UN Academic Impact: A Journey of Engaging Youth and Rethinking Education

with Ramu Damodaran

Ramu Damodaran, Former Chief of the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI), is our guest on today’s episode. He discusses the UNAI and his role in creating this branch of the United Nations and updates us on the impact that it is making. Ramu shares how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting students of various age ranges and how it has also provided opportunities for further growth. Ramu concludes with an anecdote by sharing a “Trade Win” that occurred during his career and the power of communication and pragmatism in global trade.

Topics in this conversation include:

  • Ramu describes the UNAI and how it works to unite students toward making an impact on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).1:33
  • The COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity to build a more solid family foundation with parents taking more responsibility for their children’s education while, at the same time, it widened the inequality gap, particularly in developing countries. 6:53
  • Ramu discusses what he calls the “CC and BCC culture” and how it affects the ability to think and plan for long-term strategies. 18:15
  • Ramu shares his career path, from being a disc jockey for a radio station created by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to a creator and Chief of the UNAI. 24:13
  • The UN’s focus on SDGs has provided stability for the world during the last 6 years since the SDGs were created. 31:00


Robin van Puyenbroeck 0:07
Welcome back to Trade Wins. I’m Robin van Puyenbroeck and my guest today is Ramu Damodaran. Ramu is a former chief of the United Nations Academic Impact but has a rich career in media, communications, politics, public service and international public service. We go back quite a number of years. Ramu, welcome to the show.

Ramu Damodaran 0:32
Thank you, Robin. Thanks so much.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 0:34
I was just thinking the other day. How many years ago were we on that plane to Shanghai for the launch of the Academic Impact?

Ramu Damodaran 0:42
That was November 2010, so 10 and a half years ago.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 0:48
Time flies.

Ramu Damodaran 0:49

Robin van Puyenbroeck 0:51
Tell us about Academic Impact, the whole experience. I’m very intrigued to talk a little bit about your very interesting career — strong communications background, working for the Prime Minister’s office in India, Foreign Service and then culminating your career with launching and building the UN Academic Impact. For the audience, the Academic Impact is an organization where the United Nations brings together universities and institutes of higher learning. Let’s start there, Ramu. Can you tell us a little bit about the work that you did at the UN Academic Impact? I know it spans over many, many years. Also, how did you move from Foreign Service into the Academic Impact? Where did this all come from?

Ramu Damodaran 1:33
Thanks, Robin. That’s a fascinating question. I moved from the Foreign Service to the United Nations Secretariat itself, initially, in the Department of Political Questions and Peacekeeping, then into the Office of the Secretary-General and finally, in what we now call the Department of Global Communications. It is in this department that we realized that to promote awareness about the United Nations, you also have to promote an informed debate about the United Nations, which means that you must address the particular interests or professions that people have. There is no point in having megaphone diplomacy where you proclaim what is being done or should be done without inviting a conversation in return. One of the key constituencies that we did want to engage in was the academic community. We realized that we couldn’t go in to talk to them in a manner that we’d done for close to 60 years- – we needed to engage them with the awareness that whatever they were studying or teaching made a difference to the people of the world and thereby the United Nations. We did a random study of assorted disciplines, including your discipline, law. We found how many connections there are between what has been done in these disciplines and what the United Nations is trying to do or more importantly, what the United Nations should do. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon enthusiastically agreed with the idea of creating this network of universities, as you’ve mentioned, which we call the UN Academic Impact, the idea being that each one of them thinks of some activity, some project, which could bring benefit to the people of the world through the United Nations.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 3:13
How did that start? Was it a matter of building a network of universities? Was it also about engaging students and young people in projects? You mentioned sometimes it’s the usual suspects that get involved with international relations or people who study international relations or law, economics. There are so many others who are in other disciplines who also do their part in contributing to a better world. Was it an effort to bring them into the conversation as well?

