Garry Conille: We'll have to go much further on gender in post-2015

Garry Conille, former Haitian prime minister with Ban Ki-moon, United Nations secretary-general. Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / U.N.

Garry Conille has a resume in international development almost as long as his list of things to do to make gender equality a reality around the world.

Former prime minister of Haiti, advisor to Bill Clinton and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, an obstetrician by training and practice, and now regional director for Africa at the U.N. Office for Project Services, Conille has been deeply involved in making the Millennium Development Goals on the ground throughout the world.

Devex spoke with him about the progress made so far on the MDGs, the work that needs to be done, and how UNOPS is helping turn political will into action in Africa.

How does the work that the U.N. and UNOPS is doing in Africa contribute to gender equality on the continent?

Of course, as a member of the U.N. family, UNOPS is committed to mainstreaming gender in every aspect of development. Not only because this is a critical issue of human rights and social justice, but also because of all investments that are essential to sustainable development, investments in gender have the greatest multiplier effect. Beyond the UN’s contribution to policy and legal reforms, as well as the  global, regional and country level advocacy work, UNOPS is very much involved in supporting its partners through projects that provide very practical solutions in the areas of infrastructure, procurement, project management and advisory services — we're really at the operational level. And what we've tried to do is to make sure that we're incorporating the gender dimension into every element of implementation, which in the past was not sufficiently considered. This is going to be key, today, as we need to move beyond policy statements and high-level commitments to making gender equality a reality in the day-to-day decision-making process and actions of private, public, not-for profit institutions and organizations.

Fortunately, our perspective is that with the commitment of the different stakeholders, including African governments themselves, and the right set of solutions based on best practices, we'll be able to actually achieve great progress in a relatively short time. At least, that's our hope.

Speaking of commitments — do you think enough progress has been made on the gender goals in the MDGs in the countries where you work?

I think there is general consensus that there has been quite a lot of progress on the continent with regard to achieving gender equality. You can see that when you look at key indicators: we've seen improvements in the number of girls who attend primary education, the number of girls who attend high-school, the number of women in political positions, and we've seen it in terms of reduced gender violence in some circumstances.

We’ve also seen progress in the levels of political commitment. I would say that since the MDGs and in the past 6 or 7 years, almost all of the major policy documents coming out of the African Union and different countries are showing a commitment to gender as a core component of Africa's transformation. I think that there is a general understanding on the continent that this is a real issue, not only for social justice, but also because there is a recognition that to achieve its true potential Africa can't leave anyone behind, and particularly the poorest of the poor, which are women.

And while we see that there's been progress, a lot more effort is needed, and it's needed quickly. African leaders themselves would be the first to agree. The continent still has unacceptably high levels of maternal mortality. We still have pockets of violence against women. We still have areas where access to secondary education is unacceptably low. We still have a great deal of work to do with regard to making sure that women are able to participate in the decision-making process at all levels, are able to own property, and have access to financial opportunities and greater income. So there's still a big chunk of the work to do.

Given that need for additional progress, how do you think that gender should be incorporated into the post-2015 agenda?

I think that we'll have to go much further than what we have right now in the MDGS in the post-2015 agenda. It will have to consider things like secondary and tertiary education for women, which were not considered under the previous MDGs. We have to consider issues of really mainstreaming gender in all of the components of development. Specifically for Africa, there's going to be a big focus on economic transformation, and the next agenda will have to have clear consideration of what this will mean for gender. So hopefully the next agenda will be more ambitious, will go beyond commitments to action and will certainly be more detailed in terms of our general expectations with regard to gender.

And given your experience as a doctor, what do you think about progress that's been made on MDG 5, on sexual and reproductive health, in Africa?

It’s been quite uneven. We have seen reductions, for example, in fertility in certain parts of Africa. We've seen improvements in sexual-based violence in certain parts of Africa, but it's a very mixed picture. Certainly maternal mortality is one of the MDGs where we've seen the least success. And this is despite the fact that today we actually know how to reduce maternal mortality. We know exactly what types of interventions work. While in sub-Saharan Africa several countries have been able to halve their levels of maternal mortality since 1990, in fact, some countries in North Africa have made great headway, the yearly decline of the regional maternal mortality ratio (number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births) is far from the annual decline required to achieve MDG 5. So what's lacking is often the resources and the political will to implement these very well-known solutions, and you know when you are talking about a very high level of women dying from maternal-related causes, it's just completely unacceptable.

