Head of Secretariat, Joint SDG Fund
New York, New York
Past affiliations include associate, Palmer & Dodge
JD St. Johns Law School
BA Niagara University
A life of adventure and inspiration at the UN
On her role as lawyer with the UN
Listen to interview:
EXJ: Our mission at ex judicata is to help attorneys to identify paths and opportunities that may be more in line with their goals and aspirations and then assist them in transitioning to these other careers. Your career journey is unique, fascinating and inspiring. Involving long years of service at the UN working in a multitude of countries including many years in Africa. How did it all begin?
Lisa Kurbiel: I’m not from a family of lawyers. I’m a first-generation lawyer. I interned one year for Judge Duffy (Southern District NY) during my 2nd year of law school. That was my first real exposure to the law. I was a kid from Buffalo. Though in New York City, I had wanderlust. It was clear to me right away that I was not someone who could spend 60 hours a week in the law library. I, also, worked as an intern in the New York City Law Department with the litigation group. The lawyers told me I’d spend 90% of my time in the back room and 10% in court. So, this wasn’t going to work.
EXJ: How then did you transition to working at the UN?
Lisa Kurbiel: In my 3rd year of law school, I interned at the UN. The Center for Transnational Corporations. I was asked to review contracts for multinationals. This was the 90’s, a time of real David and Goliath situations where powerful corporations were writing one sided contracts and taking advantage of poor countries. It struck a chord, and I was hooked. I wanted to help those governments defend their natural resource wealth and continue working at the UN.
EXJ: So, to clarify you are not working in the UN’s Office of Legal Affairs?
Lisa Kurbiel: Right. I’m not.
EXJ: So, you graduate and still have this yearning to travel and to work at the UN?
Lisa Kurbiel: I would work 5:00 pm to 12:00 am answering phones for minimum wage. They’d give me dinner, and that’s how I financed my six months of volunteering until my first break: Mongolia needed an IP lawyer
EXJ: Mongolia needed an IP lawyer? I just want to be sure I heard that right.
Lisa Kurbiel: Yes. A senior lawyer recruited for the mission had a medical emergency. I was that American volunteer everyone knew because I was always at my desk. They said, ‘Lisa, are you a lawyer?’ And I said, ‘Yes I am. I want to be a human rights lawyer’’. And they said ‘well, look, can you go to Mongolia for six weeks?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I can.’ And it was just one of those serendipitous timing is everything moments. Within a week I was on my way.
EXJ: What did Mongolia need help with?
Lisa Kurbiel: They came out of Russian control in ‘94 and sought to develop their IP framework as a potential avenue to growing their sovereign investment capacity.
So, I spent six weeks engaging the Mongolian government about copyright, trademark and patent law. I had books in my suitcase from the St John’s Law School library. I was reading in the evening, and then translating and writing up briefs for translation into Mongolian. So, I wasn’t in Africa at first, I was in Asia. And Mongolia led me to the next assignment: Somalia. I arrived in Somalia just as the last UN peacekeepers were leaving.
As in many complex emergency settings, Somalia was at a critical space and time when communities remain traumatized by the conflict yet need to begin to rebuild their lives and government needs support to provide the social services that were all but defunct during the war. The irony is that, when humanitarian emergency funding and global attention shifts to the next global emergency or political hot-spot, the development actors have to begin to rebuild and get the systems to work again, often with a fifth of the budgets that were spent during the conflict. I am firm believer that every dollar in development saves five or ten spent in humanitarian relief. And when I say development, I mean teachers being paid so schools function, electricity and water accessible at the hospitals, police being trained and paid a living wage, civil servants planning and budgeting for their citizens, essentially the bread and butter of governing a democracy.
EXJ: Amazing. Tell us about your present job. What is the joint SDG fund?
Lisa Kurbiel: I absolutely love the position that I have now. I am the head of the UN’s Joint SDG fund, or the Sustainable Development Goals fund. It delivers private investment to the developing world. Helping the UN to attract private investment into coral reefs and ocean facing communities, develop capital markets in least developed countries where shareholder farmers struggle getting their produce to market due to poor infrastructure, and other elements we can often take for granted, all through partnerships with private investors. In my earlier years, it seemed very black and white. Corporates appeared to have no role and no intention to contribute to shared objectives with the UN.
But it’s much more nuanced now and holds great promise to accelerate momentum towards the SDGs. Google, Microsoft, and other multinationals are seeking digital connectivity in Africa alongside the UN. They have both the direct skills in this area and the billions in capital to invest. The role of the UN will be to ensure digital connectivity is equitable and guarantees kids in a rural province in Kenya are just as likely as kids in Nairobi to access the internet.
EXJ: It sounds like you had the sense the UN was being squeezed out as these deals were being done by foreign corporations and you wanted to be certain that the underprivileged and the undernourished you represented were going to benefit from all this deal making?
Lisa Kurbiel: Yes, our motto is Leave No One Behind. In my early years in Mozambique, working alongside the extractive companies was challenging. In 2014, human rights were not always top of mind for global oil and coal companies. Almost ten years later, I’m running a fund created by the UN General Assembly specifically to blend private and public money. We are doing whatever we can to de-risk investments so that a private equity firm or global bank can invest in an African coffee farm in the agricultural sector which leads to decent employment and better outcomes for the farmer’s children or a government’s vision of transitioning their national transport sector towards a completely solar fleet fueled by renewables.
EXJ: What do you like most about the job?