Ramu Damodaran 3:43
Absolutely. In many cases, the involvement of students was a result of the initial effort we made about engaging the faculty, scholars and researchers. That was the prime idea of the Academic Impact — the idea that you have projects that can benefit the UN. We did not want to micromanage how universities or colleges handled themselves. In many cases, they wanted to do it with students. In some cases, students came to us and said, “Our college or university is not joining the Academic Impact but we would like to be part of this mission.” We created an offshoot of the Academic Impact called “ASPIRE,” which in true UN fashion was an acronym for “Action by Students to Promote Innovation and Reform through Education,” A-S-P-I-R-E.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 4:34
Only at the UN they come up with those.

Ramu Damodaran 4:36
Only at the UN can you come up with those, you are right. Absolutely. We found a couple of ASPIRE chapters being formed at colleges that were not members of the Academic Impact so this became a whole new development. To go to the point that you so rightly made, I don’t think you can break down or segregate communities within the academic sector. We all become integrated in one way or another. At one level, it’s the lone, individual scientist working in a laboratory who suddenly has a eureka moment. At the other end, it’s a group of 20-25 students, particularly through initiatives that the Academic Impact is partnered with such as the Millennium Fellowship and Millennium campus network. We’ve got students on a particular campus getting together and working towards the realization of one specific, sustainable development goal in this case. That’s the other point I should make because, as you mentioned, we started this in 2010. Many of the principles of the Academic Impact found reflection 5 years later in the SDGs, in the Sustainable Development Goals. That, in a sense, shows both the inherent importance and value of education in sustainable development as a whole. It also shows that many of the ideas we’ve gotten from the scholarly community were found politically attractive and realizable by the government that constitutes the United Nations.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 6:07
That’s probably one of the key questions that many organizations have, whether you’re a corporation selling consumer products or a trade organization like here at the WTCA. How do you engage with young people and how do you give them a voice, is that correct?

Ramu Damodaran 6:25

Robin van Puyenbroeck 6:26
After 10 or 11 years of the UN Academic Impact, are you content with the results of creating that level of engagement and, as you rightly say, embedding some of the aspirations and the needs of younger generations in the actual SDGs? Do you see a community being built? Do you see young people being energized more around the principles of the United Nations SDGs than say 10 years ago because of the Academic Impact?

Ramu Damodaran 6:53
Absolutely. There are several ways in which this can be highlighted or explained, but I would just like to touch upon two of them. One is the enormous amount of anecdotal evidence we have for individual students and also individual young researchers who are no longer students but are part of faculty who come up with very practical innovations that make the realization of one SDG or a cluster of SDGs easier. This is a question of, say, less expensive and less polluting energy. It’s a question of low cost and immediate health access. It’s a question of delivering education to areas that geographically were distant from its possibility. That is something where you can almost draw a line between what is being done at a university or by a particular student and the SDG. The other, this goes to the very important point that you made, Robin, about your organization and our host today, the WTCA. If you think about the very first involvement of the United Nations in trying to be effective in global trade, 75 years ago in 1946, there was a series of conferences on creating a UN body for trade and employment. That’s very important to see because member states, at that time there were barely 51 countries who were members of the UN, realized after the World War that they had to assure employment, first of all, to the number of people who had come back from armies and were no longer required, fortunately, to fight for their nation’s defense. They also had to have sustained growth of domestic economic momentum to be able to assure employment. They saw the solution there as trade. As these developments went on through 1946 and 1947, the idea of employment was broadened to what we now see as development, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Inherently, development was tied to employment and employment, as we all know, is based upon education, no matter how you define education — formal education, vocational education, tertiary education. What we try to do with the Academic Impact is not to define the specific contours of education, saying we’re only going to talk about conventional education at university or college. If there’s going to be a teacher who goes into the village and equips young women and men there with a way to manage agriculture, to manufacture silk, for instance, that itself is an education that assures employment. Through the employment of that one individual and the commerce that she or he can do with the finished product for the world outside contributes ultimately to the realization of sustainable development.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 10:00
It’s so interesting. A couple of weeks ago I had an episode with a class of 5th graders, so about 20 children — age 11. My question to them was, what are the main problems and issues the world is facing and why and what are the solutions? The problems that they identified were all identified through the SDGs. The solutions that they came up with all, without exception, related to education. I found it very intriguing that children of that age were saying that the solution to many problems is education. I thought it was very telling. I want to take this notion of education and the importance of education to some of the issues that we’ve been facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Again, a couple of weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with one of my guests, Professor Roberto Rigobon from MIT who is an authority when it comes to measuring and measurement. He was saying that we haven’t even begun to measure the harm of the COVID-19 pandemic, the harm it has inflicted on learning. As an example, he mentioned that 60% of children in Peru had virtually no education for an entire year. What do you think is going to be the prolonged impact of the absence of education during this pandemic on younger generations, the impact on young children of age 6, 8, 10 and 12 as they interact with each other and often did not have access to formal education? What’s going to be the impact of that?

