UNFPA chief: What is gender parity, when you can't exercise your rights?

U.N. Population Fund Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin.

How can parliamentarians push population issues more prominently in the international development agenda?

This was one of the questions debated last week in Stockholm, where lawmakers from 134 countries convened for the 6th International Parliamentarians’ Conference on the Implementation of the Program of Action agreed upon at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.

On the sidelines of the three-day event, we sat down with U.N. Population Fund Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin to get his take on the ICPD at 20 and the challenges ahead in what is a crucial year for the future of development cooperation.

The main lesson learned, Osotimehin explained, is that the international community has finally accepted the paradigm shift that took population away from demographic targets to the individual, with tangible results including a significant decrease in maternal and child mortality rates. Gender equality, however, has not yet been accomplished and, in his opinion, would benefit from a standalone goal in the post-2015 framework — always linked to a rights-based approach.

“We must never delink gender equality from the issue of rights … We should never get to a point where, because some people are uncomfortable about rights, we delink it,” the UNFPA chief said. “When you do that, it becomes a Trojan horse — there’s nothing. What is gender parity, when you cannot exercise your rights?”

Below are more highlights from our conversation with Osotimehin:

We’re in the 20th anniversary year of the ICPD and at the end of the original Cairo program. From your perspective, what’s the key lesson learned from the progress made in the intervening period?

The lesson that we’ve learned is that the world has accepted a rights-based approach to development. The paradigm shift that moved population away from demographic targets to the individual has actually worked like magic. In that construct, we’ve reduced poverty considerably, we’ve reduced maternal and child mortality, we’ve increased girls education, and we’ve also increased the numbers of women at work and participating in politics. So these are all very positive things, together with reducing the incidence of HIV and increased treatment, greater focus on the issues of migrants’ rights, greater focus on the rights, needs and importance of young people. So it’s been good, but of course we can still do more and do it better. We need to do more to create safe spaces for people to exercise their rights.  

But even despite these successes, looking at ICPD post-2014 and the post-2015 development agenda, what are the main challenges that still remain and what concrete actions are needed in order to accelerate progress?

Well first, governments need to continue to apply the principles of ICPD. Second, we need to work hard to make sure that politically these issues are reflected in the post-2015 development framework — because then you’ll be able to get resources to continue to do the work. I think that’s crucial because we cannot talk about sustainability without talking about people. I think the argument has to be made powerfully, because there’s such competition for goals and targets. People tend to forget that if you don’t develop human capital, you cannot build awareness or address climate change, for instance. You need the people. That link has to be strong for us to be able to go forward. The advocacy we do now must address this issue.

And are you winning the argument?

Yes, to some extent. I think we’re beginning to get into the narrative, but there’s a lot more work to be done.

So in terms of process and timeline, what are the latest developments? How closely are you liaising with the Open Working Group and the U.N. Secretary-General on these issues?

We’ve done all that. In fact, we were told that our intervention at the Open Working Group was the one that was the most acknowledged. So we’re getting the message across, but we still need to work with the chairs to ensure that these issues are taken into consideration.

And so how optimistic are you that there will be a standalone goal for gender equality in the post-2015 framework?

I think there will be a standalone goal. There’s wide support for that, but we must never delink gender equality from the issue of rights. I hate people talking about one without the other. We should never get to a point where, because some people are uncomfortable about rights, we delink it. When you do that, it becomes a Trojan horse — there’s nothing. What is gender parity, when you cannot exercise your rights?

Obviously the world’s attention is focused on the post-MDG framework, but is there a risk that progress on MDGs 4, 5 or 6 might be put off-track or neglected?

I think there’s considerable momentum around the fact that there’s unfinished business around the MDGs. So I don’t think they’ll be lost. We must continue to carry that message, to say, “Hang on, we still have unfinished business here.” And that unfinished business has to be taken forward. It’s not just about MDGs 4, 5 or 6, it’s about poverty alleviation. The MDGs were put in place in order to address poverty — and the issue of poverty is still there. The MDGs committed to reducing poverty by half, which was all well and good, but we can’t live with the other half of the world being poor. What we’re saying is that we need to be more ambitious. Let’s now talk about zero poverty. I think there’s enough appetite for that, so we should definitely take on the challenge.

In terms of the resources needed to achieve gender equality in practice, is there a need for more innovative forms of financing to be brought to the table — public-private partnerships, private sector, or even crowdfunding? Is that under consideration at UNFPA?

In some ways, yes. There’s a whole financing for development structure going through [the U.N. system] in parallel to the OWG. The world we had in 2000 is different from the world we have today and foreign flows are totally different. Non-state actors have become more important in the way that we do business. So yes, if we’re going to make a difference, we have to take all that into consideration going forward. The question is how is that going to work? There’s a conversation going on now that concerns partnerships and how that is going to play out in practice. It doesn’t really need to be about money, but even skills for us as a global community to assist countries to do what they have to do.

The other area that I believe we also need to focus on is official development assistance. For countries that have made promises, they should stick to them … The United Kingdom, for example, has done extremely well because even in the face of a recession they have actually achieved their 0.7 percent [of GNI] ODA target. And for a Conservative government to have delivered on that, I’m quite impressed. And there are several other countries that have done what they have to do and [others] should follow their lead.

[However] we also know that when you do the math, ODA doesn’t solve all the problems. It can catalyze and get things started, but when it comes to sustainable solutions, domestic resources are even more important.

But what will UNFPA do concretely to influence this?

We can only raise consciousness. This is a matter for governments. The only thing we can do — which we do already and we’re going to increase — is to identify private sector organizations that have skills or products that can assist us in our work. Examples include Intel and Johnson & Johnson, which have helped us with the training of nurses. And we have other examples of firms that have helped us to build capacity by writing training modules. So we’re going to do these things, but not even the U.N. can take full responsibility. The buck has to stop with governments.

In this conference week, as both UNFPA executive director and as a physician, do you feel like you’re wearing two hats? How does your previous professional experience influence priorities in your current role?

Well, UNFPA is not a health organization — it’s a development organization, which does some work in health. I see myself now as a development person, rather than as a physician, so in a sense now look at things in a different way. I haven’t practised now for 15 years, but I see that being a physician enriches my thinking in terms of what I think we should be doing. I’ve been humbled by the public health challenges we face and I’ve come to realize that some of the solutions do not lie in the hands of doctors. They lie somewhere else. And I think that you need to allow yourself to think outside the box on issues such as family planning, where we should totally demedicalize it. I’ve seen market-based distribution systems work, so we should do that to increase access.

So how can you drive such issues forward over the next 12 months or so, to make sure that they’re front and center in what is a crucial period for development policy?

I think we need to remind ourselves that change happens only when you take people into confidence and when you work with people. We need to build confidence and trust. Once you have this, you can do anything ... Look at communities and who makes change happen in these communities — it’s the women. When you boil it down, women and girls — given the fact that their potential has not been totally allowed to flourish — must be at the center of development for the next 20 years.  If we do that, we’re all going to reap the benefits.

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About the author

  • Richard Jones

    In his role as Editorial Director Richard oversees content for digital series, reports and events, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously partnerships editor and an associate editor at Devex, Richard brings to bear 15 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. Based in Barcelona, his development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.