My sense is that there is a recognition that maternal mortality needs to be a high priority, but that requires a level of investment that certain countries are not yet able or willing to commit to. Furthermore, this is an area where I think the international community needs also to step up, increase its engagement, increase its support to help governments to implement the actions they need to make the changes to eliminate or reduce significantly the threat of maternal mortality and morbidity.

This is something I've seen very closely as an obstetrician and later as a public health practitioner. With the resources that the world has at its disposal today, no women should lose her life while giving life.

You mentioned political will as one of the obstacles to achieving improved maternal health. I'm wondering, given your experience in politics in Haiti and your role as an advisor to politicians, what do you see as the political obstacles to gender equality in the countries where you work?

I think this is really a fundamental question, actually, and I guess a lot of governments would say that they have competing priorities and limited resources. I think that's the first thing they would argue. In a country where everything is a priority, how do you prioritize?

There's also a sense from certain policymakers that if you resolve the economic issues, the social issues will, somehow, fall into place by themselves. So some of them argue that if you create jobs and increase revenue, a lot of these social issues will then fall into place because you increase buying power. Therefore, the focus should be on growth. But that's not what the evidence shows. My conviction, personally, is that governments have to prioritize some of these social issues if they want to achieve the level of economic and social development that they are actually hoping for. Now, it's been argued in the past that the MDGs were focused too much on social issues and not enough on growth. And so there's a big push for the next agenda to include growth sectors, and that's probably going to happen, but I think the lesson learned over the past 15 years is that you need a balance of both.

But the last element I would add is that hopefully there will be a push and institutional support for women to organize, to better understand their rights and the political process so they can participate actively in the democratic process and hold their leaders accountable for basic services to which they're entitled. After all, politicians tend to prioritize areas that represent the biggest risk, or that will bring the most value to their own political futures. Women must become a powerful political constituency able to influence political outcomes through elections and thereby influencing policy decision, allocation of resources and priority setting. In modern democracies, the vote can become one of the most important instruments of change.

One of the politicians you have advised is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia. How do you think her presidency has changed the conversation around women's political participation?

I think her contribution is definitely one that's quite significant, and not just in Liberia.  She has been able to manage a transition and secure peace now, and put Liberia back on a path toward discussions of economic growth and prosperity. She's also been a remarkable symbol for girls and women in her own country, giving them the sense that they also have a right to dream and aspire to lead their country, and to sit at the table and discuss the future of her country like every man does everyday. And I think her influence is also great all over Africa for the same reason. She has shown women that they can participate in politics at the highest level and also that some governance issues are the same whether one is a woman or a man. She's committed a big chunk of her efforts to regional and global issues and it has been quite remarkable. And I have no doubt in my mind that history will confirm her contributions to gender issues.

When you are thinking about all of the challenges faced by the global community, how do you see women participating and playing a role in solving some of those challenges. And how does the work that you do with UNOPS fit into that?

I think we've learned a few things. There are a lot of things that have to happen basically altogether. The first is to make sure that in all planning and decision-making around sustainable development, around the future of our world and around climate, there is adequate representation of women in that process, that we are making the extra effort to go beyond the usual voices to which we're exposed, that we're able to go to women's organizations, we're able to go really to the grassroots and have them contribute to the discussion and the dialogue. Because again, what I've found across 15 years of development work is that their contribution is extremely important in framing the agenda, and it’s one that actually goes to ownership, because it will be important that everyone owns what we are trying to achieve and the contributions that everyone has to make in order for us to achieve it.

And I think all the partners will have to stand up, so the international community will have to step up its commitment and continue to support developing countries in their effort to make change, and developing countries themselves will have to step up to meet the commitments they are making at the national, regional and international level.

You know, I think that while the tasks and the challenges are great, the opportunities are also incredible. What we've learned over the past few years is that our only limit is our imagination, so we have to just get to it. And if we do, I think the next 15 years will be even more successful than the past 15. That's really my hope.

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About the author

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    Paul Stephens

    Paul Stephens is a Devex staff writer based in Washington, D.C. His coverage focuses on Latin America and World Bank affairs, as well as Washington's global development scene. As a multimedia journalist, editor and producer, Paul has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Washington Monthly, CBS Evening News, GlobalPost and the United Nations magazine, among other outlets. He's won a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for a 5-month, in-depth reporting project in Yemen after two stints in Georgia - one as a Peace Corps volunteer and another as a communications coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development.