Ramu Damodaran 11:35
As far as the impact on school-going children, which I think is the demographic you’re talking about, something which I’m sure you’re well experienced with as a young father yourself, I would imagine that is twofold. The COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity to build up a community within a family which is often lacking today because both parents are normally employed in many parts of the world. They tend to, in many cases, regard school as a haven to which their children will go so that they can continue with their professional lives. The time that they have together as a family is limited to a few hours in the evenings when the child is at home, working parents are back and relaxing after work. The other sense is also that the dramatic nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the complete impossibility of knowing at what point it would end. We are now talking about schools possibly reopening in the new academic year, which in the United States will be around September or so. But, as the new Delta variant suggests, there are still several imponderables in that regard. Will the world and the United States, in this case, be as secure as it now feels in July two months from now? There will have to be a tremendous adjustment. In a sense, it’s going to be a reinvention of parenthood where the parent comes in as not only the individual who holds the child’s hand through the formative years but also the person who makes the child fit for society, for employment and to safeguard her or his future. The other level, which is the area which I have dealt with more through the Academic Impact, is the university level. Here the COVID-19 pandemic, in a sense, despite its ravages, has offered something which I don’t think we would have foreseen 2 years ago. The enormous possibility of collaborative communication and research, sitting in your room, in your studio through means such as through electronics. The fact that you are compelled to bridge distances with scholars like yourself in parts of the world where the only limitation is the time zone. Very often even that is not a limitation because people make allowances for it. It’s variable on both sides of the age spectrum. I do hope, all of us hope, that the COVID-19 pandemic will become firmly past tense very soon. I hope that the aggregate of communication and dealing with each other which it has allowed will continue.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 14:25
Yes. I am intrigued by what you said about the reinventing of parenthood. I have not heard that notion before. It’s a very interesting one. It makes me wonder if parents have too much outsourced the broad notion of education to the school system and now it is all of a sudden reckoning that parents were not educators, which is most of the time true, of course, but does that dismiss parents from thinking about educating their children? Will COVID be a great equalizer or will this widen the inequality gap even more in developing countries?

Ramu Damodaran 15:03
Yes. That’s a fair point. The gap is likely to widen particularly because parents will be very insecure about their capacity to equip their children to pass examinations and tests at the level that a professional teacher would. Also, a lot of it, as you say, is learning by experimentation or learning through practice. Eighteen months, which is exactly the period that we are going through, is not a long enough time to be able to install that sense of self-confidence in people who’ve never been teachers.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 15:41
Yes. I’m also thinking about the way that education is organized. It prepares people to stream into the workforce so there are certain expectations from the private sector of what qualifications are and there’s a structure in place. Now the structure is turned upside down. Have you seen the private sector take certain action in what may be the impact on the readiness of future generations into the workforce? How have you seen the private sector, if at all, be engaged in this conversation when it comes to education?

Ramu Damodaran 16:11
There’s been a dramatic shift over the last 20 years, certainly over the last 10 years or so, in the way the private sector has reacted to the evidence of education in people who apply for jobs. Earlier, it was the degree that you brought. If you came with a respectable MBA from a leading business school, you were almost always assured of a job. Two things have happened. The private sector has so dramatically diversified that the conventional Master’s in Business Administration or something akin to that is no longer the sort of degree that would be helpful in the new private-sector space. The second is that the idea of conversations and interviews, to be able to sense the inherent genius or entrepreneurial spirit in an applicant is much more important than the degree which she or he brings. To that extent, this would only further the point I tried to put across about the inadvertent plus point of the last year, that people are compelled or students are compelled to be far more self-reliant and introspective and use the time they have of being necessarily alone to try and visualize the contribution they could make or the contribution plan if they could invent and lead. That, in my mind, is a very, very important factor in self-marketing.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 17:41
Yes. Time will tell. Speaking of self-marketing and change in the self-reflection of the younger generations today, let’s go back to your work in India, Ramu, when you were a communicator, also worked at the PM’s office, a very political type of environment. How have things changed with the way things were done back then as compared to today? Most likely seismic shifts, but how was life and work back then and how would that compare to now?

