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Anna Tibaijuka: ‘Not Easy For African Women In The UN System’


Anna Tibaijuka: ‘Not Easy For African Women In The UN System’

Based on her long experience in the UN system, Tanzania’s current land minister and former UN-Habitat executive director, Anna Tibaijuka, tells about the struggle African women still have to break the glass ceiling preventing them from reaching the top echelons of the various UN agencies. Erick Kabendera interviewed her in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam.

Q: You were the first African woman to hold a very senior office at the UN, gained through an election. How did you use the position to help African women to follow in your footsteps, as research shows the percentage of women holding senior positions has gone down globally?

A: True, in 2002 I was elected by the UN General Assembly as under-secretary general of the United Nations and executive director of UN-HABITAT. I therefore became the first African woman in this senior elective position. In 2006 I was also appointed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan as the director general of the United Nations Office in Nairobi, which is the only UN headquarters station in the developing world. Once I got into both these positions, I considered it my duty to work hard and perform highly and impressively to demonstrate that African women, given a chance, can also deliver. I am happy that on this matter all are agreed I did very well.


Q: So, can we conclude that other senior appointments of African women in the UN, such as the deputy secretary general (Dr Asha Rose Migiro of Tanzania) and the director general of the UN Office at Nairobi (UNON), have been influenced by your success?

A: Well, to the extent that any pioneer can open or close doors for others depending on the example he/she sets, one can say yes.

However, the deputy secretary-general position in the UN system is a direct political appointment by the secretary-general of the day, who makes his decisions based on many other criteria, so one has to be careful when making a judgment on whether your example was relevant or not in terms of competency.

However, in the case of the director general for the Nairobi duty station (UNON), I can say categorically that I was instrumental in ensuring an African woman got appointed to that position once again.


Q: There was a wide outcry when you were removed from the position of director general of UNON. The media said you had been demoted and the staff members protested against your removal. How do you explain that matter now, looking back?

A: Well, that experience forced me out of the comfort zone and reminded me I was still an African woman who must fight any injustice for the sake of those coming after me. I am happy I emerged victorious and will go down in history in having helped formalise the status of the Nairobi duty station after it had existed informally for over 40 years, without [there being] an independent position of an under-secretarygeneral to function as a leader created by the General Assembly. In other words, before my struggle, the position of an independent director general for the Nairobi duty station did not exist.

The tradition was the position of director general in Nairobi was occupied by either the head of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) or UN-HABITAT as a double-up. This is what created the loophole for the UNEP chief to lobby for my replacement before my term, taking advantage of the secretary general’s policy of mobility.

This unfortunate decision was resisted by many who saw it for what it was, unjust and a humiliation. Others termed it a demotion although in actual fact that was not the case because I was an elected undersecretary  general, so could not be demoted.

 So the matter was referred to the UN General Assembly that reversed the decision of the secretary general by creating an independent under-secretary general position for the duty station with immediate effect! So in a matter of nine months, my colleague had been removed from the position by the General Assembly to make room for the secretary general to appoint an independent replacement.

I believe the appointment of an Ethiopian woman to take over that position speaks for itself. The message has been understood.

I consider that a major achievement. It is very encouraging but it shows it is still not easy out there for African women.


Q: You are remembered for taking the UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon through the Kibera slums in Nairobi. How have you used such experiences to help improve the lives in your new capacity as minister for lands, housing and human settlement in Tanzania?

A: I believe that one cannot solve the problems that one does not fully understand.

This is why I decided to take the UN secretary general to see real life in the slums.

The outcome was that he gave a personal grant for UN-HABITAT to work in the slums of Kenya, as part of the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme that I had initiated with the government of Kenya when I first arrived in 2000.

Before my arrival in Kenya, the agency had shied away from working in the slums, given the high risks involved. I said it was a risk that must be taken to justify our very existence, and it worked. Slum upgrading activities have now picked up in Kenya with the government taking the lead.

Back home in Tanzania, I am lucky to continue with similar programmes that I had initiated while at the UN, in slum urban planning and renewal, slum upgrading and slum prevention, water and sanitation and youth empowerment. I say I am a lucky girl, having moved from UN-HABITAT to Tanzania-Habitat.


