To Nobel winner, good governance is key to sustainable growth

Wangari Maathai has gained wide acclaim for her work on environmental issues in Kenya and beyond. Photo by: Brigitte Lacombe

Wangari Maathai is often asked: Must the environment be sacrificed for development to occur? The Nobel Peace Prize winner doesn’t think so. In her view, poor management of natural resources, caused by corruption and bad leadership, is holding back Africa’s progress.

Africans must take ownership of their governments and protect the environment in order to break out of chronic poverty, Maathai argues. She should know - the 69-year-old has been an environmental activist, political prisoner and, later, a member of the Kenyan parliament. In 2004, Maathai won the prestigious Nobel for founding the Green Belt Movement, a Kenyan nonprofit that has planted seeds and held the government of former President Daniel arap Moi accountable for its mismanagement of resources and stroking of tribal tensions.

Maathai spoke with Devex while touring the United States to promote her new book, “The Challenge for Africa,” a follow-up to her autobiography, “Unbowed.” Her thesis: With their “lack of will” to curb corruption and think of their people’s best interests, African leaders are holding back the continent.

In the interview, Maathai challenges donors to create partnerships that don’t reward poor governance. She discusses a wide range of issues - from how environmental degradation is constraining Africa’s growth to how young people around the globe can best help Africa, from the challenges that come with being a Nobel recipient to her disappointment with President Mwai Kibaki.

In a second part of the interview, “Maathai talked about the Green Belt Movement”:

There’s a lot of talk in the U.S. and elsewhere about reforming development assistance. After the recent G-20 Summit in London, U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared the “Washington consensus” dead. What do you think: How does aid need to be changed?

I don’t know, I haven’t seen that communiqué yet and I would have to hear why they want to change. But if they would want to change because what they have been doing has not worked.

Many of us have, perhaps, said, why, the aid, as it was being given, was not working. For example, when we were campaigning for Jubilee 2000 campaign and urging the G-8 countries to cancel the debts, we were saying: One, those debts have been paid several times over and it is unfair to continue asking poor African countries to continue paying. Secondly, much of that aid was given under circumstances that many of us knew, and they knew, that the money did not reach the people for whom the money was given, that there was so much corruption it was irresponsible for [donors] to have continued [lending]. Therefore, [donors] should bear as much blame as those who have been given to.

And for years, we were campaigning to have governments that did not respect human rights, that were torturing their people, that were corrupt, that they be not assisted. For years all that fell on deaf ears. So, I would have to really clearly hear why they think it should not be continued, why they think that it should be changed.

The other point that was also very important that we were raising at that time is the fact that in many cases, when aid is given, for every dollar that is given to Africa in form of aid, reports were that it was coming back to developed countries which advanced the aid - as four dollars. So, we were arguing that is not aid, that is trade!

So, these were issues that have been raised many times by activists both from Africa and developed countries who have been saying that the aid being given was not being effective and they gave the reasons.

In your new book, “The Challenge for Africa,” you’ve stressed the need for Africans to take ownership of their development process whenever possible. What exactly can donors do to help support this process, especially when it comes to civil society?

Well, I think I would say that our efforts in terms of governments that were really friendly and were sympathetic with the mismanagement of resources, including aid in Africa, I am sure all of us would agree we have come a long way from where we used to be 10 years ago, 20 years ago.

But there is no doubt that we still have a long way to go, and the change must surely come partly from the African’s themselves. African leaders [should] begin with embracing the challenge of development of their region and stopping corruption that they have practiced so blatantly, not exploiting their own people, unleashing the creativity of their own people, stopping the wars and all the things we have really advocated for a long time. So, as I say in my book, the challenge for Africa is the will to make that shift. Because if the African leadership does not make that shift, now surely, it’s very difficult for anyone else to make that shift.

Now as for the civil society, I think we just have to continue doing what we are doing. We have been disappointed by putting in leaders who we thought were sympathetic to our cause and then changed their cause. And I mention, for example, President Kibaki - the way we elected him in 2002. Not that some of us did not say that we were doubtful or even had challenged him before. But his people were in favor of him, they gave him the benefit of the doubt and today he has proved a very different kind of person, perhaps confirming what we were saying in the beginning, that he was not a reformer, he was not a pro-people person. But he shifted camp when he realized that he couldn’t get power unless he sang the pro-democracy song that had become very popular.

So, really the challenge is for African leadership, therefore, to change. And I call it the challenge since it’s really up to the African leaders to decide that it’s time to provide the leadership that the rest of the world expects and then the friends will help.

But, having said that, it’s also important for us to say that the development partners must also continue to insist, and not decide that they do not care about the internal affairs of the countries. Which is one of the things that for example the government of China is being accused of, that she goes to Africa, she works with the African governments, she gets preference because she is not asking for any strings to be tied. And yet we all know that if we don’t have that it most likely we will slip back to a situation where governments are doing business without any concern for their people. So, that is how I would respond to that question.

