Architectural designer PhD Geography Student, Priti Mohandas, worked with the UN on a climate change project entitled “Cities and Climate Change” in the Global Solutions Division of UN Habitat

As an architectural designer and a geographer, UN Habitat felt like the perfect organization for someone like me, as it brings together both the social sciences and the built environment. I was also interested in the climate change aspect of the informal settlement related work I have been engaged with over the last five years, as it seems like there is much opportunity from a donor perspective in framing development interventions through this lens. Further to this, my supervisor Bernard seemed like an incredible mentor from the outset, and whilst the work was important, mentorship is what really makes experiences like this worthwhile.

I was able to interact with staff before the placement so understood the environment quickly. There was no time to settle into independent work, as the work is fast paced and intense. Everyone is thrown into the deep end very quickly. I very much enjoyed working with people from different backgrounds both professionally and culturally. I learnt a lot from their experiences and there was a nice culture of sharing work amongst the other fellows. 

The aim of this fellowship for me, was to gain experience in high level policy as the majority of my experience is at a grassroots level. The fellowship opened up a new world of high-level work, exposed me to donor processes and the general functioning of a large a bureaucracy like the UN.

For the fellowship placement I worked for the climate change team at UN Habitat. The climate change team works on urban related climate issues that range from broader policy work in issues such as clean air, to programmatic work in settlements at risk of climate events. My role involved substantive work and also work related to internal learning, speech preparation and administrative tasks. The key event of this fellowship was COP26 where I was one of a delegation of five. This was an intense period, yet also allowed me to take on an enormous amount of responsibility and deliver quickly but to the highest of levels.

I produced a large number of tasks during the fellowship . As the team was so small, and predominantly fellows, it was clear that every task had impact – especially considering the extremely short timescales. Some projects include:

  • Community of Practice
  • I4C event
  • COP 26
  • Internal Brown Bags
  • Climate Change Mastertool
  • RISE UP: Resilient Settlements for the Urban Poor
  • DA14
  • Caspian Sea
  • Caribbean
  • World Cities Day
  • COP 26
  • World Habitat Day
  • UN Women
  • ESSS

The fellowship helped me to understand how large bureaucracies work, and how money gets channeled from high level donors to the local level. As someone studying government housing delivery for informal settlement dwellers, working in such an institution has provided great insight into how the red tape gets tangled. In terms of future career, it helped me realize the value of academia as an independent and unbiased entity. Whilst the experience was fruitful, I do not think working in such an institution aligns with my future career – this is an understanding I would never have gained without doing an fellowship which I am forever thankful for. It has also given me many ideas on how I can, as an academic researcher tailor my research outputs to benefit other local institutions so that my work has the potential to have impact in policy spaces.

In terms of learning, I gained great skill in delivering work to a high standard yet with extremely short turnover times. It became my (accidental and not so enjoyable) specialty. I also learnt how to organize round tables and panel discussions, design concept notes and to also conduct stakeholder engagement exercises. The greatest skill I learnt is in editing. I became apt at editing other people’s writing (as well as my own). It is a skill which from my understanding takes rigorous practice, and at the UN I was really able to foster this skill.

The fellowship had regular “brown bag” sessions that enabled other colleagues to share their experiences and understandings. These sessions ranged from climate finance to my own session on gender. These numerous perspectives on urban issues have added to my broader knowledge base, which makes me able to find ways to connect my work to other disciplines and practices.

My knowledge was utilised in much of the report writing but especially on a concept note on gender and climate change in collaboration with UN Women. I very much enjoyed brining in my gender knowledge and was then able to contribute to the keynote speech for the Executive Director of UN Habitat.

I brought in my knowledge from my previous work in development, but I also liked to organise fun activities for the team to keep a good dynamic between colleagues. I organised quizzes, farewells and the Christmas party which I enjoyed very much.

I think the scheme is an incredible opportunity. Even though this career is not for me and I much prefer working at a grassroots level, it is a privilege to learn that halfway through my PhD and to use it as a way to reflect even more on the importance of my academic work. This experience has directly changed the way I am thinking about my research, having been inside an institution similar to the one I am studying. These insights are rare to have as someone within the academic machine, and that is what makes this scheme amazing. You bring in practical understanding to theoretical work which is what ultimately results in impact.

The UN allowed me to experience a career I always hoped would be in my future after the PhD. As it was an unpaid fellowship , I would never have been able to do this work or make contacts had it not been for the ESRC programme which funded the fellowship . The fellowship opened up a door that I otherwise would not have been able to access. 

Priti Mohandas’ placement with the UN Habitat took place between September 2021 – March 2022.

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