Jo Butler showcasing her work for 'Schoolery: jewels for schools' © Jo Butler archives

Leaving a legacy of empowerment
Jo Butler is an international lawyer who worked for the UN. She now runs an online charity store called ‘Schoolery: jewels for schools’
1 Oct 2023

Jo Butler’s career has been nothing short of inspirational, working at various UN organizations at many levels. She was the legal adviser for the first ever Climate Change treaty signed in Rio de Janeiro at the Earth Summit in 1992 and provided legal advice to the Chair of the first Conference of the Parties in Berlin, Germany, Dr. Angela Merkel, who was the German Minister of Environment at the time. She also worked in Gabon in a private capacity as well in Ethiopia as the legal adviser and secretary to the UN Economic Commission for Africa. She is now retired but is as active as ever.

“I always knew I wanted to do something internationally. Through my love of books, I was able to vicariously discover the world at a young age. I worked from the age of 14 to raise enough money to study abroad. I studied in London and Spain and won an International Rotary award to study wherever I wanted in the world. This took me to Geneva, where I studied international law at the Graduate Institute. I then obtained my Juris Doctor in Law from Columbia University.

When I graduated, I returned to Switzerland, much to the chagrin of my parents, and started applying for jobs at the UN in Geneva. While being driven to attend a Swiss girlfriend’s wedding in la Chaux-de-Fonds where I was to sing, I was in a serious car accident and hospitalized in Neuchatel. When I returned to Geneva, the former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), called to say that I had been hired as his special assistant. He said that I needed to return to New York headquarters to sign my UN contract. Once I arrived in the US, I took my niece and nephew roller skating and was knocked from behind by an out-of-control skater and broke both my arms. I had to call the Deputy to tell him of another accident that had befallen me. He arranged for me to return to Geneva with two broken arms and to sign my contract in Geneva once I had recovered. These accidents, and many more over the years, taught me perseverance and to never give up.

After taking a two-year leave of absence from UNCTAD to work at a private law firm in Libreville, Gabon, I was asked to join a team being set up to help UN member states negotiate and draft a framework convention on climate change. This culminated in its signing by more than 150 heads of States at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This work was one of the highlights of my career. My colleagues and I were highly motivated because we foresaw the dangers of global warming and believed that all countries needed to be committed to acting together to reduce green gas emissions. It was a time when many countries were not ready to make the “sacrifices” necessary to address this challenge and it was clear that for developing countries to be a part of the treaty, funds for adaption and mitigation would be necessary.

One of Jo Butler’s pieces © Jo Butler archives

During my nearly six years at the secretariat, I and other colleagues often worked 48 hours straight preparing drafts for Member States. I recall the head of our small team, Michael Zammit Cutajar, writing a note on our office door conveying how proud he was of us. Later that day in the meeting, several member states complained that we had omitted crucial parts of their texts. We worked an extra night to include the missing texts, but the note of praise from our boss never came down. It was a great lesson for us that mistakes happen, and blame is not the answer! I recall other UN staff visiting our offices and remarking that there was a very special dynamic and vibe.

Despite loving my work and the team, I did not want to move to Bonn for family reasons. I returned to UNCTAD and after six years of hard work at climate change, found myself at the same level I had left. It was a painful experience to feel demoted but I was enriched by the climate change knowledge and expertise I gained, and this helped to soften the blow. I then had a searing desire to work in Ethiopia, the native land of my husband.

Three years later in December 1999 I was appointed the legal adviser and secretary to the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in Addis Abeba. It was a daunting time. My husband quit his permanent job to accompany me, and our youngest son was uprooted from his school and friends. He was nine and agreed to accept our decision to move if we bought him a puppy! I found Ethiopia to be a beautiful country with an incredibly long and rich history and culture. The move changed my life in too many ways to count but the most important was being able to help others directly not only through the UN work but also through my personal endeavours. I was deeply touched by the neighborhood children that I would meet on my daily walks in the mornings.

In 2001, Ethiopia was faced with a cyclical drought threatening 16 million of its people. I knew I needed to help in some small way and so I set up a UN task force and worked with WFP and the Red Cross to locate a school where children weren’t attending because they were too hungry. We also solicited donations from several international schools in Addis and from La Francophonie. We were able to make a first delivery of three tons of food to the Melka Oba school. We then met with the parents and the school community and at their request, started deliveries of exercise books, as well as learning materials and sports equipment. We were eventually able to build new classrooms and teachers’ quarters at two schools in the area as well as a library.

One of my personal highlights was to visit a group home in Addis with 18 adopted HIV positive double orphans being raised by two young Ethiopian Americans. The children were ages four to six at the time and I became their surrogate grandmother. Watching them grow up and live normal lives with the help of the anti-retroviral treatments has been extremely rewarding. In their teenage years, I took over the responsibility of supporting them financially. With the help of many friends, we have witnessed eight children graduating with university degrees, four marriages and four children being born without any trace of HIV.

When I transferred back to UNCTAD after four years, I was able to continue making the deliveries to the rural schools by taking my Christmas vacation to Ethiopia, often with ECA and UN colleagues from Geneva helping out. We held bazaars once or twice a year to raise money by selling Ethiopian jewellery, baskets and textiles. A UN colleague and I would design and make jewelry late at night when we finished our day jobs! Many UN colleagues who wanted to make a difference in their own home countries asked for my advice and often joined the bazaars. With the funds raised, we were able to help schools in India, Haiti, Ghana, Nigeria and Portugal. The small grassroots task force called the Ethiopian Children’s Appeal garnered the UN Agenda 21 award for Volunteerism in 2012.

Looking back on my career, I would not have done much differently, as I gained a great deal from each experience. There were many challenges along the way, such as learning how to lead people, taking responsibility for mistakes, and learning how to honor different perspectives. A lot of the paths I took didn’t necessarily lead to quick promotions, but I followed my instincts and achieved more through moving jobs within the system for the work and not the promotions.

My message to younger generations would be to keep your motivation and passion. In a bureaucracy, it is easy to chase the promotions and lose sight of why you are there. In my opinion, we are there to make a difference in the daily lives of our fellow human beings throughout the world.

I continue to collaborate with the rural schools in Melka Oba in Ethiopia to help them provide potable water to the community and to identify sustainable projects for employment and small enterprises in the area. I now divide my time between three countries: United States, Ethiopia and Switzerland. I also enjoy spending time with my eight-year-old granddaughter, Hamona, and continuing my passion for designing jewelry with my Jewels for Schools charity, as well cooking and creating farm to table recipes, writing odes, poetry, and a memoir for my sons, entitled Trenton Makes, the World Takes”. 

* Mollie Fraser-Andrews is Editorial Coordinator for UN Today.
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