#SharingTheSuccess: An Interview With Toily Kurbanov, Deputy Executive, UNV

Toily Kurbanov speaking at the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University (ACKU), 05 December 2016.  The #GlobalApplause theme recognizes volunteers worldwide and all they do in making peace and sustainable development a reality.
Photo Credit: UNAMA / Fardin Waezi.


Mr. Toily Kurbanov, the Deputy Executive Coordinator of the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme has held a top 10 spot on the UN Social 500 Leaderboard for the past year. The UN Social 500 asked Mr. Kurbanov to share his unique perspective from his work with UNV and inquired about the secret behind his social media success. Here is a transcript of the telephone conversation edited lightly for brevity and flow.

Simone Dominique: If you can just start by telling me a little bit about your background.

Toily Kurbanov: Well, I have been working at the UNV for the last 1 year. I am an economist by training and also a specialist in public administration. Equally important, if not more important, I’m a husband, and a father, and a son, and a brother, and a friend. I’m a Russian and I’m also a Turkmen. So these are different roles that I have, the different identities that I carry.

Dominique: Can you tell me something memorable about your story?

Kurbanov: I don’t know if there’s anything particularly unique. I think I belonged to my generation; in my part of the world. I was born in one country, raised in another, working in a third country… because we were going through the transformation from the former Soviet Union.

I lived from one airport to another, you know, from one side of the Iron Curtain to the other side of the Iron Curtain. That’s not really unique, but that– I think– describes in a way my path.

Dominique: How did you end up at the UN?

Kurbanov: I applied for a job at the UN. At the time, when I was considering joining international organizations, I was doing my second degree at the Harvard Kennedy School and at one of the job fairs I met future colleagues from the UN who were headhunting for staff. UNDP is the organization which I had originally joined and I still remain with. They used to have what was known as the Leadership Development Program, where they would recruit up to one dozen individuals on an annual basis who they would train and fast-track within UNDP.

Dominique: Tell me a little bit, please, about what your job entails and what a typical day looks like.

Kurbanov: I have 2 typical days because I work at the headquarters and in the field. The UN volunteers are an important part of the UN system.  On any given day we have about 6000 volunteers serving across the entire spectrum of UN operations. They volunteer in peace and security as well as in development with organizations such as UNDP and UNICEF, and they also volunteer in humanitarian action through UNHCR, WFP, OCHA, UNICEF and other parts of the UN system that are at the front lines of meeting the needs of the most vulnerable people, especially in situations of protracted crisis.  And whom do you normally see when you go to the frontlines of peace, development, and humanitarian work? You see United Nations volunteers.

So that’s how my [first typical] day looks like, it is when I am out in the field, meeting with the UN volunteers, learning more about their assignments, and how we can be most useful to them, meeting with the UN colleagues and trying to create an enabling environment for the volunteer opportunities within the UN system increasing the volunteer opportunities and meeting with the government counterparts as well as with donors, because none of these things that we do can be done in isolation. They require multi-stakeholder coalitions.

Then my [second typical] day, is when I am at the headquarters. I help to run the organizational machinery supporting the volunteers: I meet with colleagues from across the UN system, I meet our own team, and I try to make sure, together with the rest of our management team, that the UNV is responsive, agile, effective, efficient, and a great place to work.

Kurbanov in Azerbaijan, May 2017


Dominique: What are you passionate about? I get a sense of it through your Twitter accountPlease tell me in your words.

Kurbanov: My family is the first thing that comes to my mind. I am passionate about the world that we are going to hand over to the next generation and to my children. I am concerned that the world we leave behind is not going to be a better world than the one we inherited from our parents. I can’t say definitely the outcome, but I want to make sure it’s a world where we have less inequalities, where human rights are upheld, and [that it’s a] world that is less susceptible to climate disasters, and a world where children have opportunities to grow and contribute to their communities.

Dominique: Do you see progress with what you’re doing?

Kurbanov: I think we’re getting somewhere. I think we will know only with the benefit of the hindsight, but I think we are not shying away from the real issues, and I think that is an important requirement in making a difference. It is that you’re not just doing some cosmetic change or addressing the development and humanitarian concerns superficially, like dealing with symptoms, but you are also dealing with the root causes.

One of the real issues that we’re not shying away from in the UN system is the transition from humanitarian action to development assistance because when there is a crisis, the initial response about immediate relief and needs to lead to longer-term recovery. One needs to exercise duty of care through the humanitarian action helping the vulnerable communities while not creating a dependency on external assistance. So our job is to help the communities to build back better, to develop their internal capacity, their internal resilience, and to put them on a sustainable path for development.

So there is this very delicate link between humanitarian and development work. We know that it’s not going to be easy to transfer from humanitarian phase to development, especially in the context of protracted crises. We grew up at the time when the crises were time-bound: there was a disaster, and then there was an end to the disaster, and there was a recovery stage. Or there would have been an awful incident where, whether it’s conflict or civil unrest, entire communities got displaced, but eventually things would go back to the normal mode. But nowadays, we see so many protracted crises where we don’t see the end of the misery and there aren’t a lot of the solutions for them.

Dominique: Does that take a toll on you, when you see that day in and day out, where a crisis continues on and on, and the volunteers are working so hard but there may not be a solution a year out…how does that affect you emotionally?

Kurbanov: It’s very, very emotionally taxing, to say the least.

We also need to be humble. The United Nations Volunteers are only one part of the United Nations system, and often, even when the entire spectrum of UN’s assets and operations are involved, the solutions are still not easy to come by. So much remains beyond the control of the United Nations system as a whole. And we know that solutions that will need to be found will be sustainable only when they address not just the symptoms of a crisis but also the root causes of the crisis.

