By Heather Blahnik (MA ’96, MC ’98, AI ’99)
Herb Behrstock unquestionably has been living the AIESEC life for over thirty years. He was President of AIESEC US when the country brought in a staggering amount of trainees (600-700 per year). He went on to enjoy an impressive thirty-plus year career with the United Nations where he served in 8 developing countries as well as Headquarter Division Chief of the Asian Bureau. In addition to contributing to global economic development, Herb was acting head of the UNDP in China during the Tiananmen Square incident, and experienced an attempted coup-d’état in Africa and the outbreak of the second Intifada in Gaza. He even shared with us that the President of Kazakhstan invited him to consult and speak twice about the status of its national development plan after having served earlier as the country’s UN Resident Coordinator for Operational Activities and Head of the UN Development Program. And if that isn’t impressive enough – you should also know that Herb Behrstock is who we have to thank for bringing the New Year’s Eve party to the AIESEC winter national conference. Read on to capture a glimpse into the life of an international leader and servant that AIESEC should be proud and indebted to call its own.
Herb Behrstock’s experiences all started when he saw a simple sign that said “Summer jobs abroad. Come to a meeting.” That small sign led to a lifetime of doing good around the world, not only in AIESEC, but also in the 31 years that he worked for the United Nations. Herb says of his AIESEC days and the impact that it had on his life:
“I think AIESEC contributed to a set of values … As a service organization, the organization was doing good, and people in it knew that they were doing something that was worthwhile for themselves and for others, particularly if they were in the leadership of AIESEC ... You stepped up and you did it … Doing a little bit more meant that more people were going to benefit. That was a great influence on my life.”
Herb grew up in Chicago and then went to the University of Michigan where he earned his BA in Economics. While at Michigan, he joined AIESEC after reading that little sign that Ken Phillips had posted, went on a traineeship to Nantes in France and then became LCP. After finishing his degree at Michigan, Herb attended Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., where he obtained an MA in International Economics. While there, Herb served as a Regional Director for AIESEC before running for NCP, and winning, in 1966. He became the second NCP to serve for two consecutive years (after Ken Phillips) and had record numbers of traineeships raised during his terms in office: 600 plus in 1966 and 706 traineeships in 1967. Herb says of those extraordinary results, “It was very exciting to see the collaboration, the motivation and the great team of people that was making things happen in those years, exploiting a unique set of circumstances that existed before there were so many other organizations organizing international exchange and internship programs.”
Along with record-breaking numbers of traineeships, Herb established the long-standing tradition of holding the National Conference over New Year’s Eve with a big party. Up until then, the conference was held in the wintertime, but after Herb suggested adding a New Year’s Eve party, there was no turning back. The first conference done in this way was organized in Birmingham, Alabama, with help from Boyd Griffin, an alumnus of the University of Alabama. However, the following year Herb and his team tried to outdo themselves and they did so by holding the National Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, then an affiliated chapter of AIESEC US. They chartered a plane from New York, and when they couldn’t fill the plane with AIESECers who had converged from all over the US, they filled it with other university students. Needless to say, the conference, and the New Year’s Eve party, was a huge success.
After his NCP term, Herb worked in New York at the World Trade Center buildings and then at Chase Manhattan Bank, before being elected as Director of the International Transfer of Management Skills Conference (ITOMS) for AIESEC International. This was AIESEC International’s first global themed conference, held in Italy in 1969. It was a breakthrough because, until then, AIESEC’s educational programs were intended for trainees, and each country and LC had their own initiatives.
Herb was then ready to step into another level of international service. He applied to the United Nations and was appointed to work in Africa with his new bride, AIESEC alumna Dorie Guess Behrstock, who was a former University of Denver LCP, Regional Director and later NCVP. Their first posting was in Swaziland.
Herb says of the experience in Swaziland, “It was a wonderful opportunity in a tiny country … where you could take an initiative and have an impact on a whole country … It was like working in an AIESEC Local Committee – where you were essentially operating as an independent subsidiary.” He also saw AIESEC´s values echoed in the work he was doing there. To him, it was all about human development and raising the capability of others so that they could fulfill their own needs and the countrymen around them.
