labor conditions, working conditions, and employer-employee relations. But to do it on a global stage and to try to address what I think are some of the key issues of our day: inequality, poverty, how technology has the potential to address those issues.
For me, it’s an opportunity to work on the global stage on the issues that I think are crucial to sustainable development.
What is your favorite part of your job today?
DG: My favorite part of the job is going into the field and seeing our programs on the ground and seeing how they affect workers in all kinds of settings – informal settings, rural settings, industrial settings. To see what we’re actually doing, what some of the problems are that we’re not addressing well enough, but to get a very concrete sense of this work, which can be very heady and almost philosophical, and how it really affects people on a day-to-day basis.