Susan McDade’s work has changed the world in immeasurable ways.
Throughout her nearly 30-year career with the United Nations, McDade helped launch groundbreaking environmental sustainability projects in China, mobilized hurricane relief support in Cuba, supported prison reforms in Uruguay and supervised microcredit, bilingual education and rural development projects in Guatemala.
She has experienced the world in an extraordinary way – at its inspiring heights and to its heartbreaking depths. She moved to a new country every three or four years, with nine international relocations during her career.
“The issue is, there’s never enough you can do,” says McDade, who studied economics and international development at the University of Guelph in the mid-80s. “Many of these issues we are addressing are long-term structural issues that will be with us for generations. So, the sense that you could never do enough, never fix it all, is one thing that a lot of aid workers get fatigued from, especially front-line humanitarian workers.”
Reflecting on her life as a top United Nations Development Program (UNDP) official, she says, “I was never bored, ever.”
UNDP works to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure peace and prosperity. It currently provides funding to projects in some 170 countries.
Early in her career, McDade administered development assistance and projects, including disbursing UN funds. As a specialist in energy and environment, she helped decide which projects to support.
She negotiated projects with government counterparts, visited projects to monitor their progress and ensured reports were provided to donors.
As the assistant resident representative in China, she oversaw UN-funded projects to establish renewable energy technology in the country. She also helped introduce China’s hydrogen fuel cell buses, which now run in various cities, and the country’s program to reduce the use of ozone-depleting substances.
“It was very normal to meet with presidents, to be around the UN secretary general, very normal to fly around the world.”
“For me, it was very normal to meet with presidents, to be around the UN secretary general, very normal to fly around the world on planes, to make speeches and be on the TV and radio.”
When McDade was at U of G, economics and international development programs had opposing world views, she says.
“International development was the Birkenstock-OPIRG-Ralph-Nader-hippie-left crowd, with a very black and white view of the world: peasant good, World Bank bad,” she says. “In economics, everybody was going to go to business school or law school, and had an equally simplistic view of the world: poor people are poor because they don’t work.”
That friction was just the right kind of undergraduate experience for a young woman who grew up in an underdeveloped region of Canada and was eager to break out of the cycle of poverty and truly make a difference in the lives of the poor around the world. At the University, she discovered her great love: the economics of the developing world.
“I learned that there’s a reason why poverty reproduces itself, a reason why international assistance doesn’t always work,” says McDade. “And it’s because of the false idea that the right answers are in the north and the poorer people are in the south, and if they only had the right answers, they wouldn’t be poor. That is how the whole foreign aid mechanism is set up, which is really not how the world is.”
McDade grew up in a small working-class community outside Saint John, N.B. Her parents came from poor families, but benefited from upward mobility that is possible in Canada, she says.
At age 16, she was accepted at the Lester B. Pearson United World College in Victoria, B.C., on a scholarship. Her parents, who had never travelled, saw the opportunity as her way to get more job prospects.
“They raised me to think that anything I wanted to do, I should give it a try,” McDade says. “‘You can do anything,’ they said.”
Pearson College sparked her interest in international languages, travel and development.
McDade was fluent in English and French at the time, but her Uruguayan roommate insisted that McDade would have to learn Spanish if she wanted to truly experience the world.
“With zero Spanish, I decided at the ripe old age of 16 to study Spanish,” McDade says. “I informed my parents that I would be going to Spain for the summer because I needed to immerse myself in Spanish. At the age of 17, they let me go to Spain by myself. I am still grateful for the trust they had in me.”
McDade ultimately became the UN representative in Cuba and Uruguay between 2006 and 2013.
McDade served as assistant secretary general for the final two years of her career spent with the UNDP. Earlier, she worked on capacity building, following the UNDP principle that if the institutions of the state don’t work, the economy won’t work.
“A country needs a functioning legal system, a functioning social welfare system, functioning land registries and people who can get identity cards,” she says. “Many people all over the world are poor because they don’t have a legal identity that allows them to open a bank account or register for services. They don’t exist in the social registry because they don’t have a birth certificate. And most of those people are women.”
Following a four-year assignment as the UN representative in Cuba from 2006 to 2010, McDade took on a similar role in Uruguay, focusing on human rights and prison reform.
“My parents raised me to think that anything I wanted to do, I should give it a try.” ~ Alumna Susan McDade
“The prison system in the country is antiquated, with mixed populations in the same prisons, minors processed as adults and small children in prisons with their mothers. In such a system, the youth offenders grew up broken, often turned into criminals for life. It was really bad.”
The UN helped the government modernize the prisons, beginning with a digital case management system. “If your file is forgotten, and it’s just some guy with a pencil, you could spend the rest of your life in an Uruguayan prison.”
McDade recently took early retirement to spend more time with her children, moving back to the small community in New Brunswick where she grew up. She says her mother is happy to have her home.
Her UN work helped improve lives for countless people around the world, but it also took a personal toll. She had to leave great friends behind with each move, and she witnessed extreme poverty and hardship from one assignment to the next.
“After I had kids, I could no longer work directly with populations, because every dying kid was my own.”
She says there is much that the international agency is unable to accomplish, given underfunding and a massive mandate. Even as multilateralism is increasingly challenged, says McDade, the UN is still an important organization.
In one crucial area, she felt she was unable to do all she’d hoped to do.
“I worked for years and years on climate change, so to see the world running to the edge of the cliff right now is very demoralizing.”
Still, she adds, “I hope my children get from me the belief that people are good and that everything is possible. Change is possible, success is possible, solutions are possible, and people are fundamentally good.”