Olivier Adam

Olivier Adam

2009 - Former French JPO with UNDP-UNCDF in New York, Olivier Adam is working on HIV and Aids with the UNDP Bureau for Development Policy.



It was the death of one of his closest friends from Hotchkins disease, a type of cancer, that made Olivier Adam realise the frailty of human life. More than two decades later, he still remembers seeing her for the last time. It was a Saturday and, before leaving her home, he kissed her and told her he'd be back on Monday. Anne died the following day at the age of 22.


"I was absolutely not prepared for that," he said. But the human mind, he learned eventually, had the capacity to move beyond what seemed like an inconsolable grief.


"You have to live like today were the last day of your life," he said.


Dealing with pandemics

Adam, 47, has devoted much of his time and energy to cultivating and strengthening UNDP's partnership with the Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria since 2004. Today, that partnership from the HIV/AIDS group supports the treatment and prevention of the three deadly diseases in 30 of the world's most vulnerable countries - more than 130,000 people have been put on antiretroviral drugs and millions received mosquito nets to protect themselves. It has also made UNDP the Global Fund's largest UN ally. The work is close to his heart, not least because he's lost two dear friends from Haiti, where he worked in the early 1990s, to AIDS.


"The way we live in the West doesn't allow us to see up close the dreadfulness of diseases or deaths," he explained, "and we forget about our own mortality and fragility."


He finds it deeply gratifying to be part of the international effort to strengthen people's ability to deal with such pandemics. Consequently, he doesn't mind the travel that comes with the work - he visits an average of 20 countries annually - or the long missions that sometimes last for weeks.


From his "socialist and atheist" parents, Adam inherited his blue eyes, exuberant way of speaking, love for the arts and food, the notion of equality and the importance of redistribution. Language also came to him easily - aside from French and English, he speaks Spanish, Portuguese and some Arabic - and he earned money to travel by working as a language tutor in his native France. Travelling gave him a sense of connection to the world and taught him that poverty didn't necessarily mean unhappiness. Yet coming face to face with human misery in harsh places changed the way he saw the world. He'd already been privileged, it turned out, by virtue of being a white male from the North.


An international civil servant

He joined the UN in 1987, fresh out of London School of Economics. His first assignment was with the UN Capital Development Fund, and he remembers finding the UN "colourful" and "exciting." He loved the diversity and the company of kindred spirits who were as idealistic as he was. And he took the Charter to heart. So he would stay, occupying seven very different posts over 21 years, visiting and working in 90 countries. More recently, he led electoral missions for the Department of Political Affairs in Haiti, Mexico, Peru, Nigeria, Tanzania and Yemen. He was the deputy director of the Programme for the Assistance of People of Palestine. For UNDP, he has worked in different regional bureaus and country offices.


"I'm full of shortcomings," Adam said. "I can be easily overbearing. I tend to like the big picture and neglect the details. It took me a really long time to learn that you need to delegate and trust others, as they have different sets of talents and may do things differently from how I'd want them to." Today, he is very proud of the diverse and highly competent 12-person team he's put together across different bureaus to respond to the challenges of working with the Global Fund.


On a personal level, he strives to strike the balance between work and life - he refuses to eat lunch at his desk, unless there is a life-threatening emergency. Every year, he makes the time to spend two weeks with his parents and family. Also every year, usually around the time of his birthday in October, he goes on a yoga and meditation retreat by himself, leaving behind family, friends, partner and UNDP. The retreat is time for him and him only. He is most proud of being a loyal, dependable friend.


Adam insists that he still hasn't figured out the complexity of the development business. "You can change circumstances, but changing people is far more difficult," he tried to explain. It would take more than one life-time to achieve all that he wants to. "But I'm grateful for having been able to make what I hope is a positive difference in people's life - and my work gives me this satisfaction," he added.


On a sunny autumn day, recently, he rode his scooter in the city. As he drove by the United Nations and saw the flags fluttering in the wind, he knew he was right where he wanted to be. It seemed to him that he might be closer to finding an answer to the ever-present question he's been grappling with since he was a teenager: What are we here for?


"An international civil servant is what I wanted to be," he said. The UN seems to have returned his devotion. "Look at all the places I travelled to and everything I learned here," he said.