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Isabelle de Muyser, pictured, began working at the UN in 1987 as a “relief coordination officer” to support the international response to natural disasters
Photo: Isabelle de Muyser
Isabelle de Muyser-Boucher has spent the last 30 years of her career working with the United Nations. One of 11 Luxembourgers at the institution, she talks about her pride at what Luxembourg has achieved in the humanitarian domain.
Delano spoke with her as part of the “Celebrating Luxembourg” series running this year in Delano and its sister publications.
Jess Bauldry: Can you sum up in a few sentences what you do for a living?
Isabelle de Muyser: I am an international civil servant in the United Nations, working in the coordination of humanitarian affairs. Since July 2016, I have been providing support to the office of the Director of OCHA (the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) in Geneva, mostly on the inclusion of persons with disabilities in humanitarian action and on knowledge management. I started at the UN in 1987 as a “relief coordination officer” to support the international response to natural disasters.
In what way has Luxembourg enabled you to pursue the career you have?
According to the latest figures available (2016), there were 11 staff from Luxembourg in the UN, and they accounted for 0,03% of the overall staff force of the United Nations. I am one of these, and the only woman from Luxembourg with a “permanent” (indefinite) contract.
What you have to know is that the United Nations Secretariat has, among others, a policy of geographical distribution for its core staff. For Luxembourg, the desirable range goes from 3 to 14 staff; otherwise it is considered as “underrepresented”. In order to avoid underrepresentation, periodic competitive recruitment is therefore organised by the UN, together with concerned national authorities. This is also the way I entered the UN.
After my studies and a short career as a journalist, I applied for a so-called “national competitive examination” (now the “young professionals programme”) for Luxembourgers and was subsequently offered my first UN job. Had I originated from another, bigger, country, I would probably never have heard about this possibility and the competition would have been much fiercer.
This being said, staff on UN contracts are not considered to represent their country of origin, and, according to our staff rules and regulations, are even prohibited to accept instructions or to report back to any government.
How is Luxembourg viewed where you live? Is its reputation marred in the media?
I would say that Luxembourg remains rather unknown. Most of my colleagues and other interlocutors are international, and either they hardly know where to locate Luxembourg, or it carries this poisonous reputation of tax haven, hidden accounts, profit shifting by GAFA, OECD gray list, etc. On the other hand, once people are a little better informed, many of them admire the fact that we speak several languages from a very young age, and ask me to give them a demonstration of a “sample” of Luxembourgish.
Every now and again, I come across people who appear to have some kind of connection with Luxembourg (either because they had the opportunity to visit it, have friends or relatives in the country, lived there a little while as exchange students or interns, or for other reasons). When we speak about Luxembourg, the majority generally start smiling and said to have loved their time there.
What do you miss about Luxembourg?
In the first place, I miss my family and friends. I particularly began to regret being so far away from the moment that my mother's health started to decline. However, despite the remoteness, I still managed to keep some friendships in Luxembourg, that I intend to rekindle once I return to the country after my retirement. I also miss the traditional festivals and events such as the National Day fireworks, the Octave and the Schueberfouer.
On the other hand, every time I come back to Luxembourg, I leave with my suitcase full of typical products such as judd (pork), mettwurscht, mustard, Knippercher and many other good things. Obviously we also find some (excellent ones) here in Geneva, but they do not have the taste of my childhood!
What is your impression of Luxembourg now that you live abroad?
I realise that a lot has changed since I first left for university and then for my work at the UN. As it is smaller, I feel that everything is on a more “human” scale than in neighbouring countries, and that it is easier to get things done. However, when I come back and I have time to walk around town, I am stunned by the traffic, the bombardment of adverts and the cost of living, but I cannot help but continue to idealise life in Luxembourg.
When was the last time you were proud of Luxembourg or of being Luxembourgish?
I am intrinsically proud to be a Luxembourger and I care a lot about my nationality. Moreover, my children, although born and having always lived abroad, are also half Luxembourgish, and I do everything I can to make it not just an abstract notion or an unusual passport for them. We watched with enthusiasm the Schleck brothers fight in the Tours de France, and, more recently, we admired how our footballers withstood against France.
I am also proud to belong to a country which, though small, is open to the world: co-founder of the European Union, co-founder of the United Nations, and eminent supporter of causes such as world development, ending exploitation of child soldiers and humanitarian affairs.
For example, Luxembourg was one of the first to develop an original public-private partnership to improve telecommunications in emergency situations; it was one of the financial backers of the World Humanitarian Summit last year, which resulted in a new “Agenda for Humanity”; and in 2016, on top of its contributions to other UN entities, it was the most important per capita donor of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, for which I work.
Can you name someone who you think makes a special ambassador for Luxembourg?
A while ago, I took part in a training course which started with a warm-up exercise, during which each of us had to introduce someone who was particularly meaningful to us. The first one who came to my mind at the time as a Luxembourger well known abroad was Jean-Claude Juncker, and it is also him that I would like to choose today.