United Nations Intellectual History Project United Nations Intellectual History Project United Nations Intellectual History Project
List of Interviewees
  A Methodological Note: Making This Oral History

(Adapted from UN Voices)

For those who are interested in the way that we conducted the oral history component of the United Nations Intellectual History Project, we spell out here relevant details. We touch upon the selection of the persons interviewed, the formulation of our questions, the conduct of the interviews themselves, and the finalization of the texts that appear in the preceding pages.

We began by examining, literally and figuratively, the persons whom we have encountered in what amounts collectively to a century of exposure to development debates in and around the United Nations. This list of potential contacts was constantly refined to fill gaps and reflect oversights or suggestions, particularly those emanating from our International Advisory Council and group of authors. We sought balance and diversity—countries of origin, backgrounds, gender, and viewpoints.

In the end, our budget and a publishing deadline limited the interview pool to seventy-nine individuals. We ourselves accept responsibility for the final composition of the list. Our goal was not to create a sample that was, in a conventional sense, scientifically representative. We are not even sure what that would mean given the many individuals who have participated in UN development work. Rather, we sought to find individuals with an openness of mind and a broad enough exposure to intellectual currents and UN debates who would reflect candidly on what was an utterly unusual and intense period of experimentation with multilateral cooperation—the last sixty years. We believe that we have succeeded.

We also made another fundamental decision at the outset, and one that distinguishes this oral history from many others. We not only rejected the anthropological and sociological convention of anonymity for interviewees; we also insisted that everything in the approved transcripts could be used immediately by us and other researchers. We believed that much would have been lost in hiding identities or in closing what was available until after the deaths of those interviewed.

No decision comes without a price. Without the shield of anonymity or of the confidentiality only dropped at some distant date, it is certainly likely that some elements of frankness were sacrificed in the voices that appear here. Readers should also be aware that, paradoxically, the definitive “oral” history is what appears in the approved and revised written transcripts rather than what originally was recorded during interviews. Because we insisted that no material would be sequestered even temporarily from public scrutiny, there is occasionally, although not all that frequently, a substantial discrepancy between what was recorded and what is found in the approved transcription.

Following the procedures suggested by Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office, we offered all of those persons with whom we spoke the opportunity to review and correct the interview transcripts. We thus gave everyone the option of amending or adding material. In the vast majority of cases, modifications actually heightened the historical accuracy and added clarification to the oral interview. In only a few cases was lively and highly critical material lost.

Our first interviews took place at the end of 1999, and by the end of 2003 most of them were completed. On average, our interviews were four hours long. The briefest lasted an hour; some were as long as twelve hours, taking place over several sessions. In all, we spent some 350 hours with those whom we interviewed.

Interviewing was not new to us. All four of us over the course of our careers have continually relied on colleagues, friends, and informants for supplemental data and insights about contemporary events. Our analyses, either as scholars or members of international secretariats, have relied most heavily on conventional documentary material and statistics. Oral history, and this project in particular, was different in many respects. These interviews were longer and more intense than anything that we had ever done. And the resulting interviews provide the core material for this book rather than supplement other sources.

These interviews were also far more intimate and less focused than our previous interviews had been, in order to permit the interviewee’s voice to permeate and that of the interviewer to recede. The burden of appropriately conducting such conversations was enormous—especially because we invaded the personal space of interviewees in a most exhausting fashion.

Our colleagues at Columbia University’s Oral History Office had advised that, for the “conversational narrative” to emerge, it is critical for the interviewer to be well prepared.* For almost every interview, a project researcher helped scour archives, personal papers, and secondary material and ready us to make the best use of limited time with an interviewee. Only by reading what had been written either by interviewees or about them and their contributions were we able to construct questions that guided the conversations. Our conversations were informed by our own understanding, as analysts of and participants in, the history of UN ideas. Our own sense of what was of particular salience for the story and the period that we were investigating is present in the dialogue as well.

As is supposed to be the case, our lengthy sets of prepared questions often gave way to the flow of a conversation, which gathered a momentum of its own. Interlocutors often responded with unanticipated but rich information that sparked a different line of questioning than we had anticipated. Additional facts may have been lost in this process, but they were offset by increased intensity and emotion. Above all, an oral historian learns to listen. We always wanted more, and we wanted to push deeper. A sense of intimacy made certain questions easier to ask, others harder. At the end of the day, however, the controls were in the hands of the interviewees. We have the impression that significant numbers of our participants spoke with a refreshing candor about their experiences, their colleagues, and themselves. A sense of self-criticism was evident much of the time, and we also felt the presence of emotions and thoughts that had rarely been shared with others or certainly not in public.

All except seven of the interviews took place in English. This was not “linguistic imperialism” on our part but a pragmatic decision to use a commonly used research language. The passages of interviews conducted in French or Spanish were translated into English for UN Voices, but the complete transcripts are available in the language in which the interview was conducted.

Finally, and as we noted in the introduction, this is not a hagiography. Our colleagues appear in these pages, warts and all. Every story is different; each voice is unique. The complete transcripts are separate documents to be remembered as such. The recorded conversations and corrected transcripts encapsulate a story within our story. The structure and subtlety of language in each interview, including each interviewee’s sense of irony and of imagery, provide a firsthand account of a personal and professional voyage through the intellectual history of the United Nations.

  * Ronald J. Grele, Envelopes of Sound: The Art of Oral History (New York: Praeger, 1991), second edition, p. 135.