Ramu Damodaran 18:15
I’ve been out of touch, Robin, with India over the last 25 years or so ever since I joined the United Nations. Much of the change that we would sense in India is true of what we sense in the UN as well as, I would dare say, in any large enterprise which is the fact of much more instantaneous communication and what I consider to be a very flawed and undesirable result, the perceived need for instantaneous decision or action. We’re now in a world where you get an email asking for a particular piece of information or asking for a particular action. The impulse is to reply immediately with the information you have or to immediately try and initiate the action that is requested. Now, when I was working in the Government of India in the early ’90s and when I joined the United Nations in 1994 and for the first few years then, things were much more relatively glacial. You wrote a memorandum, you put down the points for or against a particular course of action, it went up the channel through your superiors — if you were in the civil service it went to the political leadership and then they came down with a decision and that decision was acted upon after everyone had a chance to contribute to it. We did not have what I call the “CC or BCC culture” where everyone gets involved in the process of decision-making without knowing what another person is thinking or respecting the hierarchy, which is integral to the structure of any, for want of a better word, bureaucracy. In some ways, it has its advantages because certain actions which need to be taken swiftly, to go back to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, are done at a far greater speed and presumably with greater efficiency than they were 30 years ago. But we have to adjust our minds regarding every course of development of action with urgency or as an emergency and allow the emergencies to be addressed with the speed that we do now, but also allow other projects to be developed at a slower pace, more thought out and, ultimately, because of that preparedness a purer goal.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 20:34
Do you think we can still do that? That we’re still capable of being less impulse-driven? I agree with you. Everyone gets daily emails and you have the impulse to instantly react. Most of the time that goes well, but there’s very little time sometimes to reflect and create engagement with teams of people. Is that here to stay or do you see that there are, at some point, counter-trends where we’ll walk away from email? You see already a shift that people communicate over Signal or WhatsApp rather than email, which is equally impulse-driven but it’s shorter messaging, it’s a different type of a different style of communication as well. Do you see as a communicator, as a communications expert, something changing there as well that we may just be walking away a little bit from email, from the CCing and the BCCing, but go more to quicker answers while at the same time also taking more time for elaborate and inclusive answers to questions and how we communicate with each other?

Ramu Damodaran 21:37
Those counter-trends have to be, that’s a very good phrase, crafted very carefully. One idea which I know has worked in some corporations and I think also in some offices of the United Nations, is to set apart one day, in some cases one day each week, in other cases one day every two weeks or one day every month, where people switch off email completely and just gather together and brainstorm about the long-range possibilities in their work. In other words, if you’re, say, in the United Nations Department of Political Affairs, you’re not looking at the emergencies that are there in the world today on a day-to-day basis, but looking ahead to possible conflict situations, looking at the map of the world, seeing very incipient tensions which are not making the headlines right now — but which could conceivably be in the headlines 5 or 10 years from now — and what you could do to avert that. The same analogy would be true of a business enterprise. Rather than thinking about how to market the product that you’ve just developed, look at the world or your nation 10 years from now and see what is a product that they would want at that time. This is really how the major success stories with which we are familiar, whether in governmental or intergovernmental or private enterprise, have been created. We need to create those counter-trends by allowing and insisting on the power of reflection and conversation rather than instant action.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 23:09
Yes. We see some of that happening with corporations that are starting to resist the quarterly results culture where there is always this drive to demonstrate what can be done by the next quarter while real long-term results need some longer-term planning and vision put in place. We talk about planning and looking forward. Back then, let’s say, how did you envision your career because you’ve done so many different things. I even read somewhere, correct me if I’m wrong, that you were even a DJ, Ramu, the disc jockey.

