Globe, the Geneva Graduate Institute Review
14 November 2023

On Founding the Geneva Challenge

Globe Logo

The Geneva Challenge, created thanks to the vision and generosity of Swiss Ambassador Jenö Staehelin and the patronage of the late Kofi Annan, is an international competition bringing together graduate students from diverse disciplinary and contextual perspectives to provide innovative and pragmatic solutions to some of the world’s complex challenges. Ambassador Jenö Staehelin served notably as Switzerland’s first Permanent Representative in New York and as President of the Executive Board of UNICEF. He is an honorary member of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and was Interim Chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation Board.

I am frequently asked how I came up with the idea of a worldwide contest between students, related to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As so often happens, this initiative is the result of a mix of experiences and observations that I have made throughout my life.

As a Swiss law student, I had difficulties in connecting the university lectures I was given with real-life challenges. How relevant is the theory I was introduced to in practical life? At Harvard Law School, I got to know the student contest called “Moot Court”, which is a simulated court proceeding that involves drafting memoranda and participating in an oral argument. Top students spend a semester or more preparing for the intellectually challenging contest. Yet, what is the practical benefit to society of all of it?

Early in my career, I was given the opportunity to carry out tasks that some people thought I was too young to assume whereas others put trust in my aptitude to successfully handle the responsibilities I was given.

Further seeds were planted when, as a Swiss diplomat, I was confronted with the disparity of living conditions between people coming from privileged parts of the world, compared to others living in less favourable areas. As the Swiss Ambassador to the UN, I was able to put action behind my concerns and was involved in the negotiations on the Millennium Development Goals that later were replaced by the SDGs.

In that same position, I followed the activities of the Graduate Institute of International Studies (HEI), its role in helping to solve global challenges and its approach as an educational institution.

Upon my retirement I was asked to join the Foundation Board of the Institute, which gave me the possibility to discuss how to combine theoretical and practical learning. It is in that context that I suggested to the then Director to launch a student contest related to the SDGs, interconnecting theoretical and practical education. Credit must be given to him that he was willing to accept. At that time, nobody knew whether the idea would be a success. There was a reputational risk for the Institute, in case of failure. Nonetheless he accepted.

That was more than 10 years ago. Thanks to him and to the unreserved support of his successor, of the Academic Steering Committee, of the Jury, of the Team of the Geneva Challenge and of thousands of students from all over the world, the contest has been thriving from its very first year and on. Reason to be grateful!

But that does not mean that we should congratulate ourselves and lean back. We all read and listen to the news. So much needs to be done. To achieve the goals set for 2030 we must persevere. This is a marathon and not a sprint. Like in a relay run, the “baton” has to be passed on to the next runner, to the next generation. And the younger, the faster one runs. Isn’t that a source of hope?


Read the 10th Anniversary Report of the Geneva Challenge


The Graduate Institute Review