Career & Life Vision Conversation with Kanni Wignaraja *89

"Smarts is great, but it’s not enough."

Kanni Wignaraja *89 is the director of the United Nations Development Operations Coordination Office (UN DOCO). Kanni has significant experience in leading and managing global, regional and country development portfolios. She served as UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Zambia from 2010 to 2013. Prior to this, Kanni served as Director of the Capacity Development Group of UNDP, in New York. She has also served as UNDP Deputy Resident Representative in Viet Nam, Chief of Regional Programmes in the Bureau for Asia-Pacific, and UNDP deputy representative (ad interim) in Indonesia. She began her UN career as the Policy and Evaluation Officer at the UN Volunteers headquarters in Geneva. Prior to joining the UN/UNDP, Kanni worked as a consultant with the Ford Foundation in New York and with the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Kanni holds a Masters in Public Administration, from Princeton, and a Bachelor of Arts in Economics in from Bryn Mawr College. She is married with two daughters.

Read and watch to learn why Ms. Wignaraja joined an international organization, how she balanced raising a family with the travel required for her work with the UN, and what matters to her more than smarts. 

1. Why did you decide to join an international organization?
While at Woodrow Wilson, I did some very different, but very interesting internships. One got me interested in, strangely enough, video documentaries. To talk about social causes. It was a lot of fun doing documentary film-making, but what I realized was that a lot of people we were talking to, were asking for change in policy. They had already had their own organizations, they had voice. They were saying we need people who can change the minds of policymakers and change the minds of those who are leading big institutions and who have an impact on our lives. It was a natural shift for me. Listening to those who we interacted with and interviewed I realized, they don’t want me to be one of them. They want me to get into a space where I can make some change happen in institutions that were maybe blocking what they wanted. I came back and finished Woodrow Wilson and then decided that I did want to also get into policy issues. Not just to impact change at the grassroots and through social causes, but also to see how that translates into the big policy and political machinery in a country. So that's how I decided that what would be good for me is to join an international organization that had impact both on the ground but also on policy.

2. How did you balance raising a family with the travel required for your work with the UN? 

When you join an international organization, like the UN, you can't, really you shouldn't, and you’re not expected to sit in headquarters. You're expected to get out there and to work in different countries. Countries you may not have ever have known much about before. It’s easier to go by yourself, because then you take the leap and the risk is all yours, but once you've decided that you're going to have family, you’ve got a spouse or partner, you've got kids, and you're taking them along with you. And that is on you. When my kids were two and four, we went to Vietnam and I didn't know how it would work out for my husband and for my kids. It worked out great! They came with a very open attitude of wanting to know and live in a different part of the world. At eleven and thirteen, we took them to Zambia. They’d never been. They’d never lived in Africa before. Again it was a mind-opening experience. For the whole family. But, you've got to think through these things, because it's no longer just you, your toothbrush and your suitcase, and in order to have a balanced life, to take your friendships with you, your family with you, you've got to be able to carry all that. It can't all be about work. You’ve got to be happy. 

3. What makes you happy?
Seeing those I love who are around me, also happy. And that I'm a part of that. That probably for me is what gives me the greatest strength. And on the work front, when I get something done and I can see change happen. After we’ve invested so much in girls in school, to see them staying and completing a secondary education - that’s amazing! And to see their faces, saying, “We passed grade 9!” And then pushing them to stay on through grade 12. Or when you see those who thought, “Our lives are over because of HIV,” and you're able to work with getting folks on ARVs, trying to stop transmission and seeing healthier communities even in the short period that you're there in a country. That makes me happy.

4. Have you been able to see progress on the humanitarian causes that you care about?
There are days I feel really good and there are other days I think, you know I really didn't get much done. This is such a big agenda and it's difficult and it's not a straight line and you need so many things to come together to make change happen. But I'm an eternal optimist. I mean I have a very idealistic view that at the end of the day if you really put your spirit, energy, and your heart behind it, even if it's small change, you can make it happen. So I'm going to keep trying in my little corner of the world.

5. Any advice for recent grads?

Particularly for students coming out of Princeton, whether you're an undergrad or a grad student, if you've gotten here and you’ve made it through, you’re smart. And smarts is great, but it’s not enough. You’ve got to have compassion. You've got to have a kindness. You've got to be generous with your ideas, with your listening, with what you give back. I always tell myself, you know, there are so many really smart people out there. Not all of them are likable. If I’m picking members of my team, those who I would risk anything for, and who would do the same in return,  are those who are gentler and kinder and compassionate. While being smart.

This interview was conducted and condensed by Lisa Einstein '13