Ramu Damodaran 23:43

Robin van Puyenbroeck 23:41
We all think about where we would like to go and want to be and then, of course, life happens. How have things gone from your perspective when you were, let’s say, a DJ and then you enter a very successful career talking about academics within the UN system. How did it all come about at the end of the day? What drove you? What drives you in what you do and then what drove you to then achieve what you did with the Academic Impact after a very rich and very fruitful career?

Ramu Damodaran 24:13
I’ve been singularly blessed and fortunate in having many unexpected opportunities come my way and being able to realize those opportunities — never knowing what direction they would take me in. I was a DJ when I was in college because we had a radio station in India that was specifically created for youth. It was one of the very farsighted achievements of Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister in 1969. It was a time when young people around the world were in tumult — remember the demonstrations in Paris and Europe in 1968, the demonstrations in the United States centered around the Vietnam War and investments in South Africa, among others. Certainly, the young people in India were agitated about the need for social change. Indira Gandhi thought that one way of trying to channel this immense amount of energy would be a radio station that had no holds barred, where young women and men could come and say what they wanted. They also had some entertainment to go with it and so we had regular music programs and I was one of the DJs for the Western music program. This helped me a great deal in my later career in speech writing because I was able to plagiarize many lines from the pop songs of the ’60s and ’70s, and make the people I was writing the speeches for very impressed by the turn of phrase without them not realizing what the source was. It so happened that after my master’s degree in history, I applied to the Indian Foreign Service and I got in. I was asked to come back and join the cabinet of the Foreign Minister entirely by chance. From there, I came from the Indian nation to the United Nations. I grew to love the UN. I was asked to join the Secretariat and I did for 2 years. The minister I was working with went on to become Prime Minister, and asked me to go and join them again. I went back in ’91 and had no idea of how long my tenure there would be because this now became politics. My survival would be commensurate with his political survival. As it happened, he had a full five years as prime minister. Three years after I joined, I got an invitation from the UN which was then dramatically expanding its peacekeeping operations to come back and join that department, which he was gracious enough to allow me to do. I came initially for 6 months. I came here with 2 suitcases and I stayed here.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 26:41
That sounds familiar.

Ramu Damodaran 26:43
I would imagine, yes. Then, of course, moving from department to department. Communication has always been at the heart of my extracurricular interests so I was delighted to join as editor of the UN flagship publication, the UN Chronicle. I was asked to transform that because, with the advent of the internet, no one was interested in reading a print publication about recorded meetings which they could see online 24 hours after they occurred. People didn’t want to wait three months to read about it. So we transformed the UN Chronicle into a journal of reflection and scholarship, including the academics about issues that the United Nations was dealing with. That planted the seed in my mind about taking this a step further, not just individual academics, but the institutions to which they belong. At one of those very awkward moments when I was at NYU, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had just spoken there and we were having a cup of tea. I found myself standing next to him and was always short of the right thing to say in a situation like that. I just said to him, “Mr. Secretary-General, wouldn’t it be wonderful if a university like NYU and others around the world were to join in the UN calls?” He said, “What a wonderful idea. Why don’t you develop a proposal?” So I went back to my department and when I went back to my department, some people were skeptical about it, but then I had to keep it professional. We had been asked to do so by the Secretary-General, so obviously, we did. He enthusiastically and very kindly and graciously signed off on it. As you remember, Robin, he came to the event in Shanghai where we both were and talked about the Academic Impact which was formally launched two weeks later. I still remember the one phrase he had in Shanghai, which was, “Why didn’t we think of this earlier?” If you think about it, many of the great achievements of the United Nations, I’m not necessarily saying the Academic Impact is a great achievement although it’s certainly an achievement, even something like the SDGs that we were talking about just now, these are things that you sit back and think, “why didn’t we think of this earlier?” I only hope to go back to your earlier point about the post-COVID world that many of the compulsions we’ve had in this last dramatic year will still stay with us and allow us to think, “why did we not think of this earlier?” Why did it take a pandemic of this global dimension and hurt to compel us to do so?

