'Have been fighting gender inequality since I was a young boy'

Have been fighting gender inequality since I was a young boy

A pacifist, humanitarian and a prolific writer, Mr. Chatterjee is a regular contributor for the Reuters and the Huffington Post. A Princeton University alumnus, he was decorated for gallantry by the President of India during his service in the Indian Special Forces where he rose to the rank of Major.

Wycliffe Muga (WM): You came to Kenya in April 2014 as the head of UNFPA and now you have been the United Nations Resident Coordinator since 2016. In all this you have carved out for yourself a reputation as one man who is very passionate about women's rights. Tell us about both your roles in this and what you may have achieved?

Siddharth Chatterjee (SC): As mentioned, my firm belief in fighting gender inequality started as a young boy.

However, one particular incident remains etched in my memory to date. While serving in the army as a young officer, I was horrified to find out that a soldier from my unit had raped a young girl. I remember the sheer fear and trauma that girl went through, and the helplessness of her family.

It was a life changing moment for me. While the punishment that followed was swift and uncompromising, it was at that moment that I swore to fight all forms of misogyny, discrimination and violence.

So when I came to Kenya, it was as if the unseen hand of destiny brought me here. At UNFPA I had the opportunity to deal with the terrible tragedy of high maternal deaths, discrimination and violence at the centre of the country's political, social, cultural and economic dialogue.

The First Lady of Kenya, flanked by CS Foreign Affairs Amb Amina Mohamed, former UN Resident Coordinator to Kenya, Ms. Nardos Bekele Thomas and Sid Chatterjee. Ms Margaret Kenyatta was recognised as the UN Person of the Year 2014 for her invaluable efforts to advance maternal and child health in Kenya. Photo: UN KenyaThe First Lady of Kenya, flanked by CS Foreign Affairs Amb Amina Mohamed, former UN Resident Coordinator to Kenya, Ms. Nardos Bekele Thomas and Siddharth Chatterjee. Ms Margaret Kenyatta was recognised as the UN Person of the Year 2014 for her invaluable efforts to advance maternal and child health in Kenya. Photo: UN Kenya

My role in Kenya has been the most exciting of my entire career. When I got here I found an incredible team of UNFPA staff determined to change the game and claim our space in matters of maternal health. I decided that the first move would be to get behind what the First Lady's Beyond Zero Campaign aimed at ending maternal deaths in Kenya. Kenya is lucky to have a truly remarkable First Lady in Margaret Kenyatta.

Her passion, dedication and sheer determination is exceptional and frankly unparalleled. Her clarion call, "no woman should die giving life" resonated to every corner of the country and beyond. That became the tailwind for UNFPA's own efforts.

Working with the University of Nairobi, we discovered that 98% of maternal deaths in Kenya were happening in only 15 counties. Armed with that data for my first meeting with then Health Cabinet Secretary James Macharia and the First Lady, I proposed we should get the Governors from the 15 counties to commit to ending the scourge of maternal mortality in their counties, and to support them with targeted interventions.

It was a success. Despite initial doubts from several quarters that we could do it, we gained the support of the Kenya Red Cross and the World Bank and ran a sustained and highly focused campaign. 15 County Governors from the counties which have the highest burden of maternal deaths signed a communique on ending preventable maternal and new born mortality in Kenya.

Change has been dramatic. Kenya had a maternal mortality ratio of around 488 deaths per 100,000 live births. In a matter of a few years, this dropped to 366 deaths per 100,000 live births. Our efforts were recognized by the World Economic Forum. We were invited to Kigali and then to Davos and Durban because of the gains that these counties had made.

Our next frontier is universal healthcare, so that no Kenyan is denied access to medical help through lack of financial means or lack of facilities. With the clear support of the government, I am confident we can achieve this.

Kenya is a beacon of hope in this region. A rapidly growing population offers opportunities for growth and innovation, but this demographic dividend can only be achieved through focusing concerted efforts on ensuring youth empowerment. We also need to ensure that women and girls have rights over their bodies and can plan their families. That will help unlock Kenya's demographic dividend.

As the UN Resident Coordinator, I have worked with the UN country team and we have come up with five priorities in the new United Nations Development Assistance Framework, which will start in June 2018.

First is to help the government to create five million jobs by 2022. A million young people enter the labour market every year, but there are barely 100,000 new jobs, most of them in the informal sector. We need to dignify technical jobs, so the skills of a plumber, mason or carpenter are respected, encouraging young people into areas of high demand and helping them establish their own businesses.

Number Two is to address drought and hunger. By 2030, agriculture will be a trillion-dollar industry in Africa, with the potential to employ most of its youth, and Kenya must seize this opportunity. Young people's energy and ideas could transform the sector.