Lisa Kurbiel: I am privileged to socialize and advocate for all the special people I met for all those years in Africa and Asia, to speak with hand over heart and say, for example, I know the UN makes a difference in Somalia because I saw camels carrying the water through the minefields to get to that village where there were 200 women and children at risk of starvation or I helped draft the first capital gains tax legislation in Mozambique resulting in the first $400 million dollar windfall which the UN helped direct towards child nutrition programs. The mission, to raise this private money and see it spent properly, is what drives me. My calls excite me because I can picture the individuals and their families who are struggling and know how financing can drastically improve their daily lives and radically improve their futures.
I love to knock on doors of powerful investors and be the first to introduce them to the UN and ask, ‘Could your team consider the Fiji Coral Reef Fund and blend pension fund or other private investment assets with our donor funding?’ Or to a global bank, ‘you’re already launching blue bonds and green bonds, how do we build a platform that could weave UN projects within your existing portfolios? My ultimate dream is to retail the SDGs so anyone could invest in Fiji’s coral reef or Suriname’s organic pineapples and we could truly bring Wall Street and Silicon Valley to those so often left behind.
EXJ: It does sound like a dual role. That is, getting the governments to put forward fundable projects and lining up the private capital which would love to help but at the same time want to be sure the money will be utilized properly.
Lisa Kurbiel: Yes. Right now, for example, I’ve just returned from COP27 and am focusing on environmentally friendly projects because so many entities are keen to invest in renewables. I seek to align our portfolio of SDG catalytic investments with investors, while being very wary of the risk of green-washing.
EXJ: If somebody is coming out of law school, Lisa, and they want to work at the UN, or they’ve worked at a law firm for a couple of years and want to work at the UN how would they go about that? I don’t know where I got this, but I’d thought all my life to work at the UN you had to speak at least 3 languages.
Lisa Kurbiel: Most of my colleagues are bilingual or trilingual. My secondary languages are conversational so my early assignments in Somalia, South Sudan and then Kenya were partly determined because English was the predominant language. For my years in Mozambique, I built upon my Spanish and took immersion Portuguese classes in country. More languages undoubtedly broaden your opportunities in the international development arena.
EXJ: But, in New York, where the main offices of the UN are located it is English. So, a young lawyer could apply to the Office of Legal Affairs or really any of the agencies, funds and programs because they all have legal departments I’m guessing?
Lisa Kurbiel: That’s true. First and foremost, as with any opportunity, being a solid lawyer is a given. The challenge is that you’re competing amongst a global pool of lawyers of every nationality, with many agencies, funds and programmes of the UN system led by quotas per nationality. So yes, you might be a terrific lawyer with great skills, but the essence of building every team within the UN demands a geographical, cultural and gender balance to ensure the teams adequately represent the membership of the UN.
EXJ: So, in addition to being an excellent lawyer it sounds like you really have to network, try to be wired and then apply to as many openings as possible? And, if you’re able to apply to foreign locations because you speak a particular language(s) your odds increase. So, all the young lawyers who majored in French or Spanish in college have a leg up?
Lisa Kurbiel: Yes. Languages undoubtedly widen the scope of options for a UN career. Networking is key. I’ve hired several interns over the years because they consistently exceeded expectations and were never afraid to do the task at hand, even if not always the most thrilling.
EXJ: As this is the UN, quasi government, quasi not-for-profit you know going in that this is not a career that is going to make you rich. So, for attorneys interested in working at the UN it must be about service, trying to do good as trite at that may sound.
Lisa Kurbiel: Yes. For many friends and colleagues, and certainly for me, the UN is a way of life. My kids have spent most of their lives overseas in international schools. My husband has allowed his career to follow mine. There are many challenges as well as amazing things about a UN career but it is most definitely public service and our salaries, while generous, will never compete with that of a large law firm.
EXJ: And much like teachers, if you are a transitioning attorney you have to budget short term and long term to make it work. One of the things that we are doing at ex judicata is trying to provide as much financial guidance as possible for those in our membership who are interested in public service, teaching or anything in the not-for-profit world.
Lisa Kurbiel: That is very important.
EXJ: I know it was a while ago, but how do you think your law school training prepared you for all of the challenges you took on at the UN?
Lisa Kurbiel: I think strategy and articulation are critical on my best days. Yesterday, for example, I was invited to represent the fund in speaking to a group of ambassadors from the Pacific, as well as those member states who support the Pacific, including Australia, New Zealand, the UK, among others, to attract their investments into the fund. I had to be able to think on my feet and present well.
I did a lot of moot courts and public speaking in law school. I always loved to speak, but law school gave me that that opportunity to hone my presentation skills. Right now, I manage a team of about 20 people. I have to be organized, be able to manage, and juggle priorities. I think law school forces you to develop these kinds of multitasking skills. It also makes you a better writer. And, that also serves me every day in my job.
EXJ: You’ve done so many things at the UN how would you define yourself as lawyer in the midst of all you have done and continue to do?
Lisa Kurbiel: I always say I’m an advocate for human rights. I’m a lawyer representing the most vulnerable in forgotten parts of the globe. And sometimes the law isn’t the answer for those undernourished kids. Maybe the law is there, but there’s no budget assigned to it, or there’s no policy to allow a budget to be attached to that law. I’ve always tried to cut through the bottlenecks to get aid where it is needed whether I’m called a lawyer or a UN executive.
EXJ: Wow, so many situations where you aren’t working as a lawyer but your legal training has been vital to getting stuff done whether it’s the education of women in Afghanistan or feeding undernourished children in Sudan. You are another lawyer not practicing law but making a difference. In your case a huge difference. Thank you for that. Thank you for speaking with us.