Annika Savill

Executive Head, UNDEF


In this Current Issues podcast, host Alistair Edgar is joined by Annika Savill, Executive Head of the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) to discuss the origins and structure of UNDEF and their grant projects. Established in 2005, UNDEF—which has the distinction of being the only UN entity with ‘democracy’ in its name—works directly with civil society to support democratic processes. Reporting to the office of the Secretary General through an advisory board, UNDEF is not constrained by the geopolitics of the General Assembly and instead has the autonomy to decide what projects to fund and what profile the project to take from year to year. This structure allows UNDEF to support small local NGOs, and with current funding constraints UNDEF is one of the few that ‘bets’ on these smaller groups. The organization is focused on practical efforts and grant projects begin and end at the project site. For applicants interested in UNDEF funding, Savill stresses the importance of visiting the interactive ‘lessons learned’ platform on the website. The learning process of UNDEF is important, and applicants should avoid reinventing the wheel with every project. This ideology also applies to successful projects, which is why UNDEF instituted a system of following-up with the grantee a year later and part of their obligation is to report after the closing so the story does not end with the final narrative report.

In considering the organization’s connections to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the work of UNDEF is most obviously related to the Goal 16 “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions”. However, as Savill argues, small ‘d’ democracy runs through all the goals like a gold thread, and UNDEF’s advocacy helps influence governments in championing these goals.


Annika Savill joined UNDEF in 2008. Before being appointed Executive Head, she served as Deputy Head and was extensively involved in policy, management, negotiation and selection of projects, including in advancing UNDEF’s presence in challenging political environments. Before joining UNDEF, Annika Savill served in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General from 1997 to 2008, working under Ban Ki-moon and Kofi A. Annan as the Secretary-General’s speechwriter and a senior member of his communications team. She has written about democratic processes in a number of societies in transition. Prior to joining the United Nations, she had a 15-year career as a journalist, serving with the Associated Press, Reuters and The Independent, where she was a founder member and Diplomatic Editor. She is the winner of two UN 21 Awards for organizational innovation.