United Nations deputy secretary general Amina J. Mohammed has been instrumental in shaping the organisation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. She was also key in the formulation and realisation of the previous Millennium Development Goals. Her voice and influence on this global agenda is one of the most respected. In this interview with our editor reGina Jane Jere, it is clear that her dedication to poverty eradication and inclusive development in a peaceful world remains resolute. However, as she tells NAW, achieving these goals amid the current global anxieties raises some red flags, which call for action but not quick fixes.
You speak and the world listens. But it’s now over 20 months since the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the world has changed dramatically. Is this new world order distracting attention away from the still nascent SDGs?
Most certainly, these are challenging times. But I think the ownership and the process that we started to get in this incredibly ambitious framework took into account context and recognised the different complexities of our world today. And also, the context of political upheavals, of conflict, of migration, and of terrorism. It really did take everything into account.
With that in mind, how would you assess progress made so far and what are your immediate concerns? The response to that is so complicated; it’s not a neat number, it’s not a neat set of targets. I think that, first, we should acknowledge that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were a really good effort. It was the first time the world came together to set a number of integrated issues together. We might not have achieved all of them everywhere but we knew that it did work and therefore, what we did was take it a step further.
The MDGs are still unfinished business but what this new framework has done is provide, first of all, the recognition of building on the MDGs with a little bit more ambition. But to do so, we do have to look at strong governments and institutions. We need strong partnerships and the funding that comes with that. What we have is a response that is still valid, even more today because of the kind of political turmoil we see ourselves in.
With Africa specifically in mind – albeit it’s too early to assess progress of the SDGs so far – do these global distractions raise red flags and are they slowing down what has already been achieved through the MDGs?
I think it’s a real struggle and the response that we are seeing right now is how countries are grappling with what they are going to do about the current order. Let me just underscore here that we are in transition time with the SDGs. As we have always said, it would take a couple of years to transition from the MDGs to the SDGs. Over the last two years, I think that we have seen a different approach to how countries are embedding the SDGs in their own visions and plans. In Africa, we have actually had six countries last year and another seven this year, who have clearly flagged some of the institutional and political problems. Are there red flags? Yes. In the context of many of our countries that are experiencing different types of conflict and humanitarian challenges, it’s difficult to address some of these goals.
The UN’s approach to that, as the secretary general firmly puts it in his vision, is: We have got to look at how we prevent conflicts and once we come out of them, how do we sustain the peace and development. And in the middle of this, we are saying that the SDGs are the frameworks that we need to invest in. There are therefore no quick wins in this discussion. If we are to have sustainable development, we cannot put a band-aid on things. And if you don’t address the root causes, we are never going to have sustainable development. Therefore, we have to go back to the drawing board and we have to be courageous about it; and the UN has to come together and be much more responsive in the way in which it supports countries, in order to move them forward.
It’s been over two decades since the Beijing Declaration, but the issue of gender equality in Africa today is still far from resolved. Why are we not winning this battle, given what you saw recently in these two countries as an example?
We definitely need more women in decision-making and particularly in parliament. You see in the DRC, they have a constitution that acknowledges parity, but they need the law to effect that. And in addition to the law, they also need to make investments in women, their education, their ability to actually participate in diplomacy and therefore, in the decision-making that goes along. In addition, there are a number of investments that need to be made in line with the laws aimed at empowering women.
In Nigeria, it is quite shocking to see the low levels of women in parliament – both in the Senate and the House. And that we actually have men actively opposing efforts to reduce their capacity. I think here, Nigeria needs to change its strategy and it needs to start on the local level of the parties. Again, I see the great capacity of women in Nigeria to participate, so I don’t think that’s our challenge. Our challenge is the construct and what the male community puts into it.
Don’t you also think that a change of mindset at family level is key? Some cultural norms ensure girls remain domesticated. Doesn’t that continue to hold back the aims of SDG 5?
I think we must stop stereotyping some of these issues. The truth of the matter is that there is an evolution of society. At one point, you have one breadwinner, at another point you have more than one breadwinner and a different kind of context and environment. How do we empower everyone to have a role and a place in the home, in the workplace and in society? I think if we do that, we will balance the decisions that we take and we will not be shut out of it. I think men have to recognise that in every home, the woman has a right to participate in the economy and has the abilities to contribute to that. But that should not be done to the detriment of the home, and it should be a shared responsibility. When we are talking about women in politics, what we need to see is opening up those opportunities at all levels and institutions and that, I don’t think is happening. Men aren’t just going to step aside.
However, gender parity is at the top of the agenda in the United Nations and everybody buys into gender parity in terms of aspiration. But the realities of how you move men out of positions in order to make room for women to get gender parity is a tough discourse and it has to start at the entry point – into parliament, into jobs, into institutions. And what the SDGs tell us is: “Let’s take a step back and let’s ask people to set the foundations on which we are building sustainable development. Let’s get them right; let’s take the time to do that and not be in a hurry to fail.”
Even though we know the urgency of attending to people who are starving, who are facing gender-based violence or those in a place that they shouldn’t be if the world was a better place.
You mentioned the issue of peace – it was the theme of this year’s UN General Assembly. We know that while Africa has seen a reduction of conflicts in recent years, there are pockets that are still deadly. How is this achievable?
I think in the short term, as you will have seen in the last six months, the African Union (AU) and the United Nations have defined their frameworks for peace and security. Again, this is to bring more coordination and coherence, a more efficient way of looking at the results, and get them around the continent. What is important here is to align the AU’s Agenda 2063 and the UN’s Agenda 2030. So, in the short term, we are getting the partnership frameworks right especially on roles and responsibilities.