Third is universal health coverage. We must not be afraid to think creatively. We know, for example, that it will be difficult for Kenya to produce enough doctors and nurses, so why not train community health workers to do some of the mundane, non-medical tasks that currently take up much of their precious time? We could train a million school leavers to perform immunizations, for instance. We need to think of new ways of addressing old problems.

Fourth is ensuring that development leaves no one behind and that is perhaps one of the best weapons to defeat the scourge of violent extremism. The principle of Vision 2030 is about making sure that it's an inclusive process. As the UNDP Administrator, Mr. Achim Steiner, emphasizes, "let's leave no one behind and reach the farthest behind first." That is how you start to lead on issues of inequality and inequity. So the focus needs to be on the counties with the worst human development indicators.

Finally, we need to expand cross-border cooperation to encourage economic development and opportunity. The existing cross-border programme with Ethiopia, and the new road that connects Isiolo with Addis has seen the number of young people from Marsabit County joining Al-Shabaab drop exponentially. The road is a route to commerce and opportunity and economic integration.

President Kenyatta said he wants to turn this area in a 'Dubai'. We will work very hard to make that happen.

WM: Speaking about violent extremism we are seeing this as an increasing phenomena globally, but particularly so in Africa. What is your take on this critical and highly sensitive issue?

SC: Very important question Wycliffe. UNDP recently launched a ground breaking report, based on deep research and interviews with former extremists and those incarcerated. The report debunks a lot of myths and perceptions on the scourge of violent extremism. I would encourage everyone to read the report titled, "The Journey to Violent Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment."

Bottom line is, deprivation, marginalization, underpinned by weak governance, are primary forces driving young Africans into violent extremism.

The signing of the Kenya-Ethiopia cross-border programme by the Foreign Ministers of Kenya, Amb Amina Mohamed and Ethiopia, Dr Tedros Adhanom overseen by the Heads of State of Kenya and Ethiopia. December 2015 Photo: UNDP Kenya

The report also finds that, many of these extremist movements erupt from borderlands and under-served areas. Large swathes of the population are extremely poor and there are chronically underemployed youth. That is why the Kenya-Ethiopia cross-border programme is particularly significant. I really applaud and commend the vision and leadership of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia and President Kenyatta of Kenya, for moving this forward.

This programme has brought two National Governments, two regional authorities, and two United Nations Country Teams together to advancing peace, development and empowerment in this area.

I am confident that not only can this programme be replicated, but may potentially be the key to resolving intractable border problems globally.

WM: Given your background in both the military and as a global technocrat, in your view what would be the best way to go about addressing this challenge?

SC: We need to address security challenges through a development lens. I would add that if we were to urgently invest in 4 E's- Education and skills, Empowerment of youth, women and girls, a Marshall plan for Employment in Africa and Equity, Africa will not only reap a demographic dividend, it would prevent irregular and forced migration and perhaps prevent and defeat violent extremism.

Many migrants use the dangerous sea route crossing between North Africa and Italy in search of a better life. Photo: REUTERS/ MARINA MILITARE

I recently had the privilege of co-authoring an article with the former President of Ghana, Honourable John Mahama, titled, "Promise or Peril: Africa's 830 million young people by 2050", where we discuss Africa's youth population. Africa has a median age of 19 and has a rapidly growing youth population, which is expected to reach over 830 million by 2050. Whether this spells promise or peril depends on how the continent manages its "youth bulge."

According to the World Bank, 40% of people who join rebel movements are motivated by lack of economic opportunity.

In the wake of the Second World War, the Marshall Plan helped to rebuild shattered European economies in the interests of growth and stability. We need a plan of similar ambition that places youth employment in Africa at the centre of development.

WM: When someone has had the kind of successes you have had on the one hand and on the other hand also undergone a great deal of anguish – we might almost say injustice - at the hands of critics, there is always this need for vindication in the long run. Here's my question within that context: ten years from now, what would you like to look back as having happened in the next five years? In other words, what would you look back on with the greatest satisfaction?

SC: You know Wycliffe, the difficulties my wife and I had through 2007 to 2016, made us stronger and taught us to be resilient. As a matter of fact much of the negativity thrown at us, from within and outside the institution and those that tried to hurt us, only made us tougher and smarter. So I am grateful to them too and hold no grudges. I have learnt a great deal and developed immensely from this experience.

I am really grateful that I am now in Kenya. It is a time of monumental change and opportunity.

As you are aware, His Excellency President Uhuru Kenyatta has announced his Big Four plans, inter alia, affordable healthcare, food security, manufacturing and affordable housing as his main concerns for the next five years. These priorities align well with the outcomes of the new United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) for Kenya.

Siddharth Chatterjee discusses youth employment with President Kenyatta. Photo Credit: State House.

In the next five years my hope is that we scale up our partnership with Kenya and all development partners to achieve the Big Four. I am confident Kenya can do it and serve as a model for many other countries in Africa and throughout the world.

