Jan Thomas Hiemstra

2009 - Former Dutch JPO with UNDP in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Jan Thomas Hiemstra is leaving his position with BCPR in New York (coordinator of programme support and manager of the SURGE) to become the new Deputy Country Director (Operations) of UNDP Nigeria.


Career path


My hometown had cows and sheep, and as a boy, going to Amsterdam for the first time at the age of 15 was a big adventure. I met my wife in college, married her when I was 24 and never looked back since. I studied economics, but it wasn't until I discovered international relations that I became a good student.

Before going to Pakistan as a junior professional officer, I taught at school. I came to love teaching because it forced me to interact with a large group of people - I didn't used to be good at public speaking - and there was room to be creative.


After the JPO Assignment

After Pakistan, I went to work for the Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People. It was the best place to get hands-on experience. I worked with the fledgling Ministry of Agriculture on a land reclamation project, building terraces and planting apples and oranges, which created jobs for Palestinians and gave added value to the disputed territories.

I learned that I'm cut out for start-ups; I like creating things from scratch. My problem is that, once the project gets going, I can get bored.

In Sarajevo in 1997, I worked on area-based programming that had both infrastructure and social projects. In the Maldives, there were no international schools, so a few of us expats opened one at the UNDP building with eight or nine children (my kids comprised half of the student population).

When I worked in Basra, my family stayed in Kuwait. When the UN evacuated from Iraq, following the Canal Hotel bombing, I had to think of a way to implement the $60 million employment programme from afar. There were quite a few excellent national staffers whom I knew very well in Basra, Baghdad and the North. Since they were no longer with the UN, I had them form small companies to implement UNDP's quick impact projects. It was an accountable system, and this approach is now replicated by UNDP Somalia and others.


The SURGE project

When I came to the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, I wanted to create an immediate response mechanism to increase the country office capacity in post-crisis situations. I wanted to prove that UNDP, too, could be quick and flexible. Then it occurred to me that if we bring together the key pieces of the organisation - the heads of the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, the Bureau of Management, and the Regional Bureau - then we could solve any problem.

The crisis board was thus born. My team also developed a deployment mechanism, the Standard Operating Procedures for immediate crisis response (UNDP didn't even have a term for this), and a toolkit to complete the SURGE project. And we stayed faithful to the principle of results-based management.

Since the project rolled out in 2006, we've sent SURGE teams to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Haiti, and right now we are assisting in Gaza. It works.

I always knew that once established, SURGE would and should become part of UNDP's early recovery effort, which is why I wanted it to be a project, rather than a unit. And I intentionally maintained a small team. Now that my brain child has become a corporate priority, I feel like what I came to do in New York is done.



Crowning Glory

I feel that in every job I held, I did at least one thing that can count as my best achievement. I couldn't look back and pick one. And I have no regrets.



My colleagues inspire me all the time. Jens Wandel and Yuri Afanasiev, for instance, were great inspirations while I worked on the SURGE project.

I would advise my colleagues to strive for work-life balance. The moment I feel that I cannot go home in time to be with my family because I have too much work, I recruit someone to help me. Moreover, if you are too busy just trying to get things done, then you can't think outside of the box.


Why it's all worth it?

UNDP has allowed me to see a direct link between my work and its impact. And I've been able to work on both quick-impact and long-term developmental projects, with the right combination of programme and operations. It's for that I stay.


By the way...

Last book read

"Half of the Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which is about Nigeria in the 60s, but generally I don't read all that much. On the other hand, I'm an ardent movie fan. Pulp Fiction is definitely my favourite - I thought the script was brilliant - and my children love Notting Hill. They quote from the movie: "They always do that when I leave the house."


Behind the suit

I cook for the family all the time, which is why I have to leave work at five every day. And that's the reason I take the 6:23 a.m. train and get to the office by 7:15 every morning, so I can finish everything in time to go home and make dinner.

I also began playing banjo on my own a few years ago, and that's a lot of fun. I enjoy rock and folk music.



I love to eat and drink, and for that I have to exercise vigorously! I like to run, bike and play squash.


Would most like to have dinner with?

If I could, I would take out to dinner all my colleagues I ever worked with. They are the ones who keep me honest with their hard work and constructive criticism. Townes Van Zandt, whose quote I like, would have been a good dinner companion, too, although, since he was an introvert, he would have stayed silent and drank, rather than eat.


Favourite quote these days

"There's no stronger wind than the one that blows down the lonesome railroad line, no prettier sight than looking back at the town you left behind," by Townes Van Zandt, country folk-music singer. I've always been nomadic. But the world is a small place, and I know that when I leave, I'm not losing people or places.