But we need to keep hope, and we need to realize that there aren’t straightforward solutions. Often this is not a linear process. There are a lot of trials and errors. A lot of going back in circles. But we need to engage the affected population, and we need to assure them that the international community is with them.

Dominique: So this next question, I’m asking this question hoping that there’s something that can help other people from the UN or anybody else who reads this outside of the UN system: Has there been an obstacle that you faced and can you share a way that you overcame it?

Kurbanov: What we’re trying to do is apolitical. It’s directed towards the communities, towards building national capacity. But of course, everything is taking place in a political context. So it is important for us as United Nations staff and as volunteers not to be ignorant of the political context but at the same time to be aware and quite sensitive. I think our overarching principle whether it concerns our day-to-day job or our social media presence should be to do no harm, to recognize there is so much at stake, and every word that we say, every message that we send may have profound implications and especially in today’s interconnected world.

Dominique: Is there a specific obstacle that you can say, something that you tackled that could help?

Kurbanov: At risk of sounding vague (but as, who was that– I think Keynes– who has said that I prefer to be vaguely right than precisely wrong) in the United Nations system and in the international development and humanitarian community in general, we have a lot of passionate people, a lot of very competent people, and a lot of strong-willed people. It takes a certain commitment to operate in challenging circumstances to try to make a difference. And we have many visionaries with many ideas about how to go about solving a particular problem. To me, what I have learned over the years is, it doesn’t matter how clear or inspiring your vision is. What matters more is how successful you are going to be in offering that vision to the others and by adjusting it and by co-opting their views as well and making it a common vision.

A concrete example of this would be what happens on a daily basis in any country where we have multiple UN agencies trying to address different development constraints or humanitarian constraints together with their national counterparts. It is much more important that we transform that vision into common UN vision, something that brings to bear the entire wealth of expertise of United Nations system which is therefore even more helpful to the countries and the communities that we serve because that would be then the vision, or a project, or a platform, or a coalition, or an initiative that reflects comparative advantages of UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA, [etcetera]. And that’s a daily obstacle. It’s not something that can be singularly resolved. It’s a careful balancing act especially when you’re working in the field. To try to summarize the two principles, one would be to do no harm and, two, to try to coalesce the rest around the vision which may not then have your own copyright but it will be a common vision and will be much more impactful.

Dominique: Thank you. Okay, let’s talk social media. Do you remember the first time you tweeted? How long ago was that?

Kurbanov: It would have been when I was working in the in the Pacific Island countries, in Fiji, about six years ago.

Dominique: How did that feel tweeting out to the world?

Kurbanov: Awkward. I wasn’t tweeting to the world. I was tweeting to the one follower who I had at that time, that was my former boss. I find a social media presence is an interesting way of self-imposing discipline. A social media presence doesn’t matter if it’s not consistent. You don’t have to have a quota on how many tweets you have every, day but you have to be consistent. When you Tweet regularly, when you internalize that practice, it becomes a useful tool in terms of distilling the message and staying to the point. That could be applied to daily interactions, whether it’s in speech or talking to volunteers.

Dominique: How much time do you spend on social media every week?

Kurbanov: I never took count of how much time I spent. When I was in Myanmar, I knew how much time I spent because that was the time I was standing in traffic. One hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. Now it’s different. I’m traveling a lot, not standing in traffic but on the road or on the plane. Maybe one or two hours a day. It’s not just about putting something out but also reading up on what others have to say on Twitter and Linkedin. I find it a much more efficient way of learning from the others and broadcasting your news in terms of the time spent or the resources spent than the alternatives that we have out there in the digital world or in the print world.

Dominique: Now, I need to find out why you rank so high on the UN Social 500. What are you doing? Why is your social media Klout score so high?

Kurbanov: Honestly, I think they have this algorithm error somewhere. Every time I see my ranking on the UN Social 500 I’m amused.

Dominique: [laughter] Let’s drill down. Your Klout score has risen in the past year. What have you been doing differently on social media?

Kurbanov: I joined UNV one year ago. I see that an ultimate purpose of my social media presence is to give justice to the great work that UN volunteers are doing out there in the field. I’m in the position where I can broadcast my views and get those heard by others. Not every one of the 6,000 volunteers has that position, so I feel it is my responsibility to the entire United Nations volunteers community and to our colleagues In UNHCR, UNDP, and other field offices that are working with United Nations volunteers.

I think that the UN Volunteers mandate is a beautiful mandate, and it’s a very important mandate in our troubled world that we have people who are willing to go out there to serve the communities in the foreign country, or even sometimes in their own country.  So if I have any standing on the social media boards it’s because of the mandate that I try to represent and to give justice.

I try to communicate in a way that is not fluffy and not jargon-ridden. It’s not all about the general concerns and aspirations, but also it speaks to the realities as much as openness backed up by the evidence. I’m a bit of a history nerd and a data nerd. So I will tweet and retweet interesting historical facts and data visualisations.

Dominique: Has the UN Social 500 helped you in any way?

Kurbanov: The first time I saw the UN Social 500 I immediately followed the top 30 [Players], which is already one important tool for me and I’ve learned so much by following those UN colleagues. I still follow them.

Dominique: How can a person become a UN Volunteer?

Kurbanov: We have 2 ways of volunteering within the UN system. You can volunteer as a person working in the field or you can volunteer online working on location neutral tasks. [To learn more about volunteering at the United Nations please visit https://www.unv.org/]

Dominique: That’s great. In closing, is there a question that I didn’t ask that I should be asking you?

Kurbanov: No, but I enjoyed having this conversation.

Dominique: I did too. Thank you for sharing and thank you for the work that you do.