Do you believe that China can play a positive role in Africa’s development?

Yes, of course, of course. China and any other country can play a positive role if they really want to help the country, if they are indeed friends of the country as so often they say. “Friends of the African people,” as they often say. But of course if they consider the benefits they get for themselves, for their own people, and don’t care about the African people, then they will do business as if the African people don’t really count. It’s the leaders and the resources they make available that are important.

What are some of the overlooked environmental and development-related issues that you would like to see addressed but don’t get that much attention?

As I said, the environment has not be prioritized, because we have tended to see Africa… that it doesn’t have environmental problems. Because we sometimes tend to associate environmental problems with development, industrialization, affluence, industrial pollution.

But in Africa, we have a lot of environmental problems, especially deforestation, forest degeneration, loss of biodiversity, loss of the soil. If you look at the rivers of Africa during the rainy season, they are all loaded with silt, they are red, they are brown and lauded with top soil. And the other one that is very, very, very dangerous is desertification, countries being swallowed by the Sahara and being unable to sustain life. As we speak, the Chad is dying, and that is a horrific environmental degradation.

So, these issues are often put on the periphery, partly because the ordinary African people don’t see them. You know, one of the tragedies of environmental degradation is that the degradation takes place very, very slowly. And, unless you have a government that is concerned - and citizenry that is informed - it is very easy to undermine the environment under the pretense that we are developing. And sometimes people tell you - I get this question all the time - “Should we develop? Should we care about the environment or should we first develop?”

Well, I think the wise ones are trying to develop but at the same time minding about the environment. Because when the environment is completely destroyed, when you lose your forest, when you lose your soil, when you don’t have water, when rain patterns change and when your crop fails, you have hardly developed.

Many of our readers are young professionals or students who have a strong interest in a career focusing on Africa. How can they best help the continent help itself? In which sector - public, private or nonprofit - can a person make the greatest change? Is there too much emphasis on a particular sector?

I think taking care of the environment or even doing business, as long as you’re doing business that is fair and that is just, always [one] in which one can help a country, one creates jobs and one creates opportunities for the local population. I know, for example, people started their careers as Peace Corps from this country and it helps them understand this country so that if they end up in government offices, they know why not to make certain decisions, because they know those decisions are counterproductive at the grassroots level or for the people in that country.

So, I think I would tell the young people that the most important thing is to follow your heart and your dreams as you see them today. They may be different tomorrow, but the most important thing is to do whatever you do with a love and with a passion. I started out as a teacher in the university. I spent some time working with women’s organizations and I eventually ended up working with the environment and even getting into politics. As long as you keep your mind open, opportunities are many. But it is important that you enjoy what you do and you love what you do.

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize is an incredible honor. But, since 2004, what have been the challenges or even the hardships of winning such a prestigious humanitarian award?

Yes, you are right. The Norwegian Nobel committee puts a great honor on your shoulders - on your head - when they give you the prize. And they are extremely generous in giving you a global stage so that your message can be heard, because in a way it’s like they say we believe you have a message that is good for the world. And now you have the global stage to do it, and now once you are settled on that stage, the stage is enormous and that stage is very challenging. It is both rewarding but also a very big responsibility for you. Yes, I can say they give you shoes you can never fill. The best you can do is to utilize that opportunity because it is indeed an extraordinary honor.

What reaction has your book and its themes received back home?

Well, this book hasn’t been released at home. It’s going to be released in London for the Commonwealth next month. That is when it will hit home - except for people who have traveled to America who may now get a copy here. But generally, “Unbowed,” the first book, was generally well received. In fact, in some of the local stations, it was translated verbatim in local languages. And I was told that people are glued to the radio as they were keen to have it read. I think it was very well received. So, it will be interesting to see how this new book will be received.

How has the public in the U.S. reacted to your book tour?

My assessment so far at least with the crowds that I’ve been talking to is that the reception is very positive. But I haven’t read any reviews, you know, critical reviews. You know, the audience can be very friendly and polite and not tell you, “Wake up, go home!” But so far, the response from the public has been very good.

And I have adopted the format of a conversation, so that I would be asked questions that people feel are important, so that I can also for myself judge what people feel about the book. I think it’s good because it’s better than a speech and you can interact and get to know at least a little bit, or if they see those issues in the same way. And if there is a meeting of the minds, then maybe we can more quickly influence policy and if we can make the policymakers change their attitudes, it may be easier to make our leaders respond differently.

Read more from our interview with Wangari Maathai.

About the author

  • Oliver Subasinghe

    Oliver joined Devex in late 2008 as an international development correspondent and researcher. He previously served as a microfinance fellow for Kiva in Kenya and Uganda. During his tenure, he worked with Kiva’s field partners to improve their operations and governance. Oliver holds a master's in business from the College of William & Mary.