The career of ... Yoka Brandt

Connection as a recurring theme

Foto Joke Brandt

How can I become a Permanent Representative to the UN? That’s a question Yoka Brandt certainly never asked herself. More than anything, the steps in her career — diplomat, executive, high-ranking public servant — were a logical, organic progression. On top of which, her mother also played an important motivating role. 

Speaking from a New York in the throes of a heatwave, Yoka explains how she received a recommendation for pre-university education but (to her mother’s dismay) chose to attend a junior general secondary school in Ridderkerk instead. ‘All my friends were going there and I didn’t want to have to bike to Rotterdam by myself. But a teacher at the secondary school managed to change my mind. At home, I casually mentioned it, saying: “Mom, I’m going to do pre-university education after all”, at which point my mom burst into tears. I had no idea why she was crying, but now I’m very grateful to that teacher, because that decision has allowed me to walk the path that’s best for me.’

In secondary school, Yoka was struck by the question of why so much inequality exists in the world and decided she wanted to do ‘something’ that dealt with the problems in developing countries. She decided on the Social Geography of Developing Countries programme in Utrecht. Yoka was very much looking forward to fieldwork. ‘I got to go to Kenya and immediately loved it: this was what I wanted. Not a career in academia, but being on the front line solving problems and hopefully being able to make a modest amount of difference.’ As a brand-new graduate, Yoka chose to work for the relatively small Dutch Volunteers Foundation (SNV) rather than taking a job with the UN development programme, and she returned to Kenya.

Understanding where the other person is coming from

‘The work I do requires you to keep an open mind. You need to be able to establish contact with women in rural Kenya and then switch gears to attend a meeting at a ministry. You have to understand where the other person is coming from. If the points of view are really different, as in the case of women’s rights and LGBTI rights, it isn’t helpful to just keep forcefully repeating your own opinion. You’ll get a lot further if you stop and think, “where can we find common ground?”

Foto van New York City

I’m always looking for ways to connect. That’s been a recurring theme in my work. Now, as a Permanent Representative to the UN, I’ve taken on the exciting challenge of making sure the Netherlands’ priorities make it onto agendas here, so that attention for those matters will start to catch on. The UN is the only forum in which 193 countries sit down together and luckily more and more of them are realising that many problems cannot be solved alone. COVID-19 and climate change are two clear examples of this. We will need to pool all our expertise and from there, work together to find a way forward. There is simply no other option.’

‘A nudge from my mother'

‘I don’t think it’s possible to map out a detailed plan for your career in advance. At least it wasn’t in my case. Something that is helpful to me, and perhaps to many other women as well, is daring to move out of your comfort zone. Every time I asked myself if something was possible, my mother would nudge me and say: “If you can’t do it, there’s no shame in that, but you’ll never know if you could have if you don’t try.”’

Where can we find common ground?

Foto van Joke Brandt
Yoka Brandt
Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York

So stay open to possibilities and try to be true to yourself. Where do you personally find value, enjoyment and fresh energy? In my own career, I’m quite glad to have had the opportunity to examine things from different perspectives, just like I used to do when I was a Geography student. That can be enormously enriching.’

Timeline

1971 Decides to attend preuniversity secondary school
1976 Enrols in Social Geography programme
1980 Fieldwork in Kenya
1985 Chooses SNV over UNDP
1992 First Foreign Affairs posting in South Africa
2012 Begins job as deputy director of UNICEF
2016 Takes office as Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
2020 Permanent Representative to the United Nations

Yoka Brandt (1958) (her name in Dutch is Joke Brandt) graduated from Utrecht University with a degree in Social Geography of Developing Countries in 1985. She then did development work in Kenya with the Dutch Volunteers Foundation (now the Netherlands Development Organisation) and went on to hold positions including civil servant with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ambassador to Uganda and Eritrea, Director General of International Cooperation for Foreign Affairs, deputy Executive Director of UNICEF and Secretary General for Foreign Affairs. Yoka Brandt currently serves as Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.