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Wangari Maathai as UN Secretary General

When I think of Wangari Maathai, I become increasingly frustrated at my inability to capture her work and the transcendental nature of her being.

Reading through this timeline interlinking Kenya’s history and key moments of her life, the first thing that comes to mind is the ancient Greek concept of kairos. The ancient Greeks had two different concepts of time. The first was chronos, the chronological definition of time we use in our daily lives (i.e. 24 hours in a day, 365/366 days in a year). The second concept of time was kairos which refers to a significant event or moment of time. From this timeline, it is clear to see that Maathai’s life was a significant turning point (kairos) for the way we see the world today.

In my blog post reviewing the current United Nations Secretary General candidates, I featured the following quote from her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:

‘Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come.’

This idea was central to her work with the Green Belt Movement , an advocacy organisation which she founded in 1977 supporting women from rural communities to protect their livelihoods, fight injustice and conserve the environment by planting trees. The Green Belt Movement has since planted over 51 million trees in Kenya. This idea is also central to the sustainable development agenda; a set of 17 goals agreed in 2015 that will help the world reach a more equitable and environmentally sustainable world by 2030.

In July 2016, the United Nations Security Council will begin discussions on selecting the ninth Secretary General of the United Nations (UN) who will have the crucial task of promoting sustainable development, democracy and peace. All the candidates vying for this role have met the technical selection criteria which includes ‘proven leadership and managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations, and strong diplomatic, communication and multilingual skills.’

However, technical competence is not enough to achieve the transformational results outlined in the sustainable development agenda or implement the significant political and organisational reform the United Nations needs to adapt to the increasingly complex and integrated world.

In addition to her technical ability as an academic (the first woman in East and Central Africa to receive a PhD), grassroots organiser, political activist, politician, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Maathai’s vision and approach to development was way ahead of her time.

Even though she died in 2011 (exactly four years before the adoption of the sustainable development goals), Maathai adopted several principles in her leadership that would have made her an excellent candidate to drive the world forward in the areas of peace, development and human rights. I’ve outlined below, six reasons why she would have made an outstanding Secretary General and what the next Secretary General can learn from her.

  1. Her vision for the world was based on the idea of sustainable development

Although, the idea of sustainable development first gained prominence in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, it was only last year that the concept of sustainable development was formally adopted through the sustainable development agenda. The unique aspect of the agenda is not the nature of the 17 goals themselves but the way in which social, economic and environmental development are interlinked and mutually reinforcing.

For Maathai, however, sustainable development had been central to her work, since the start of the Green Belt Movement in 1977. In 2005, she provided a simple but poignant description of this concept,

‘The connection between peace and the environment can be explained using the [analogy of] the traditional African stool, which has three legs that support the base on which we sit. I believe these three legs are symbolic. One represents good management of our natural resources, equitable distribution of the same, and a sense of accountability. Another represents good government — a democratic state that respects humankind so that we can have dignity as human beings. The third represents peace. The base on which we sit is development. If you try to do the development where you have no legs, or where you have two legs or one leg, the base is out of balance. It is unsustainable.’

This analogy is reiterated again through the five pillars of the sustainable development agenda: Peace, Prosperity, Planet, People and Partnership.

It is quite remarkable that while we are just beginning to orient our work towards the idea of sustainable development, Maathai had already spent an entire lifetime fighting for it and realising it.

  1. A ‘pro-poor’ understanding of empowerment

Mainstream development narratives tend to remove the agency of poor people by depicting them as passive actors in development, one to whom empowerment is given (for example, the charity adverts with dehumanising images of malnourished children and a voiceover asking you, the viewer, to ‘save’ them). These types of adverts perpetuate an ‘anti-poor’ narrative of empowerment in denying poor people their agency to address the barriers they face and in presenting empowerment as an end in which they can only be recipients of help from someone other than themselves.

Maathai’s approach to empowerment, however, was ‘pro-poor’. For her, empowerment was a process which necessarily involved the active participation of the affected individuals. This is critical and I believe the reason why her model of development has had such a transformative impact. On her understanding of empowerment while working with the Green Belt Movement she said,

‘It is important to understand that this is a process, not something that happens in a bang. Much more important than the trees themselves is the mobilization of rural populations in large numbers — populations that we normally think are helpless, are dependent, are not able to do things for themselves. They organized themselves and started to address the issues in their own communities to improve their quality of life…In the process they educate themselves and address government issues.’

  1. Citizen-led leadership as a solution to bad (global) governance

Last year, Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary General wrote an article proposing that citizen-led leadership not institutions would be the solution to the ‘leadership crisis’ in global governance. According to him, the ‘lack of political will and failure of leadership’ by world leaders could be addressed if civil society used their political rights (voting), consumer power and collective agency (advocacy) to pressure their leaders to act on pressing issues such as climate change and the refugee crisis.