But while you are right that we don’t see as many conflicts as before, we do, however, in those pockets, see much more larger scale conflicts, which have larger regional implications. I therefore think it’s much more challenging because they are bringing cross-border issues. Here again, the mechanisms are around putting mediation into place, ensuring that there is a plan straddling the peace process with development. And clearly addressing the fact that when we talk about the humanitarian development nexus, in theory, we have so many red lines. But in practice and on the ground, people are dealing with this in the same context and trying to move the humanitarian crisis to reintegration on a development trajectory that achieves the SDGs. So, it is difficult.
We don’t often look at the fact that root causes can require to be addressed over the long-term. We have to have a balance on what we do in the short term; what can we do in the long-term, and there are some of those low-hanging fruit that give a sense of the possibilities of achieving the longterm objective. But people often want to have things done yesterday.
The UNGA theme, tried first of all, put the emphasis on the need to bring the resources and the political commitment. We are going to discuss the problems we have and addressing their root causes, but at the same time, we have to find the resources and financing to put into development and unless we ratchet that up, then we will be losing the gains of peace as quickly as we are putting our resources at the problem.
There is a swelling debate about how Africa’s growing population affects progress when resources are comparatively low or even scarce. What’s your comment on this debate?
First of all, I think that any population should be seen from the perspective of being an asset to a country and we need to make the investment to make sure there is quality and that everyone has equal opportunity. Today we have populations growing without the ability to service them and therefore, women and children take the brunt of this and are suffering. We have to go back to those policies and see why that is happening. In many cases, it’s because we don’t have the choices around population issues to make those decisions and I think that’s what we should be given, the free choice to make the decisions we need to, to have a healthy family.
Depending on the context of my means, this may be two children or six children. I think that the bigger, inestimable problem, is the ability to make sure that we can provide for those that come into the world. So, on the population issue, I think there are many dimensions to it and health and life is a very big one.
Do African governments have the political will to make the SDGs a success? Are they taking the lead?
I think both in the global community and in Africa, we have the right rhetoric, we have the correct framework. But it’s when that rubber hits the road that action comes into play. I think in the case of the AU, what we have seen the African leadership do in the last few months is to, first of all, get behind the reforms that are needed and make them happen, and ask and take the tough questions on how to reform an institution to take responsibility for the decisions that happen to get the results, both in terms of the AU’s Agenda 2063 and Silencing the Guns. We have also seen that they made progress in taking responsibility towards financing the AU itself. These are all works in progress at different stages but I believe the leadership right now is incredibly serious about it and we are redefining our relationship with Africa on the basis of respect and solidarity, as the [UN] secretary general says.
I do think that we have an opportunity now. What we have to do is to make sure we get behind the leadership. Let me just say that on both Agenda 2063 and the SDGs, Africa is the only region that has a common position – a 10-year plan.
We also have a new lady who is heading up the Economic Commission for Africa, Vera Songwe, and I think that this is amazing because she’s going to bring a different kind of vision to supporting Africa’s agenda; making sure that we integrate the economy; women’s issues, youth issues, technology, across some of the promises that have been made by African leaders. So, in short, I would say the rubber is about to hit the road and what we need to see is that rhetoric and those frameworks are turned into action.
What about the money that comes with all that? When it comes to funding does Africa have sustainable capacity to financing its goals?
You must recall that it was in Addis Ababa that we agreed the framework for funding development. And right now, what we are concluding on that and you will see that happen at the G8, it’s the SG’s strategy to help promote that. And to really look at what we need to do at both the global and country levels. We have to look at tax issues as well as see how we leverage business and private sector funding into the continent.
You are on record as saying both Nigeria and DRC – which you recently visited – are two African countries where you see a lot of violence against women heavily impacting SDG 5. So where is the long-term solution?
First of all, I think Africa is trying to make those strides that are necessary to achieving SDG 5 (Gender Equality). But the approach to development in Africa has always been ad hoc, and I think we have been pitting some of our greatest challenges against each other in terms of making choices. For example, we will say, “Well we have to make a choice between a woman and health. Or a woman and an education budget.” And I think this is where we have got it wrong. The fact is that women are an integral part of any investment, be it in health, in education, in agriculture, etc. Africa needs to recognise that our human resources are the biggest asset base that we have, and to ignore investing in 50% of it, is just foolhardy and affects results, as well as the rights that women have in their lives.
Regarding gender-based violence, I believe as a human family, the first thing we have to do is draw up our sphere of tolerance. And then to look at what we need to put in place to ensure that tolerance becomes a sustainable part of our community. In Nigeria, for instance, gender-based violence takes many different forms depending on cultural practices. And there’s been a lot of work that the United Nations has done to overcome some of them. But new incidences are being seen, as we face the complexities of some of the conflicts we have in the northeast, for instance, with Boko Haram kidnappings, the rapes and the sex for food. These are unacceptable but again, you have some gains in other parts of the country where we have greatly reduced some of [the harmful] cultural practices.
And in the DRC, where Goma was once known as the rape capital of the world, they have made strides and put in place people who are responsible for trying to reverse the tide. Working with UN Women and our special representative on sexual violence in conflict, we have seen a huge reduction, although not enough, because we said zero tolerance. However, we need to scale this up and share the best practice.
Finally, every girl, including my own daughter, looks up to women like you and you inspire so many of us. Being in such a very crucial position, how would you describe a New African Woman?
Wow. We have so many young women and people around the world and around Africa that I come across and I also look up to them. A New African Woman is strong and is at the top of her game in informing and shaping the future of Africa on every level: economically, politically, environmentally, because we are there in all these fields. It is also about African women’s rights and aspirations. African women are closing the gap between the realities of today and our aspirations for tomorrow.