Herb went on to fulfill various roles within the UN, including Benin, West Africa and Haiti, but, most notably in China, where he held the second highest position in the UNDP. He and his family were there for 3 years and they had the chance to witness first-hand the Tiananmen Square incident on June 4th 1989. He tells us, “… the team there evacuated the 250 UN employees and families, including my family, from Beijing, while I and two other UN officers stayed behind to ensure that the UN’s presence and programs could be sustained even through the domestic crisis.” Needless to say, it was exciting to catch a glimpse of history from a front row seat.
Herb and his wife went on to serve the United Nations in New York until their children were grown and off to college. He was next appointed Division Chief of the Asian Bureau, covering East Asia and the Pacific Islands, then East and Southeast Asia, and later had responsibilities to manage the regional programs throughout Asia.
Once Herb and Dorie became empty nesters, Herb left New York in 1996 and went to Kazakhstan for 3 years where he was the UN Resident Coordinator of all of the UN activities, Head of the UN Development Program, the UN Population Fund, the Women’s Fund, and other organizations that didn’t have an official representative. While there, Herb helped them to get unanimous support from the UN General Assembly for being the victims of nuclear tests of the Soviet Union, which included 650 nuclear explosions above and below ground, as well as organize an international donors meeting in Japan for Kazakhstan’s recovery from nuclear testing. In addition, Herb suggested that the Kazakhstan government set up a Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which was organized a year later and enabled them to more effectively address women’s needs such as for reproductive health, abuse, and equal opportunities for girls and women.
Finishing that project, Herb left for Gaza, where he was seconded from the UNDP to the UN, as the Special Representative to the Secretary General in Gaza. Unfortunately, the second intifada started shortly after he arrived, which undermined some of the possibilities of different economic development and cooperation programs. UNDP asked him to go to Angola as the Interim Resident Representative and Resident Coordinator, and then to Bhutan for the last assignment before his mandatory retirement at age 60. Looking back on his various assignments, Herb commented,
“I was fortunate to have a contrast of challenging and productive assignments, each with a different language and culture, and different needs and development priorities: from a peaceful monarchy, to a Marxist/Leninist regime in Africa, a dictatorship with tragic poverty in Haiti, the Chinese with significant transformations and opening up to the outside world; then Kazakhstan 5 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union benefitting from a reform-minded leadership in a petroleum rich country; then Gaza with its unique problems, and then Angola nearing the end of a 25 year civil war … I was lucky to have assignments in the lovely, peaceful Swaziland at the beginning and the lovely, peaceful Bhutan at the end of such a rewarding career.”
When asked how he was able to navigate in so many diverse situations, Herb responded, “It was through intense consultation with everyone you could learn from in the UN system and the government, and getting out and learning from people who were going to benefit, and NGO’s and the community and the people themselves. There were huge variations in the kind of things we were doing from country to country.”
Following Herb’s mandatory retirement from the UN/UNDP in 2002, he moved to Alameda, CA. Herb was nonetheless tempted by UNDP’s offer to consult in Indonesia and East Timor, and for 6 months administered the UNDP’s international training department at the New York headquarters. He was also invited back by the Presidency of Kazakhstan to consult and speak twice about the status of long-term national development plans that had been formulated with UNDP development assistance during his tenure there as head of all UN operational activities.
Since 2006, Herb has been the President of United Nations Association-USA’s East Bay Chapter, which covers Berkeley, Oakland and 30+ cities east of SF. He has led a Chapter team that has implemented an ambitious program, achieving record-setting participation levels at educational activities about the importance of international cooperation and the unique role of the UN, extending outreach to students and other community groups, as well as energizing partnerships and fund-raising efforts. He’s also a regional representative helping to direct the UNA-USA, which last year merged with the UN Foundation, an organization established by Ted Turner’s $1 billion contribution to support the UN. In addition to his primary focus on UNA, Herb’s been a community activist and volunteer with other organizations. He initiated a local environment NGO to implement sustainable development and emission reduction programs, incorporated now into his city’s plans. He’s also been involved in adult education planning and programming, and worked on three political campaigns. Herb Behrstock has most definitely been living an AIESEC Life.
You can email Herb at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to learn more about his experiences, get advice, or get involved in the United Nations Association.