For many students, a gap year presents the opportunity to discover what the world has to offer. In the case of Sam Daws, now Executive Director of the United Nations Association of the UK, his gap year – spent working at a hospice in Calcutta and with an environmental project in Ladakh, in Northern India – marked the start of his career by sparking his interest in international affairs. It is a career that has sent him around the world: to the 38th floor of the UN (the domain of the UN Secretary-General and “one of the floors,” Daws notes, “former US ambassador John Bolton thought the world could do without”), and to countries such as China, Japan, Switzerland and Sweden, in which he travelled as note-taker to former Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Daws is full of praise for his former boss, calling Annan “an individual of integrity and intelligence, and of humility and extraordinary serenity”. He recalls how Annan would greet cleaners in the hall in the same way he greeted Presidents and Prime Ministers.

So what was it that attracted Daws to working in international relations? “As a student of social anthropology, I was fascinated by the question ‘What does it mean to be human?’. This evolved into a wider interest in how human beings interact and shape the world around them. It then seemed a natural jump to be interested in how countries cooperate.”

Daws knows what it’s like to be in the thick of action. He was in New York on 9/11 and saw the first World Trade Center tower in flames while on his way to work at the UN.

In August 2003, he lost a close friend and several former colleagues in the bombing of the UN compound in Iraq. Daws says the attacks angered him, but also recognised the need to channel that anger into a renewed commitment to making the UN work and addressing the root causes of such atrocities.

As stressful as his work is, Daws also derives great enjoyment from it, saying, “I have always proceeded on the basis of doing what I most loved doing at a particular point in my life, and where possible to maintain work-life balance.”

In The Oxford Handbook on the United Nations, co-authored with Professor Thomas Weiss, Daws describes the UN story as being “one of continuity and change”. Since the UN’s inception in 1945 its membership has burgeoned, swelling from 51 to 192, largely as a result of the process of decolonisation and national independence that the UN itself helped to steward. A perennial challenge for the UN, according to Daws, is therefore to adapt to the changing landscape of international politics and to manage the diverse expectations of its member states. Yet in Daws’ view the UN Charter and its framework of international law remain highly relevant, in a large part due to the “realpolitik marriage of power and representation in the UN Security Council.”

Daws believes that the current Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, “has shown impressive tenacity” and gives him special credit for his robustness and persistence in tackling the problems in Darfur. The challenges currently facing Ban and the UN are formidable. The organisation needs to find and implement solutions for those immediate threats – like hunger and civil war – which make life for many “a living hell”, but it must also confronting longer-term, existential threats like climate change.

Furthermore, all of this is now occurring against the backdrop of the global credit crunch. Daws fears that governments will use the current financial turmoil as an excuse to renege on their pledges to alleviate poverty and protect the environment.

When asked to comment on the common charge that the UN is paralysed by excessive bureaucracy, Daws is dismissive, “The UN employs fewer people worldwide than Disneyland and Disney World. It does a great deal with limited resources which are dwarfed by the magnitude of the problems the UN is asked to fix.”

Daws believes there will always be a need for the UN to address what Annan described as “problems without passports” – issues like avian flu and climate change-induced migration, that have no respect for national borders.

The UN’s success depends on many factors. One, according to Daws, is strong citizen engagement in the UN and in the wide range of issues it deals with. He therefore encourages those interested in international affairs to join their university’s UNA-UK group and to participate in Model United Nations conferences. Another driver of the UN’s effectiveness is the quality and dynamism of its staff.

Daws recommends that students setting their sights on a career with the UN undertake internships in relevant NGOs or with the UN itself.

Given the intensity of competition, breaking into the UN is not easy, but Daws has some reassuring advice for would-be UN employees: all you ultimately need is competence and persistence – two strengths Daws has clearly honed in his 20 years serving the UN.