Annan’s article echoes Maathai’s own approach to her work with the Green Belt movement. She firmly believed that communities, not institutions, would solve the problems caused by bad governance and leadership. For both Maathai and Annan, bottom-up not top down leadership was and is the solution to solving issues facing our world. Reflecting on her activism with the Green Belt Movement, Maathai explained,

‘We realized that all we needed to do to empower ourselves was to understand that we are the ones who can change government, we are the ones who can decide what kind of leaders to put in place. And so we got rid of our fear, we refused to be victims of government intimidation, but instead participated in elections and succeeded in changing leadership.’

  1. Development as justice

To extricate the aim of justice, from her work on environmental restoration is to misinterpret her work entirely. For Maathai, sustainable development was about justice because it was precisely injustice (political corruption and mismanagement of natural resources) that led to and still leads to environmental issues such as mass deforestation, mass displacement of communities, climate change, loss of biodiversity and loss of livelihoods.

This is important because it highlights another reason why her work has had such a profound impact on the world. By re-envisioning development as justice, she focused on the structural issues within society that had led to issues of economic, social and environmental poverty; issues of political corruption as well as new forms of economic systems (i.e. industrialised agricultural production) that disrupted the relationship rural communities in Kenya had with the environment.

She explains further,

‘For me, one of the major reasons to move beyond just the planting of trees was that I have tendency to look at the causes of a problem. We often preoccupy ourselves with the symptoms, whereas if we went to the root cause of the problems, we would be able to overcome the problems once and for all. For instance, I tried to understand why we didn’t have clean drinking water, which I had when I was a child. The link between the rural population, the land, and natural resources is very direct. But when you have bad governance, of course, these resources are destroyed: The forests are deforested, there is illegal logging, there is soil erosion. I got pulled deeper and deeper and saw how these issues become linked to governance, to corruption, to dictatorship.’

  1. Women’s empowerment as a right and a path to development

Maathai understood that women’s empowerment was both a right and a contributor to development. Directly, she worked and supported thousands of women to reclaim their space literally through direct environmental restoration efforts and also in their work as activists, protesting against political corruption and the autocratic regime of Moi’s presidency.

Symbolically, Maathai’s work with other women redefined the use of the female body as a political tool. It is cited that she encouraged the mothers of political prisoners to strip in protest at law enforcement who were breaking up their protests. During her scintillating conversation with Krista Tippett, she reflected on how, ‘women are sacrificed at the altar of political convenience.’

Posthumous representations of Maathai often pacify the political dimensions to her work with the Green Belt Movement but she always perceived her work as political. She once referred to the Green Belt Movement’s act of ‘planting trees as a form of civil disobedience.’ She understood that her work was political not only because it was in direct opposition to environmental degradation legitimised by the political elite but also because it was women who were the direct opposers of the people in power. Furthermore, their acts of resistance transgressed public spaces traditionally viewed as feminine (nature) into ‘masculine’ spaces of politics where she encouraged the women to use their political votes to change leadership.

  1. The interdependent nature of our world today

Maathai understood that development, peace and security were deeply interconnected not at national borders but at the frontiers of our personal lives; the relationships of power in which we passively or actively participated in.

During her conversation with Krista Tippett, she shares a poignant reminder of how interconnected our world has become,

‘It is extremely important and especially for people who live in highly industrialized and rich countries, because people who live in such countries have a feeling that even if they don’t have resources within their borders, they can get them from wherever those resources are. But even if you can buy those resources, even there, there is a limit to what extent you can get those resources and not create a conflict. Because remember, the resources that are left behind, people have to fight over them. And because the world is now so interconnected that when conflict anywhere in the world, sometimes they come right into your living room, either through television — or like now with the Americans being a superpower, a very influential member of the United Nations, if there is conflict somewhere, we are very quick to say we need peacekeeping forces; and these peacekeeping forces are quite often soldiers from areas where there is peace.

So suddenly you realize you may be in peace, but it is your son or your husband who now has to go and try to keep peace where peace has been threatened. And so it becomes really an important issue for all of us, whether we are rich or we are poor.’

Maathai’s focus on the unequal power relations connecting us is especially important for the sustainable development agenda which places emphasis on the fact that development is no longer a ‘North-South’ relationship but one which is applicable to all countries, precisely because the world is experiencing global shifts that are neither defined, nor limited by geographical or economic boundaries. These global shifts of economic globalisation, inequality, climate change and ideological extremism, require us to look at the systems and relationships of power driving them, rather than their effects, in order to solve them or at the very least, try to manage them.

To learn more about Wangari Maathai, I recommend the following sources. Please do share any other sources on the comment section below

  • ‘Planting the Future’: Interview with Krista Tippett

  • Taking Root:The Vision of Wangari Maathai

  • Unbowed: A Memoir

  • Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World

  • The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience


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