‘What We Need To See Is Healthy Respect, And These Are The Threads Of Our Human Fabric’: Amina J Mohammed On Diversity, SDGs, Climate Change and Africa Moving Forward

Published 1 year ago
Batet Receives Un Deputy Secretary-general, Amina J. Mohammed

The 12th annual Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture took place in Cape Town, on October 7, the Archbishop’s birthday. Amina J Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), spoke at the in-person event, themed ‘A Vision for Hope and Healing’. Key in establishing the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), she has worked as Special Advisor to the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and was formerly Nigeria’s Minister of Environment. She elaborated that while more people are in poverty, denied basic rights, with the climate crisis crossing all borders, social cohesion fraying, inequalities, increasing xenophobia, nationalism and hate speech, it doesn’t have to be this way. The planet has irreplaceable resources and renewable energy, she said, and we’ve never been so connected by technology, living as long, or with as many women in positions of power. More in this interview with FORBES AFRICA:

Q: You spoke a bit about the fourth industrial revolution at the lecture, and you also spoke about decolonizing hundreds of years of education meant for other people. What do you imagine that to look like?

A: I think it starts first of all for from where we create access to education, and the curriculum that we put in place for it. And we talk about the scientific basis that we find we must have in early childcare. I think early childcare is not in a classroom, but very much in Africa today, it needs to start with adult literacy and mothers because as African women, and in our cultures – our children are with us until they’re three, attached at the hip, if you would.


So I think that we need to find creative ways of bringing education into the home, and not taking kids to institutions at that early age. So early childhood education, for me, is one transformation that happens together with a mother [for] that bonding in the community, where we say that Africa is brought up by a village and not by a couple of people. So, really bringing that community learning into early child care.

Then, building on that, the primary and secondary education that we need. One that really looks at that intrinsic value of education to a person, a person’s identity from their cultures, their religion, the good practices – so we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – we’re always referring to harmful cultural practices, and we never look at it from the positive side. And that we move on from things that we did not know were so harmful because they were so cultural, or so male-vested. And we need to move on. But there are some good things there.

And then really, to begin to build the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy, by putting the digital in front so that we’re not waiting until ‘oh, Africa is ready, or Africa has the resources right at the beginning’. Our ambition is for each child, as a global citizen, and not just an African citizen, but to bring that whole technology and learning into an environment. What I’m trying to say is that as we learn to have pride and independence of one’s being, how that contributes from the inside out. So you’re not just looking at capacities and skills to connect to the outside world without understanding anything about who you are, and the part that you play in your own ecosystem.

I do this because I was part of an education system that did this, although I have to say that we had a broader education. But as years have gone on, that curriculum has become loaded. It has lost its core. And I think people are struggling with who they are, and who they are is such a contradiction to people who want us to join this global family. And I think that we are richer for it if we identify with what we really are. The question of diversity for me is far deeper than the narrow, silo approach that we are seeing on diversity now.


The diversity piece has lost its meaning, because we’ve sort of pigeonholed different parts of our society that are different, and will choose to live differently. And what we need to see is healthy respect, and that these are the threads of our human fabric. And as such, each thread matters, each thread makes the fabric stronger, not weaker. So the less threads we have, that we leave behind, the weaker that fabric. And I think if you say that to people, then they see themselves in the fabric. It’s not you against us. And that’s what really draws me to the Arch [Desmond Tutu]. Because I think he really taught us how to respect what’s behind our skin. It’s us, it’s human beings. And as you’re born, you’re incredibly free of everything, and depending where you land, is what shapes you.

Q: You spoke about this at the lecture with your vision for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in light of all of the global and local conflicts. You termed it the ‘world in crisis’, how do you think Africa can move forward?

A: I think essentially, we’ve got to have a few conversations with ourselves. And there has to be a huge amount of courage that what you’re doing is shaping the future. I mean, concretely, shaping that future for your people with what you know is the right thing. And this is our leaders, and I’m saying leaders at different levels, because the leaders that we point to and look to as inspirations and heroes, they’re all gone now. And I don’t know who we point to, to replace them. Because today, we’re so critical of the person, we’re so judgmental of the person, and we miss the message that that person carries.

I think people like the Arch and Madiba [Nelson Mandela] always recognized their failings. And so people didn’t have a chance to throw any stones at them. What came out was ‘okay, I’m not perfect, I’m not God, but these are the things that I believe in, these are the things that I will fight for’. So as human beings, what we look to is what they stood for. And I’m not sure today that we give so much grace to leaders. And I think that we have to think and listen to what the leader is saying and doing, rather than judge what’s in the closet. Everybody’s got a closet, and some worse than others. But if that person takes a good message that does no harm, that brings people together, that forwards Africa, we need to find that community.