Q: How would you respond to your critics who describe your 10-year record at the helm of UN-HABITAT as appalling after the findings of an audit in February led the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to withhold up to £1m?

A: Actually I don’t care about those people because either they are not informed or have their own ulterior motives! Most of this stuff is misinformation and outright propaganda. First, there is no adverse audit query for UN-HABITAT. On the contrary, we achieved an outstanding financial performance, including from our fundraising events. I had inherited a bankrupt organization in 2002. I built it up from scratch.

Against all odds I was able to leave behind over $50m in reserve for my successor. In record time in the UN system, I managed to upgrade the old Habitat centre to a fully fledged programme of the UN and to restore staff morale.

Many agree that my record is outstanding. I was among those managers with excellent staff relations, with the exception of course to the few who are envious of my achievements. In 2009 I even won the coveted Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development which is equated to “the Nobel Prize for the Environment”. Similarly, I have been appointed to the board of Habitat for Humanity International, a US-based housing agency operating globally to improve housing for the poor. I am also a trustee of the Aga Khan University; and have been elected chair of the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council.

Those, for sure, are considerable accolades? In short, I am widely acclaimed in the UN system and beyond for putting the challenges of rapid and chaotic urbanization on the world map!

I created the World Urban Forum, a premier conference on matters urban. At its last session in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, about 13,000 people from 170 countries met to discuss our urban future! Who can deny that? Also take note that the DFID report has been quoted by my detractors out of context to serve their own purposes. The report is a general one on the UN agencies and does not single out UN-HABITAT or me personally. When it comes to criticisms, issues can be raised on selectivity, targeting agencies with heads from the developing world for negativity. It is appalling? Just do your research on those agencies that got praised by the DFID report, and you will soon see what I mean?

Actually, several UN agency heads, such as the director general of UNIDO, have since been dismissed. It is a biased report, probably written by a consultant who tried to dramatise the situation to impress his employers, and in the process caused them a lot of embarrassment.


Q: What do you mean the DFID report is an embarrassment, and to whom?

A: I mean it is a report that cannot withstand any objective scrutiny and review, and in my opinion it should be removed from the archives of an organisation of high standing such as DFID. Look here, in my case, if truth be told, DFID is one of the agencies that actually supported me throughout my tenure of 10 years. And I’am grateful for that.

If there were management problems, they should have spotted those before my departure? Who will believe that for 10 years, DFID officials and the UK high commission in Kenya, which also doubles as their permanent representative to the UN-HABITAT in Nairobi, did not know what the agency was doing and were giving funds to the wrong manager?

No, the writers of that unfortunate report simply did a great disservice to the otherwise good support I got from DFID that was instrumental in turning things around in Nairobi and making me successful.

In 2005, I was invited by Prime Minister Tony Blair to sit on his Commission for Africa, together with Gordon Brown who later succeeded Blair as prime minister. How does anyone with an appalling record get that far in the UK system? Let’s be serious, give credit where it is due! No one can take away my achievements while at the UN. This is agreed by many. I don’t have to beat my own drum in this matter.


Q: You authored a report on the campaign by the Zimbabwean government to clear slum areas across the country, which the United Nations estimates affected 700,000 people in 2005. How true are allegations that Malloch-Brown, who was Kofi Annan’s No. 2, doctored the report for political purposes, against President Robert Mugabe?

A: In 2005, I was appointed special envoy of the secretary general on human settlement issues in Zimbabwe. That report, whether one likes it or not, is mine and I stand by all its conclusions and recommendations.

Anyone trying to blame the report on Lord Mark Malloch-Brown for influencing it in any way is unfair to both of us. We are both people of integrity. I am not the type of person who would allow anyone to doctor a report I authored, and neither did Mark Malloch-Brown ever try such a thing! As I said, idle minds are always ready to blame others and deny credit where it is due.

I went to Zimbabwe and saw that things were bad for the urban poor and wrote my report, knowing that only truth would help the situation. Why shouldn’t anyone see that simple fact? Or depending on how one sees it, is it because the report was good and could not have been written by an African woman!