Robin van Puyenbroeck 29:19
It was certainly a great achievement and a good deed never goes unpunished, right? If you express the thing that’s right in front of everyone, but nobody’s seeing that it’s there and then the question of, why didn’t we see this before? That gives a lot of credit to where you had the finger on the pulse and I commend you for ultimately having a vision of how to include young people and academia which are generally beehives of rethinking, and of energy, and bringing them into the UN system. We talk a lot about branding and perceptions of brand and brand value. The UN itself is a brand, so how do you make sure that young generations that will ultimately carry the future have an affinity for what the UN stands for? No organization or company can afford to have a generation gap. What you achieved with the Academic Impact is making sure that there is no generational gap in how people think and perceive the work of the UN. I see this in real life when I see what the Academic Impact is doing and how it’s engaging young people. I imagine if that was not there, that would not be the case. That would be just a dreadful situation. Do you think after those many years and also seeing so many leadership changes, including at the United Nations — if you were to take the temperature around the world of what the UN stands for, its values and the trust that people have in the UN — where would you put the trust level in the United Nations today?

Ramu Damodaran 31:00
In many ways, it depends where in the world you are because some parts of the world have been so ravaged by conflict and war, poverty and disease over the past 10 or 20 years. There is an understandable sense that the United Nations has not been there for them or that the United Nations failed them. That’s difficult because you’re trying to counter the brutality of personal experience with the logic of what the UN is doing, is trying to do and what it has been prevented from doing. People who are caught in that completely agitated frame of mind are not the most receptive to arguments like that. On the other hand, the great transformation that has occurred in the world over the last 20 years is the realization that whatever the world does and whatever the United Nations does, or for that matter, whatever national governments do, must be sustainable. It cannot be a one-off thing. This is why today virtually everyone in the world recognizes the phrase SDGs or that phrase in the languages of the world where it’s translated into. The Millennium Development Goals, which were in a sense a precursor, did not have that recognition. When you talk about Millennium Development Goals, you’re talking about time, you’re talking about stuff, the Millennium 2000. You’re also talking about a point in time at the end of the millennium which is 3000 AD which is beyond anyone’s imagination or projection. Quite sustainable development is something that goes from day to day, month to month, year to year, incrementally progressing, occasionally being regarded or diverted, but to create its momentum. The fact that over the past 6 years since the SDGs came to be, the United Nations has proved that element of sustainability despite the number of global crises, the pandemic, terrorism, poverty, all of these have continued in many parts of the world and have been aggravated. Yet there’s been an exorbitant piece of progress that is not sudden or unexpected, but truly sustainable. That has restored in many people faith not only the United Nations as an organization but more importantly, in their capacity to contribute to that organization.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 33:36
That’s very true. The SDGs, as opposed to the Millennium Development Goals, also brings about the question, “What can we do right now?”

Ramu Damodaran 33:45

Robin van Puyenbroeck 33:45
What can we do today? Coming briefly back to the conversation I had with this group of children, what would you advise youth today, the young people you have been interacting with, what would you advise them now to keep that spirit alive and keep pushing, keep fighting for change so that they would not get disillusioned and give up? What would you advise them to do? What’s your golden advice here?

Ramu Damodaran 34:10
My only advice, Robin, would be to seek, identify and hold onto a particular cause that you intensely believe in. My experience with young people whom I’ve been fortunate to meet in various forums around the world over the past 10 years, has been that because of the immense range of information that is available, the amount of material that is available, young people are agitated and concerned about a variety of causes. It may be the environment, it may be oceans, it may be disarmament. In the process, they can talk intelligently and admirably about each of these, but you don’t sense a sense of ownership about any of them. That is I think what we should do, if I may misuse the word that is key to our conversation this evening, the word “trade,” it was always said, “Get yourself a trade,” which means have something that you’re an expert on, something that is a specialization. See what moves you. If what moves you is the condition of the world’s mountains, build up expertise on that, read up on that, be the person in 10 or 15 years when someone says, “We need someone on television tonight to talk about what is happening to the Himalayan glaciers,” they say go to this person because for the last 15 years she has been working on mountains. That degree of specificity is something that I think is increasingly alien to the emerging generation. I think it must be restored.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 35:50
Very interesting. I reflect on my years of study, so to speak. Once entering your workforce, there was a lot of emphasis on one being a generalist. One has to be able to tackle many different things and have solid backgrounds to be a quick learner. That is in contrast to what you’re saying about picking a trade and being good and deep in what you do. Is that also what you have done? Did you pick a trade? To rephrase the question, was there something that drove you? Was there something that was always a red ribbon thread throughout your professional life? Did you pick a trade?