The year 2018 presents incredible challenges and opportunities. Here is my New Year's message to Kenya (Video).

In several ways, 2017 was not an easy year, first because the UN globally is facing an ongoing funding downturn to which no agency is immune, but particularly in Kenya because of the turbulence and uncertainties associated with last year's general election.

Despite these challenges, I firmly believe that 2017 was a year of notable achievements, when we once again asserted the value and credibility of the UN system in Kenya to the Government and people of Kenya.

I thank all UN agencies that stood at the forefront of the drought response. It is the credibility and trust we enjoy that led to resources coming our way from the Flash Appeal to support the humanitarian response. The Government of Kenya sees the UN family as a partner they can trust and rely on. We must continue to remain vigilant and ready to support the Government and people of Kenya as the indications for the coming year do not look so good.

Despite shrinking resources, we are expected to do more. These past years, we have responded on time, effectively and coherently; and our work is helping people feed themselves, care for the sick, empower more youth and women and promote models of development that reduce dependency.

For instance, the Joint Programme on Reproductive Maternal Neonatal Child and Adolescent Health (RMNCAH) has led to notable progress on coherence, service delivery, partnerships and key health outcomes, especially in under-served counties. This was not only recognised by Forbes "The UN and Philips Bring Hope And Health To Africa's Most Challenging Region", but also acknowledged by the Government of Kenya and the World Economic Forum. This became the basis for the SDG public- private partnership platform to leapfrog universal health coverage in Kenya.

Here is Kenya Foreign Minister's Speech, Ambassador Amina Mohamed, at the UN General Assembly on Friday, 22 September 2017, where she spoke specifically to the SDG platform in Kenya to leapfrog achievement of Universal Health Coverage in partnership with the United Nations in Kenya and emphasized the central importance of maternal and child healthcare.

The Cabinet Secretary informed the General Assembly of efforts made in her country to accelerate implementation of the SDGs as well as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. She also spoke of Kenya's assistance to refugees and efforts made to combat human trafficking.

This is a wonderful endorsement and recognition of the UN's role in "Delivering as One". The Government of Kenya is already planning for a similar platform in partnership with the UN on Zero Hunger, SDG 2.

Partnerships with the private sector and development partners have unlocked significant resources and technical assistance to deliver significant improvements in areas previously considered little more than lost frontiers.

Our network of more than 25 UN agencies in Kenya has continued to offer creative programmes and campaigns on a wide-range of issues, including human rights, peace and security and sustainable development. In addition, we have put in place wider collaboration with the private and public sectors to make our programmes robust and our outreach more effective.

Kenya's cross-border programme with Ethiopia, the UN Delivering as One programme, is finding great interest locally and globally and has the potential of not just unlocking more resources but can be replicated elsewhere too.

These are only a few examples of real progress; changes that are not abstractions but which have been documented in terms of mothers and new-borns saved, girls retained in school and the vulnerable fed. It is work that has made a real difference in the lives of people, but which could not have happened had we not worked together.

But we have challenges ahead. The SDGs which the UNDAF now seeks to support are broader and more challenging than the MDGs, because they encompass more goals such as peace, justice and strong institutions.

To that extent, much of the hard work lies ahead. Inequalities persist and progress has been uneven across the counties in Kenya. Our youth in Kenya remain on the periphery of development, and millions are left behind.

These are extraordinary challenges, but they also present extraordinary opportunities. The coming year is a chance for all our agencies to re-evaluate and to innovate. The question before us is, how can we do our work better? How can we stretch our resources more effectively?

The coming of a new year reminds us anew of the enduring value of the United Nations, as the place where citizens expect solutions to problems. I believe that each of us has a part to play in lifting up people all across Kenya, in finding solutions to today's urgent challenges.

US Ambassador Robert F Godec and Dutch Ambassador Frans Makken, strong advocates of ending FGM. Photo: UNFPA Kenya

WM: Last question. Is it true that you run a half-marathon every Sunday? If so – and really that cannot be said to be out of a need to get some exercise - what inspires you to run?

Yes, as far as possible I run a half-marathon or 21km every Sunday. I also try and run to the office 2 to 3 times a week. I stand at work for at least 4–5 hours a day and keep myself moving. And I also do a headstand two or three times a day.

Running is therapeutic and it also acts as a catalyst for ideas. Most of the ideas for the opinion pieces I publish on my blog in Huffington Post and Reuters come when I am running.

I wake up at 3am each morning to read, write and reflect.

I dote on my six-year-old son. He is the centre of my existence. I suppose I also keep fit for his sake. I must admit, if there is one thing I look forward to, every day and every second, it is the joy of seeing my son grow.

Sree Sen

Sree Sen

Sree Sen is a prolific writer and mentor. She has spent years at Times of India and DNA. She is writing her book and helping transgender communities find voice through video story telling.

Next Story
Share it
To Top