For many Iranian families, sending their children to boarding school, often in Britain, was once a rite of passage. Such was the lot of Kaveh Zahedi, who found himself marooned at the age of ten at an establishment that would have been rejected as a setting for his novels by Charles Dickens for its almost implausible unpleasantness. “I absolutely hated the place,” admits Kaveh, who now struggles to recall its name and delights in the fact that it has since shut down. “For a boy born in Iran to be suddenly confronted by this prehistoric place, with its use of the cane, shared baths and unapproachable teachers, wasn’t fun.”
Happily, salvation was at hand. “Somehow, my mother found out about Bedales and I was sent over to sit the exam, which required an overnight stay, I seem to remember,” Kaveh explains. “I started in Middle School, aged about 12 or 13, and if it wasn’t as good as being at home, at least I had moved from a place that was unbelievably restrictive to something much better. I was happy to have the chance to find myself a bit.”
Kaveh revelled in the space that Bedales offered him, particularly enjoying football and other sports, although he confesses that the school’s outdoor ethos left him with mixed feelings. “It slightly passed me by,” he chuckles. “I wasn’t really into having to go and collect eggs in the pouring rain, for example. On the other hand, Bedales allowed me to become much more self-reliant, mainly because of the confidence that it tends to instil in its students. You were always being encouraged to get involved in drama, music, art, carpentry and it was there that I really learned how to speak in front of an audience.”
As the son of a pre-revolution Iranian diplomat with experience of living in a number of countries, it was always probable that Kaveh’s career would feature a pronounced international element. “I remember getting a week off after exams, maybe it was O-Levels, going to Paris with some friends and realising that ‘abroad’ was already very much a major part of my life,” he says. After a degree in economics and geography at UCL, it was a natural step for Kaveh to move on to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Renowned as one of the world’s foremost education institutions for aspiring young leaders, Tufts helped to broaden Kaveh’s horizons. “I think it was there that I was able to sharpen my interest in the environment and broader development issues,” he agrees. “It was also a hugely diverse place and I was rubbing shoulders with people from all over the place – Afghans, Mexicans, Egyptians – all of whom seemed to come to the school with extraordinary experiences.”
Back in England, Kaveh started the business of getting a practical grounding in the issues that most engaged him, working with a Non-Governmental Organisation as project manager for developing microfinance and credit projects in Latin America and the Middle East. “That was essential experience for me,” he reflects. “It enabled me to do grass roots work in a sector with nothing like the profile that it enjoys today while learning a fair bit about the big picture as it concerned global development.”
During his second year at Tufts, Kaveh had benefited from the school’s long-standing connections with the United Nations by serving as an intern at the UN. Now, the chance arrived for him to work there in earnest. “An old Bedalian sent me a job advert that would require me to go out to Kenya and work for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), whose headquarters were in Nairobi,” he recalls. “At that stage, I was prepared to do anything for some decent weather! I started off there by producing global assessments and reports, always with an eye to broader sustainable development issues, and I’ve been with the UN ever since.”
Kaveh’s working itinerary since Nairobi would make Phileas Fogg envious. Four years in Kenya were followed by five in Mexico at UNEP’s regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean. He was then back in the UK for a further two and a half years as Acting Director of UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre before setting off on his travels again. “It seems that I get to a certain point in one place before I develop itchy feet and feel the need to move to the next place,” Kaveh muses.
It was while based in Paris from 2007 to 2012 as UNEP’s climate change co-ordinator that Kaveh accomplished some of the work which has given him the greatest satisfaction. Here, he led the UNEP delegation and co-ordinated UNEP’s input to the UN Climate Talks, as well as setting up major partnerships such as the UN programme to support countries in reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (the so-called UN-REDD Programme). “That gave me a chance to build something from the ground up,” Kaveh explains. “The materials were all there, but it was essentially a new idea to pay countries not to cut down their forests and it was one that caught on and assumed a life of its own. I like to be able to initiate projects, get them off the ground and then move on to the next challenge.”
After a further eighteen months in Paris, serving, among other things, as Interim Head of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition Secretariat, Kaveh’s latest, and arguably greatest, challenge has recently arisen. At the beginning of the year, he moved to Bangkok to take up the role of UNEP’s Regional Director and Representative for Asia and the Pacific. “Back to my home continent,” he jokes. In a time of political uncertainty and a city teeming with life, Kaveh’s future is unlikely to be dull. “The political protests seem to be like a street party here,” is his initial impression. “Bangkok is chaotic, but with a sharp edge, I’d say.”
Kaveh sees grounds for optimism as far as the environment in Asia is concerned. “I detect a genuine willingness to confront the relevant issues,” he insists. “The trick is to meet the understandable desire of countries to carry on with their economic growth, so helping to raise some of their people out of poverty, but in ways that prevent the degradation of their immediate surroundings, which will help no-one in the long run. The UNEP programme is small and it can’t affect everything, but we can, and frequently do, at least spark a change in trajectory in certain areas. In somewhere like China, in fact, where a lot of planning and regulation is so centralised, it can be easier to find the right lever for change than in a lot of Western countries, where that kind of lever isn’t always so obvious.”
Nearly two decades into his service with UNEP, Kaveh is happy to admit that he is “in his element” there. “With all its bureaucracy and other imperfections, the UN is still an exceptional place to work and a real force for good,” he says. “I’d like to think that I still have plenty to contribute from a UN platform. This job is a commitment for life and I’m not sure that I could ever see myself outside the UN now.”
Kaveh Zahedi was interviewed by James Fairweather in January 2014.