Ramu Damodaran 36:29
Probably not consciously, but certainly, I have been firm in picking a trade in the sense of a subject that I’ve studied deeply. I would probably say the only trade that I’ve tried to pick up is that of communications, which is trying to get an idea across in the most apt and adept idiom of the particular moment — whether it was on the radio, in conversations, in a print publication or now through the Academic Impact. I’m not sure if that would itself count as a trade, but I think it was very important for me because I did sense that one of the greatest disadvantages that delegations had when I came to the United Nations was that they were not communicating with each other. They were using the United Nations as a forum to communicate to their peoples or this vast, untapped and indefinable world at large. That aspect of personal communication, even if you can’t always do it one-on-one, but reaching the mind and certainly, at times, the heart of the person to whom you want to convey a message is important. I’ve been very, very blessed by the fact that, in my lifetime, we’ve proved the process at the base of that communication has transformed so greatly. I certainly can’t claim to have kept up with it — I’m not on Facebook, I still have a very fuzzy idea of what Instagram is, but I do realize that there is much I can learn and hope to learn. Communication is important.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 38:13
I will agree with you that being a communicator the way that you are is a skill and a trade. I’ll be one of many people that will say, Ramu, you’re an extraordinary communicator. I would classify that as a very important trade because we can do the greatest things, but if nobody hears or nobody knows about it, then it falls flat. Good things don’t just have to be done, they also have to be seen to be done, and how you communicate is an important lesson for all of us in the work that we do every day. How we communicate and make sure that it’s known — that the work that we do is also received by others in a way that people can understand. That’s very important. Well, Ramu, thank you. You are very generous with your time. In closing, a question I always like to ask my guests here is — is there something that you can share with us, something that you’ve never shared before? It can be anything professional, anecdotal or something that comes to mind that you say, this is something that I have never thrown out there that is interesting.

Ramu Damodaran 39:19
That’s a fascinating question, Robin. Maybe I’ll share with you an anecdote I have not talked about publicly, but it also relates in a sense to your mission and your remarkable work. When I was working in the government of India — I have to be a little careful here not to name names — India was a large exporter of a particular commodity. One of our major clients was a state in Europe. We got word that the government of that state was not satisfied with the quality of the product that we were exporting and decided to impose a ban on the import of that product from India. Now, this was a tremendous challenge to us because it would have upset us in the world market if word went round, which, by the way, we did not agree with, that our products were inferior or shoddy. We had an emergency meeting. This is where the idea of communication came in. One of our senior ministers who was an adept communicator said, “Let’s do something very simple. Let’s, this evening, say, ‘India is banning the export of this product to this particular country.’” We did that. Of course, there’s a lot of speculation. There’s speculation that that country may have defaulted on payments so they were not good purchases. But the complete tide was turned, to go back to your “Trade Wins”. We had a situation where that country came back to us saying, “Look, you are now ruining our prestige in the international market. Let’s forget this, let bygones be bygones, resume the export of this, just make sure your products are quality.” Everyone was happy. That is both a reflection of the power of communication and pragmatism and also of the very uncertain and possibly perilous world in which global trade is at points in time.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 41:23
It’s also a strategic masterstroke. Here comes the importance of knowing how to play chess. Thank you for sharing that. That’s a very interesting one. Ramu, again, thank you so much for joining us today at the show. I very much look forward to continuing our work with the Academic Impact and engaging with those younger generations for many, many years to come. Thank you so much.

Ramu Damodaran 41:48
Thank you, Robin, for all your support in your many, many roles and guises of the past 10 or more years.

Robin van Puyenbroeck 41:54
Thank you. If you have any ideas for future episodes, know someone who would be an inspiring guest or just want to stay apprised of our show, please make sure to connect with our team via email at podcast@wtca.org. Be sure to head over to podcast.wtca.org and subscribe to the show. We will see you soon.