Q&A: Dr Alaa Murabit on pushing the SDGs alongside Messi and Shakira

Dr. Alaa Murabit, SDG Advocate and United Nations High-Level Commissioner on Health Employment & Economic Growth. Photo by: Ryan Lash / TED / CC BY-NC-ND

SEATTLE — When Libyan-Canadian medical doctor and peacebuilder Dr. Alaa Murabit, newly appointed as Sustainable Development Advocate by the United Nations secretary-general, took a seat in front of her nameplate at a U.N. event, she was quickly shooed away by an intern who insisted that Dr. Murabit was a “he.”

The development community needs to stop talking down to people: Alaa Murabit

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals advocate told Devex that the development community needs to be less "arrogant" and to start prioritizing local voices in order to achieve more.

Murabit was perplexed and took a seat at the back of the room, until colleagues found her there and ushered her back up to the front. While no slight to the intern, who was just doing her job, Murabit later realized that attitudes about age and gender are so ingrained that a U.N. intern could not imagine a young woman occupying such a lofty role.

Combatting those prejudices has become central to Murabit’s work to promote the Sustainable Development Goals, especially the gender dimension. While the 28-year-old founder of Voice of Libyan Women has many accolades to her name, from winning a 2013 Trust Women Hero award to landing a coveted 30 under 30 nod from Forbes for her work as the only U.N. high-level commissioner under the age of 45 (she researches health employment and economic growth), in her SDG advocate role she sits alongside globally recognized superstars including Argentine football phenom Lionel Messi and Colombian pop powerhouse Shakira.

Devex caught up with Murabit after she regaled the lunchtime crowd at this year’s Global Washington conference with tales of her upbringing in remote Saskatoon and her challenges convincing Libyan religious leaders to endorse her NGO’s work to educate women after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you approach your role as an SDG advocate with vast experience working on the ground when you sit opposite celebrities such as Messi and Shakira who are better known for their athletic and music careers?

Among the 17 SDG advocates, you have a lot of activists. You have national heads of state, you have Nobel laureates Muhammad Yunus and Leymah Gbowee. You have economist Jeffrey Sachs. You have film producer and founder of Comic Relief and Red Nose Day Richard Curtis. These people come from all different walks of life. The beautiful part is that everybody builds on somebody else's expertise or their convening ability.

When we put a commercial of Messi during a large athletic tournament or soccer game talking about the SDGs, we reach audiences that previously hadn’t heard of the SDGs. Young girls and boys who are excited about Messi or Shakira or Forest Whitaker become interested, and start wanting to learn more about the SDGs.

When it comes to countries that aren't doing enough, having somebody with a platform like those of Messi or Forest or Shakira to say, “we can do better on education,” gets more public and media support and reaction. It’s important to have all those different pieces to the puzzle.

For myself and some of the other advocates, our strength lies in direct policy engagement; being in the rooms with people making policies and decisions to say, “this is realistic. This isn’t.” Our roles are completely complementary.

Earlier this year, the international community reviewed progress toward Goal 5 on gender. What is your assessment of progress thus far?

First and foremost, it is important to have Goal 5, gender equality, as its own standalone priority and goal; with dedicated resources and metrics for its achievement. I'm one of the biggest supporters of saying that gender permeates every single goal. You cannot take away the gender perspective from education, infrastructure, economic growth, or climate action, and the reality is that we need a goal in and of itself to emphasize that.

“The number one most cost-effective solution towards climate change action is the education of girls and women's reproductive rights.”

— Dr. Alaa Murabit, Sustainable Development Advocate

I use climate as an example, because oftentimes people don't realize how important the gender dimension is. The number one most cost-effective solution towards climate change action is the education of girls and women's reproductive rights. Paul Hawken writes about this in Drawdown, and he and the leading climate scientists were shocked when the data showed that response empirically.

Educating girls is not one of the sexier things to talk about, like a cool new technology. It's the recognition that there are very fundamental things that we're not building on.

How do women’s rights fare in countries transitioning out of conflict?

Rather than ask "What is the status of women's rights?," we have to ask, "What is the status of human rights?" as a fundamental belief in any given country, and how is that reflected in the country’s governing and policy priorities? Are there institutions that can lift that up and enforce those policies? Because we can all talk about what's written, but the reality is, if you do not have the institutional structural support, you don't necessarily have that as a fundamental right.

In transition, unless it is heavily monitored, unless it is fundamentally and explicitly stated that women's rights is a priority, most countries do not make it so. Especially when they are in the midst of nation building. Women's rights always takes the back burner, unless it's explicitly stated that it needs to be a priority, it isn't.

“When conflict happens, domestic violence and cycles of abuse increase, we see a rise in child brides and in trafficking, a decrease in literacy and long-term education support.”

Countries in conflict or in transition deserve greater scrutiny in this regard, with greater focus on the metrics of judgement in terms of human rights. I say that because, when conflict happens, domestic violence and cycles of abuse increase, we see a rise in child brides and in trafficking, a decrease in literacy and long term education support.

A whole wealth of data shows that societies that go through conflict and violence need more support as it relates to women's inclusion, women’s safety, and women's rights as a whole. The decrease of women's right over time is likely to be a sign of a restarting conflict.

Are there any places in the Arab world that have made women’s rights a priority in nation building or where they are being heavily monitored?

Women's right organizations in all countries have tried to make them a priority. Tunisia, for example, is doing an incredible job of saying, “Not only is this a priority,” but you have policy makers and politicians who are building up on historical institutions like the Code of Personal Status. That foundation is important. The reality is that in some countries, some of those organizations have not had as much societal or governmental traction as in others.

On the other end of the spectrum, how do you interpret the announcements by Sweden and Canada to have adopted feminist foreign policies?

A feminist foreign policy … also comes down to questions like: Are you selling weapons that support the decimation of these women's homes?”

A feminist foreign policy is not just limited to what you tell other countries to do or how you fund them. It also comes down to questions like: Are you selling weapons that support the decimation of these women's homes? Knowing that women and children are the most impacted by active conflict, are you actively involved in conflict that has women leaving their homes in droves? Because a feminist foreign policy is not just about the women in your government or the women in your country, it's about how you are looking at women in other parts of the world and recognizing that you are a very key piece of a global arms infrastructure.

The second part is that you need to have a feminist national policy before you can legitimately export your foreign policy. Look at the treatment of minority and indigenous women within your country. Canada has a long history of maltreatment of indigenous women. In Sweden, the treatment of minority women is not up to par. To have a feminist foreign policy, you need to have a feminist national policy first.

Read more Devex coverage on women empowerment.

About the author

  • Greg

    Gregory Scruggs

    Gregory Scruggs is a journalist based in Seattle. He has a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and a master's degree from Columbia University. A specialist in Latin America and the Caribbean, he was a Fulbright scholar in Brazil. His coverage of the Habitat III summit and global urbanization won a 2017 United Nations Correspondent Association award. He coordinates the Seattle chapter of the Solutions Journalism Network.