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United Nations University: A global institution rooted in Japan

By Konrad Osterwalder

It was a seamless transition from one job to the next. On September 1, I took office as the new Rector of United Nations University (UNU), which has its headquarters in Tokyo. The day before, I had left the position of Rector of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, Switzerland, which I had held for the last 12 years. Hence, the obvious and immediate question: Is UNU a university, as its name suggests, and can it be led in the same way that a standard university would be guided and administered?

The answer, I’ve found, is more intricate than one might think. First of all: Yes, UNU does research and teaching aiming at the highest academic level; hence, it is a university. On the other hand, though, its mission is very special: UNU seeks to serve as an academic think tank for the United Nations and its Member States (and, I would like to add, especially for its host country of Japan). And herein we see a distinctive characteristic of UNU: although it is a public institution, UNU does not belong to any particular nation.

UNU has institutes in 13 different locations around the globe, in addition to its headquarters in Japan . Thus, UNU has to act globally, and talk to many different governments; but at the same time, it must have roots, strong roots, in one country, and that obviously means in Japan .

Japan’s contribution to UNU has always been crucial and generous; without it, UNU would not be what it is today. “What is in it for us?” must be the main question for the Japanese Government and for the Japanese people. And, “Are we getting our money’s worth?” The answer to the latter question probably would be negative if we were to apply the same criteria we use for regular national universities. But because of the unique niche it occupies, UNU must be judged by different criteria.

Of course, UNU does a lot of teaching at the graduate and postgraduate levels, and much of it is being done in Japan. Yet in most cases, UNU’s students come from all over the world, and Japanese students are in the minority. (There are exceptions to this; for example, the UNU Global Seminars held in Japan have an overwhelmingly Japanese audience, and they are taught in Japanese as well as in English). And the research being conducted at UNU rarely focuses on purely Japanese problems; the main themes of UNU are Peace and Governance as well as Environment and Development, with all their ramifications — and these, in most cases, are very international problems.

Obviously, this qualifies UNU, all the same, to be a valuable adviser to the Japanese Government on many vital questions. UNU has taken this assignment very seriously in the past, and will do so even more in the years to come. With this in mind, UNU has offered various ministries in the Japanese Government to help, with all its knowledge resources, to prepare for the G8 Summit that will take place next year in Hokkaido. But, it has to be said, UNU has made the same offer to the German Government, which hosted the G8 Summit last year and would like to see some of its concerns being followed up at Lake Toya.

This example brings us to the main answer of “What is in it for Japan?” In many respects, UNU is, for Japan, a gateway to the international community of nations and peoples. UNU brings to Japan more international students than many other universities, and it opens access for Japanese students and researchers to the international scientific community. Through its capacity building programmes, UNU opens the options for Japan to collaborate with developing countries in a very efficient and fruitful way. This actually is a field where UNU intends to step up its efforts quite substantially, by replacing the concept of single research institutes (today almost exclusively hosted by developed countries) with the new concept of “Twin Institutes” — that is, always pairing an institute in a developed country with one in a developing country that has a similar research focus. Furthermore, as the only UN organization with its headquarters in Asia, UNU contributes to strengthening Japan’s position in the United Nations, a process that is wanted for many good reasons.

So, can UNU be led and administered like any other university? The answer has to be both yes and no. Yes, in most academic aspects; in the quest for the highest scientific quality, credibility and trustworthiness, the methods are universally the same. But in efforts to be rooted strongly in one country and still serve the United Nations and as many of its Member States as possible at the same time, to hold the many institutes in different countries together, to focus their research and to coordinate their teaching — in all these aspects, a different kind of leadership is called for. 

An interesting challenge, indeed.

Konrad Osterwalder is Rector of United Nations University and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. This commentary was first published in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. These are his personal views.


© 2007  United Nations University