First Things First!

About the project

About the project

How to keep the United Nations environmental agenda in times of crisis?

Competition between policy areas over political attention is high in the context of the United Nations (UN) fragmented system. When a crisis hits, the UN programs immediately mobilize to bring relief to those most affected shifting priorities towards addressing the emergency. In other words: first things first.

The response depends on the nature of the crisis: economic and financial crises call for the intervention of multilateral banks, a famine requires the investment of the World Food Programme, and of course the World Health Organization is at the forefront of managing a pandemic. Overall, the concerned UN entities focus on the short-term horizon of the crisis meanwhile other actors might wait to resume their long-term activities. Yet on a daily basis, UN staff keeps on trying to push its thematic agenda even when it is not perceived as a priority. This is the paradox the proposed research intends to unravel: how do UN actors keep an issue, which is not seen as a priority, on the agenda in times of crisis?

Literature has extensively explored the process through which an issue is put on the agenda (agenda-setting). However, few studies have tried to understand the rest of the story, that is, how an issue is kept on the agenda.

The First Things First! project builds bridges between different scholarships in political science and international relations to address these gaps in a coherent questioning on the process of agenda-keeping within an IO. This project builds bridges between different scholarships in political science and international relations to address these gaps in a coherent questioning on the process of agenda-keeping within an IO.

To do so, this project investigate the UN environmental agenda in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and analyze the concrete ways UN staff attempts to maintain the environment on the agenda at the operational and policy levels. Two cases have been identified, first studied individually then through a cross-case analysis: the environmental agenda of the UN Environment Programme country office in Haiti and the climate agenda advanced by the UN Secretary-General and his team. The two cases together provide insights on the process of agenda-keeping in different settings within the multilateral system: micro and macro levels; narrow and large mandates; policy and implementation; climate and environmental agendas.

Besides its conceptual ambitions, this project will contribute to improve the understanding of the United Nations’ functioning by providing information on its internal dynamics and by questioning the temporal division of the work of the emergency sector and the sustainability policy field.

First Things Firts! is a two-year research project supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), directed by Dr. Lucile Maertens. The research team includes Dr. Luis Rivera-Vélez, postdoctoral researcher, Zoé Cheli, research assistant, and Massimo Pico, student assistant.

Meet The Team

Principal investigator

Prof. Lucile Maertens

Dr. Lucile Maertens is associate professor in political science and international relations at the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and member of the Global Governance Centre (GGC). Her work focuses on international organizations and multilateral practices, notably in the field of global environmental politics. In line with her previous research, the First Things First! project will allow Dr. Lucile Maertens to further explore the fragmentation issue in the multilateral system.


Dr. Luis Rivera-Vélez

Dr. Luis Rivera-Vélez is a postdoctoral researcher in political science at the Institute of Political Studies of the University of Lausanne, and associated researcher at the Sciences Po Center for International Studies (CERI). His research interests focus on policymaking processes around controversial issues. On the First Things First! project, he studies how the UN Secretary General shapes a climate agenda and maintains it during crises. He previously researched abortion and LGBTQI+ rights in Latin America, and his PhD focused on cannabis legalization at both international (UN, OAS) and domestic levels (Colombia, Uruguay, and Mexico).

Research assistant

Zoé Cheli

Zoé Cheli participates in the First Things First! project as a research assistant. She completed her Masters’ Degree in Foundations and Practices of Sustainability from the University of Lausanne in 2022. Specifically, she studied carbon taxation as a policy instrument from the perspective of climate justice. 

Student assistant

Pauline Jonin

Pauline Jonin is a student assistant on the First Thing First! project. She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the University of Geneva and will soon complete her Master’s degree in Political Science at the University of Lausanne, specializing in globalization. Her research focuses on international migration, development studies, environment and refugees. Her master’s thesis analyzes the evolution of IOM’s Migration, Environment and Climate Change (MECC) division during the COVID-19s pandemic.

Former student assistant

Massimo Pico

Massimo Pico works as a student assistant on the First Thing First! research project. He currently studies a Masters’ Degree in political science at the University of Lausanne, with a specialization in international relations and governing globalization. His research focuses on political sociology of international organizations, multilateral diplomacy, and security issues. His master’s thesis analyzes Switzerland as an elected member and small neutral state of the United Nations Security Council.

News, media and other publications

November 2023

November 30 marks the start of COP28, a new season of global climate negotiations. Despite the growing media attention surrounding this annual event, one question remains: will the excitement succeed in convincing countries to take significant action against climate change? Or will the mountain bring forth another mouse?

Article published in The Conversation (in French)

This two-year research project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (Subside n°100017_20083)