We have a responsibility as followers to get behind them to do the right thing. So conversation, really serious conversation. Whether it happens in the African Union [AU], and I have to tell you that in the AU, when leaders try to get together to have a closed-door meeting, the international community wants to be in on it. Even I, as an African, say to people, ‘oo, I’m the United Nations’. That’s their conversation they need to have. I can have a private one as well, as a brother or sister conversation to them. But in this piece here, give them space, because every one of them has baggage, and that baggage is colonial. And many of them are tied to it inextricably, and it’s hard.

So what common ground can they come together on to move us forward? And I think that the fact that we’re seeing no solidarity with Africa right now has actually empowered a conversation. I think the United Nations has been helpful for a sanguine Economic Commission for Africa that did a lot of work with the Minister of Finance. So they were able to take the issues in an international arena and argue them, and it’s quite difficult for our people to do that because essentially, they’re in their own bubble, fighting the day-to-day challenges of broken democracies and an incredibly different set of difficult situations, conflict, etc.

Q: At the lecture, you were also speaking about the need for self-determination; what does Africa need to do for that?

A: I think we’ve been told what to do and what’s good for us. And we have to come back and determine what is good for us. That’s why I said for education, it’s really important we think about that. And we think about what skills are going to put a kid, from when they get into school for 15 years, to the workplace? Is it the skills of tomorrow?


Then you hear what’s going on in South Africa with AI, and you’re thinking, ‘okay, what is the transition going to look like? How do we build that capacity? How do we look at the financial architecture, which was really built for another era, and not for our development – [what about] access courses or even profiting from the natural resources that we have, so that we can build?’ And so it’s going to be complex, because we are many, and our issues are very complex.

We need to think, ‘what is the low hanging fruit for a politician that is bound by a four or five-year cycle of democracy and elective office, to one that is longer?’ Longer term means you need institutional memory; that means that the services the institutions need to be able to carry us through these different cycles of elections.

The policy somersaults that we are feeling right now, I guess they feel them in the United Kingdom, they feel them in countries in Europe now that are going so far right from being so far left. So, it’s important, and then I think that, the more we educate people, the better constituencies we have for engaging. You can’t engage with one person, one vote, when there is quite frankly, a lack of education as to understanding why the vote, and what’s my vote worth? Is it $5? Or is it educational reform, and health services, and things that are my rights, that’s what my vote is. So it’s a little bit of a journey, as you know, the long road to freedom – the road is still being tracked.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to anecdotally share on the issues you spoke about either in the lecture or about achieving the SDGs?


A: There are so many. Climate for me is the biggest challenge that we have, and opportunity. So when a farmer says to me that this is not about a flood, or temperatures, it’s about ‘I wake up in the morning

and my crop is gone because of a dust storm, and that dust storm has come because of drought, and my farm is gone, my livelihood is gone’. And then the livelihoods of all these Maasai women and men that I met, their livelihoods, their cattle have died. You see the carcasses on the road. And we don’t want to talk about that much. But that’s assets that have just been taken away. And so when Kenya is dealing with that, they’re saying, ‘okay, right now, the private sector is coming in, and we’re asking them to put a fund together, so they buy the cattle before they die’. So there are resources for that community, for the hard times, and they can replenish stock. Then we have put things together that will help us to build back with a level of resilience.

Those are real stories. They are real situations that have to sometimes find their way into the media, into the headlines. Not so much the misery of it, but the way that we can prevent it and then link that to the 1.5 degrees. I think there’s a disconnect between science, the 1.5 degrees and the reality on the ground. We need to link it, we need to say a third of Pakistan is underwater, because we’ve just had floods that are melting glaciers, and we can tie that to China, and it’s industrial pollution. We can do all this. So how do you tell the story?

I listened to an elder just three days ago, and his eyesight had gone. And all he said was ‘we’re very grateful for what you’ve been able to give us here, but there’s a lot of people you can’t see that haven’t been able to get to this’. And the first thing he said was women and people with disabilities. And it just made me think, ‘wow, this person right now is not talking about can we have more for me and my tribe’, which is what generally gets into a story, he’s been very specific about the people that are being left behind, that we don’t see.


I think he’s given me fodder for my advocacy. Because when I go back into those sterile rooms, that somehow craft language that I don’t understand, and many people don’t understand, we can break it down. And this is where I think the partnership with the media is so important. This is a new partnership that we need to have.