Global champion of sustainable development and women’s rights
Noeleen Heyzer, the highest-ranking Singaporean in the United Nations system, has dedicated her professional life to the strategic transformation of institutions and agendas – opening spaces for dialogue and change, to advance equity, social justice, and sustainable development for people and planet.
A trail-blazing and inspirational figure, she is the first woman to lead the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) since its founding in 1947. Noeleen has been widely recognized by Asia-Pacific member States for strengthening the effectiveness of the Commission in promoting regional cooperation for inclusive and sustainable development.
Under her leadership, ESCAP focused its convening powers and standard-setting authority, strategic analysis, policy options, and technical assistance, to build the capacity of member states in reducing poverty, addressing inequalities, and forging the economic and social foundations for shared prosperity, social progress, and environmental sustainability.
Noeleen also continues to champion regional priorities and the role of UN regional commissions in achieving the Millennium Development Goals and shaping the next phase of global development. She worked tirelessly as ESCAP’s Executive Secretary to build more coordinated Asia-Pacific leadership in responding strategically to the 21st century challenges of sustainable development.
In 2009, Noeleen led an unprecedented development partnership with Myanmar's leaders, which is regarded by many as having helped to catalyse the opening up of the country from its former isolation. In 2008, she also worked closely with ASEAN, the Government of Myanmar, and the UN in the recovery efforts assisting cyclone-affected people in the country’s Ayeyarwady Delta.
Prior to her tenure at ESCAP, Noeleen was the first woman from outside North America to head the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).Through her leadership, UNIFEM assisted more than 100 countries to formulate and implement policies promoting women’s security and rights. She also played a critical role in the Security Council’s adoption and implementation of the landmark Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace, and Security, undertaking extensive missions to conflict-affected countries worldwide.
Behind the scenes, Noeleen led UNIFEM through a major restructuring. This resulted in a tenfold increase in the organization’s resources, more people on the ground, and the prioritisation of issues affecting women throughout the entire UN’s agenda.
She currently serves as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Adviser to Timor-Leste, at the level of Under-Secretary-General, working closely with the Government and UN agencies to support peace-building, state-building, and inclusive and sustainable development in the country.
Noeleen has served on many international boards and advisory committees, including the UNDP Human Development Report, the UNDP Eminent Persons Group on Trade and Sustainable Development, and convening and chairing the International Women's Commission for a Just and Sustainable Palestinian-Israeli Peace.
She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Hons.) and a Master of Science from the University of Singapore. She obtained a Doctorate in social sciences from Cambridge University.
Noeleen’s exceptional work has earned her numerous global awards for leadership. In 2005, she was among nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of her struggle to improve the lives of women, while always promoting peace and justice. In 2000, the Earth Times named Noeleen as one of the most influential voices in the UN system.
Noeleen was Her World magazine’s “Woman of the Year” in 2007.
"Women’s leadership has to be transformational. It cannot just be ordinary leadership for the status quo, because we have to transform the deep structures of discrimination in our societies, turning around exploitative power relationships so that we can all live in equality and dignity."