From UN Headquarters to the Nepali Hills: My Experience as a UNDP Intern

By Elias Naess, Intern, UNDP Nepal

April 29, 2023


Moving from my Manhattan apartment in New York to a traditional Newar-style dwelling in Kathmandu was a big change. My fancy suits, professional ties, and shiny black shoes tailored for the work at the UN Headquarters were swapped out for a UNDP field vest, tough trousers, and a pair of solid sneakers suited for trips out in the fields of Nepal. It was exactly what I was hoping for. After having been part of the important discussions at the heart of the UN system, I felt ready to see for myself what impact the UN had on the ground. 

Left: Elias in the UN Security Council Right: Elias in the trenches – field uniform on

Before leaving the bustling Big Apple, I used to think the incessant beeping of yellow cabs outside my window on Madison Avenue were noisy. Little did I know, I now entertain melancholic memories of those humble honks when comparing them to the cacophony of Kathmandu. Every morning at seven, I wake up to the blaring siren of the Patan garbage truck, signaling to the entire neighborhood that it’s time to dispose of the trash. I must admit, it took me some time to learn that the siren was not marking the beginning of World War III but instead was the sound of Kathmandu’s garbage disposal system. As a foreigner in Nepal, there have been many first-time experiences and lessons to learn.

My first UN field trip was one such experience. I fulfilled my dream and got to see – firsthand – the impact of the UN on the ground. But to get to the project site was no easy task. We had to drive for ten grueling hours on the infamous Nepali roads to get to Okhaldhunga, in the hilly areas in the east of Nepal. There were several times during our journey when I thought we were not on anything that could accurately be called a road... No matter, our experienced driver nonchalantly just said "don't worry" each time I was confident there were good reasons to worry. Still, after a spectacular – and very bumpy ride – we arrived at the location where our monitoring and evaluation mission could begin.

The project we were monitoring is called DCRL, which stands for Developing Climate Resilient Livelihoods in the Vulnerable Watershed in Nepal. The project was supported through the Global Environment Facility (GEF)-Least Developed Country Fund (LDCF) project  which focuses on enhancing watershed management and promoting sustainable agriculture to sustain the livelihoods of subsistence farmers in the region. The communities of the Khotang district face several agricultural challenges throughout the year, mainly due to drought and unreliable access to water. During the monsoon season of June-August, however, there is an abundance of water, but the intensified periods of precipitation due to climate change have exacerbated the risk of hazardous flash floods. These threats, whether it’s too little or too much water, make it increasingly difficult for many communities to sustain their livelihoods.

To address these challenges, the UN has partnered with local communities to implement innovative solutions which aim to help farmers collect and store rainwater, protect vital water sources in the area, and create efficient water distribution systems to reduce the amount of time women and girls spend fetching water. These solutions are not only effective in mitigating the impact of water-related challenges but are also cost-efficient, reduce drudgery, and have the potential of creating local employment. The UNDP works closely with local mayors to scale up the uptake of these solutions, making sure communities across Nepal can benefit. 

Among the many innovative solutions implemented, the implementation of a solar-powered water pump that extracts water from the bottom of the valley and pumps it up to a storage tank at the top of the hill is my personal favorite. This amazing system – powered entirely by renewable energy – provides water to communities that would otherwise be susceptible to drought, allowing them to irrigate their terrace farming fields. The installation of this pump not only addresses the challenges of water scarcity but also provides a sustainable solution that will support the local community for many years to come.

During our field trip, we visited a farm where the father of the household warmly welcomed us. He immediately commanded his son to fetch the machete and ordered him to chop some of the sugar cane he had grown using the improved farming methods taught to him by the DCRL project. In no time, as I munched on the sweet sugar cane with one hand, I enjoyed a cup of fresh milk from the nearby cow with the other. It struck me that those who have the least are often those who give the most, evidenced by nearly every Nepali I have met so far. At every site, we were welcomed with open arms by farmers eager to show off their farms and excited for us to taste their sustainably grown produce. I think my own culture of the West could learn a lot from the compassionate culture of Nepal.

Village meeting at Khotang

Amidst all the challenges and adjustments of arriving in Nepal, what has struck me the most is the country’s incredible natural beauty. As we made our way back on the winding mountain roads during the DCRL field trip, I found myself utterly captivated by the stunning hilly landscapes stretching endlessly outside the car window. In an era of excessive human exploitation of our natural world, I was both inspired and encouraged to see the symbiotic relationship the village communities in this region have with nature. It served as an important reminder that if we are to preserve the environment for the benefit of our future generations – which we should – we must treat the planet with the respect and consideration it deserves.  

My experience as an intern for UNDP Nepal has been nothing short of transformative. I have been given the opportunity to see with my own eyes the real challenges that people face and the important work the UN is doing to address them. Meanwhile, the beauty of Nepali nature has left its mark on me and reminds me of the importance of sustainability and the preservation of our natural environment. As Nepal continues on its upward path of becoming a developed country, my hope is that it sustains its colorful and kind culture while also conserving its incredible and magnificent nature.