Henk-Jan grew up in the Netherlands and came to The New School for Social Research for graduate studies in 1987 after receiving an MA in economics at the University of Groningen. Though intending to return home after completing his studies, a combination of luck, circumstance, and hard work soon altered his plans.
Following his PhD qualifying exams in 1989, Henk-Jan launched his career at the United Nations and has thrived in the organization ever since. His far-reaching career has taken him from the Department of Economic and Social Affairs to the Office of the Secretary-General and then on to the World Food Programme and the Peacebuilding Support Office.
In 1999, he published his PhD dissertation (Edward Elgar), which focused on explaining price differences among countries. It provided a bridge between the empirical work he was accustomed to in Groningen and the heterodox theoretical insights he got at The New School.
He has written on such topics as economic adjustment in Africa, social-economic causes of violent conflict, stature as a measure of standard of living, and the impact of high price of nutrition. He currently co-chairs an international process to identify indicators that measure peacebuilding.
Henk-Jan lives with his wife and two children in Bedford-Stuyvesant in a brownstone he renovated with them. He is a carpenter at heart as well as a lover of vintage Italian sports cars. He spends his summers with his family in Cape May Point where he enjoys reading and the bounty of native wildlife.
The New School Alumni Association: What made you choose The New School for your doctoral study?
Henk-Jan Brinkman: I had a fairly conventional economics education at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands where I got my MA. I wanted to enroll in a more heterodox graduate program to complement it, and The New School for Social Research offered that.
One of the first things that struck me was the more casual and less hierarchical atmosphere in the faculty. Students called professors by their first names, which was unheard of in the 1980s in the Netherlands. I also liked the close interaction with students in other departments, such as Philosophy and Sociology, which were right down the hall.
NSAA: How did The New School shape your world view?
HB: What I learned at The New School helped me in my career, particularly in providing well-founded alternative policy analysis. Studying with Professor John Eatwell, I explored the whole field of economics from theory to policy issues. The diverse student body also prepared me well for working at the UN.
NSAA: Tell us about your work at the United Nations.
HB: I started working in the Department for Economic and Social Affairs, writing reports an inch wide and a mile deep on economic trends and policies in developing countries. Then I became an adviser to Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General, and his deputy Louise Frechette, on economic, social and environmental issues where I wrote significant talking points, speeches and briefing notes. Both positions were miles away from real people.
I then became chief economist at the World Food Programme, which was all about people because of the focus on hunger and malnutrition. Economic analysis followed suit, whether it was a food security assessment in Darfur, an assessment of the impact of the global financial crisis in Ghana or the impact of high food prices on nutrition. I currently work in the Peacebuilding Support Office as Chief of Policy, where my economic background is less pertinent but where my interest in the studies of war and peace has come to the fore.
NSAA: In your opinion, what are the most important ways in which the United Nations impacts the world?
HB: The UN makes a difference in countless ways, from providing food, water and shelter to people affected by a disaster to supporting health and education services for millions, to keeping peace by sending more than 100,000 military and police officers to remote locations. Less visible, but equally critical, is the quiet diplomacy and mediation that keeps conflicts from escalating into violence. Setting global norms and standards, ranging from international treaties on human rights to the law of the sea, is less operational, but extremely important.
Perhaps most indirect, and more easily derided, is the “talk shop” function. Countries that talk don’t fight. Countries that fight need to talk. Only through talk can positions be understood. Only through talk can differences be bridged. Only through talk can agreements be reached to solve global problems. And yes, that can take a long time sometimes – and yet it is worth the efforts. For many countries in the world, the UN is one of the few places – if not the only one – where their voice can be heard. I will never forget how the President of the Maldives, in a meeting at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, was able to voice his concern about climate change and unsustainable consumption of fossil fuels in developed countries, which would lead to the disappearance of his country if predictions about rising sea levels would come true. This was probably one of the few opportunities he had to express his views to the leaders of developed countries, which have been mostly responsible for climate change.
NSAA: What are your hopes for today's New School students?
HB: My hope for New School students is that they not only master the theory but also go out into the world and change it as policy makers.