Q: How best do you think Mugabe’s government would have equitably distributed land between blacks and the minority whites to avert the political problems seen in the country today?

A: My report on Zimbabwe discussed this issue at length and gave specific recommendations aimed at finding a solution.The country had gained independence on a land reform platform enshrined in the Lancaster agreement. Commercial farms would be taken over and land distributed more equitably among small and mediumscale farmers to improve the sharing of income and even, over time, productivityand better land use.

The white farmers, most of them with high education, finance and experience, would move to other sectors in Zimbabwe. It was conceived as a win-win situation for everyone. But alas, that did not happen.

An orderly land reform did not take place and it was clear that in time there would be trouble for everyone. I recommended that the international community should recognise that reality and set up a Land Reform Compensation Fund so that the unfortunate commercial farmers would get fair and adequate compensation for their investments, to be able to move on. Smallholders would also get requisite agricultural support services to produce.

President Mugabe had told me he would be willing to get assistance to compensate the white farmers more equitably if he got the support that Mrs Thatcher had promised him, but apparently the subsequent UK government refused to pay. I had recommended that the UN should oversee this exercise by creating a Compensation Fund where donors could give such funds. Regrettably, this most important aspect of my recommendation was not taken up and as a result the situation has continued to deteriorate. That is a tragedy of any polarized position. When I presented my briefing to the UN Security Council, the UK government did offer to discuss the matter of funding but there was no serious followup of the matter. It was a lost opportunity for both sides. But it is not too late. It can be revived. The proposal is still relevant.

As high as 98% of land in Tanzania remains unsurveyed or unregistered, which means most farmers/peasants are farming on land that they do not own legally and can’t use as an asset to acquire loans from financial institutions.


Q: How do you plan to resolve the issue during your term in office?

A: The surveying, registration and adjudication of land in Tanzania is indeed one of the priorities of the government. We are aware that unless and until land is surveyed and registered, it exists as dead capital, and its owners cannot use it as collateral to access credit. We are working hard to turn around this situation.

With advances in modern spatial technology, we should be able to make considerable progress but we will need all the financial and human resource assistance we can get. There is not enough.

We are also working to establish a land bank to facilitate the access of investors to land. Currently the process is timeconsuming and prone to conflicts and misunderstandings.

I am aware and looking for effective measures to minimise and even reduce these difficulties.

What about market access for young people? In many African countries, trade policies are misinformed and devoid of the need to protect and promote the interests of young people.

I am working hard to change this perception, using the experience I gained from my tenure at UNCTAD, where I started my career as the special coordinator for the least developed, land locked and island developing countries. I was in charge of trade negotiations and capacity building and giving technical assistance for traderelated  activities in the developing world.

Trade and development means that trade policies be used to promote the efforts of the marginalised, under the special and differential treatment provisions of the WTO for the least developed nations.

In this regard, I served as the executive secretary of the Third United Conference on LDCs that was hosted by the European Union in 2001 in Brussels. We managed to get the EU to agree to a historical nonreciprocal trade offer of everything but arms. The US had already offered the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA).

All these open doors for young people, provided we give them supportive measures to organise their economic activities. That is what we do at TALE.


Q:Do you have ambitions to run for president in 2016, as has been widely rumoured?

A: I am grateful that upon my return to Tanzania to run for parliament, firstly, the ruling CCM party accepted me and I won a 76% landslide in the primaries, where I was able to unseat a very influential politician, a former cabinet minister. I finally emerged as an unopposed candidate for my parliamentary constituency of Muleba South in the Kagera region.

People have shown so much faith and trust in me. I am in turn working hard to improve their lives and fight poverty. President Jakaya Kikwete has given me the land portfolio. It is one of the most challenging in the country. I have enough on my plate! I am therefore busy enough with the present work, which I plan to do to the best of my ability. I am thus not consumed by what comes next. I am not that type of person. I deal with the present and leave the future to God. Of course, I cannot stop people from expressing their views and opinions.

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