Ethiopia hosts one of the largest United Nations teams in the world, with 28 agencies, funds and programmes. Net official flowe from UN agencies was recorded at close to 3.4 billion dollars in 2016, according to the World Bank’s collection of development indicators. The UN supports most of the pillars of the Growth & Transformational Plan (GTP) and focuses on sustainable economic growth, improving access to essential services, governance and capacity development. Steering these agencies is Ahunna Eziakonwa-Onochie, the new head of the UNDP Africa Office, based in New York.
She has served as the UN’s Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Ethiopia and worked as Chief of the Africa Section for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) where she managed the operations of 15 African countries.
Tamrat G. Giorgis, Fortune’s Managing Editor, and Christian Tesfaye, OP-ED Editor, sat down with her last week to discuss the falling popularity of multilateralism across the globe and the engagements of the UN in Ethiopia.
Fortune: How much has Ethiopia prepared you for your next assignment as head of the UNDP Africa Office?
My next assignment is Africa. There is no other country to better prepare you for the upcoming job than Ethiopia though. The African Union (AU) and the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) are here, as are practically every single country’s embassy. Being in Ethiopia has felt like being in Africa. This is a serious country when it comes to development and the second largest population on the continent. It has a diverse number of challenges and issues but also lots of experiences and lessons that one takes away from working in Ethiopia. It has been a good university for my next step.
Q. What is the most important lesson you have acquired from Ethiopia?
Governance. African countries today are wrestling with how to manage diversity – how to link a governance environment to economic development. You are trying to manage diversity at the same time [you are] building the economy. The tension between governance and economic development has been very intense in Ethiopia for the past three years.
Q. You are taking a much larger role in the United Nations at a time when the institution’s core ideal – multilateralism – is being questioned. The United States has pulled out from some UN agencies, while autocratic nations such as China and Russia are becoming more influential in global politics. There is a tendency towards bilateral relationships.
Ethiopia is distinguishing itself as one of the serious players in keeping peace around the world and in the region – especially in Somalia - as well as the fight against terrorism.
The value of multilateralism is hard to kill. It is important particularly in a world such as ours where some of the biggest challenges – migration, climate change and population explosions in some parts of the world – are bound to bring us together as members of humanity. It is almost impossible to think of diminishing multilateralism at this point. Common sense demands that it survives and thrives, because these issues cannot be handled by individual countries or through only bilateral relations. I am hopeful that there will be a resurgence of support for multilateralism.
Q. The United States is withdrawing some of its funding to some of the UN’s agencies. With the most unlikely scenario where the US completely withdraws from the UN – as it has been threatening to for the past two decades – how much of a chance does the UN have of surviving?
My hope is that the US does not completely withdraw from the UN. It is an important country for the UN and for global relationships. It has played a historic role in multilateralism and in also strengthing the UN. The UN is based in the US for that matter. I do not imagine this future. But I do think that the rest of the international community values the role of the US in multilateralism.
Q. You have spent several years here where the UN has one of the largest country teams in the world. How do you justify that? Why is Ethiopia so important for the UN to deploy such huge resources here?
Ethiopia being a host to the AU headquarters is one factor. There are agencies here that follow not only Ethiopia but also the African Union and the ECA. Ethiopia has quite a strategic place for the region in international matters, such as peacekeeping and stabilization of peace.
As Ethiopia hosts the second largest number of refugees [in Africa], it is important that agencies are here to support that effort as well. And it is just not a country that receives UN support, but it also makes significant contributions to the multilateral engagements.
Q. Your time here is largely defined by the political paralysis that has been going on for the past three years. There has been internal political dynamics and conflicts that caused a large number of displacements in different parts of the country.
I do not know if I would describe my time here as a political paralysis. There has been a lot of political activity and evolution of the political and democratic process. Science has not taught us how to make an omelette without breaking an egg and making a bit of a mess.
The rest of the world is failing to recognize this shared humanity of ours, while Africa is stepping up and showing the value of it. It is at the beginning of its own development and transformation.
I see what has happened for the past three years as part of the process of maturity of Ethiopia’s political landscape. Yes, there has been resistance and protest. It is sad that some of that caused lives to be lost, properties damaged and people displaced. We have also had in the same period a significant natural hazard in the form of the El Nino-drought in 2016 just after I arrived and continued throughout the Horn of Africa, affecting millions of people.
There has been a converging of issues on the humanitarian side, which both the Ethiopian government and the humanitarian community stepped up to address. However, one always felt sad to see such large-scale human suffering, and I think that it will remain an imperative for all of us to create conditions for those who have been displaced to return home.
Q. There are millions of people still being displaced, and there has not been much done to stop that from happening. Have you not been frustrated by that?
I visited Gedeo recently. The issue is serious. There are up to a million internally displaced people who are still living in conditions that are less than optimal. It is quit challenging and overwhelming for any country to have to face alone. I took the whole UN team to the region for us to get assessments and see how we can support people where they are currently, while the government is working on plans to facilitate their return.
The latter is for me the only solution, because the congestion in the area is quite significant, and it is difficult to sustain humanitarian operations under these conditions. We are hoping that a final solution will come for people to be able to go home once the conditions are right for them to return. Indeed, one would want to work in a situation where we are focusing on development and not having to juggle at the same time a humanitarian crisis, but that was what we found on the ground.
Q. Some of these displacements have been caused by conflicts that are mostly politically motivated. In your time during the last three years, have you felt frustrated when you are unable to make a difference as one crisis overshadowed another?
Yes, this is frustrating for all of us. It is not an ideal situation when there is so much good news. One would want to focus on reforms that are taking place at a breakneck speed that people had not imagined and see the broadening of the space for political participation as the UN promotes. This is immense good news and one would want to focus here. I hope that narrative does not get lost in some of the not-so-good news on the humanitarian side. We are hoping that the situation can be arrested as quickly as possible, people can go home, and you can continue to have this narrative of incredible good news in the region.
Q. Do you feel like you have done enough to address the issue through the process of conflict resolution, which is one of your mandates in the governance program?
You cannot do enough as a partner. We come to be supportive, but there are obviously other dynamics that are not within our control in terms of the political governance of the country. We work on the basis of a request to support. This is a strong state, and we indeed partnered with the government earlier last year on reconciliation issues. There was the first national reconciliation conference that was held here on UN ground through an interreligious council.
Since the beginning of the protests and other aspects of conflicts, we have been working with the government but also through non-state actors such as religious groups and traditional platforms to create this culture of peace and reconciliation and to enable dialogue to happen.
If you are going to build peace, you do have to have dialogue, and we have had a series of dialogue sessions. A lot of the issues that are coming up now are age-old. You cannot solve them over night, and we expect that it will take some time for the culture of dialogue for peace and reconciliation to come to fruition.
In every society, you have conflicts that emerge for whatever reason: whether it is competition over natural resources or ethnic or political differences. Our interest has been to invest in longterm strategies and institutions, not just to allow Ethiopia to cope with such issues in the future, but also to be in the position to solve them before they become violent and catastrophic.
Q. Unlike your predecessors though, you have not met opposition leaders for dialogue and listened to their side of the story to help the country move forward.
That is not entirely true. When the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights visited two years ago, we had an engagement with opposition parties at the time. I facilitated that visit particularly for that reason, so that we would have a broader platform of engagement beyond what we do with government.
We also have worked very closely with non-state actors including the media. One of the first things I did when I came was launching the Media Council. There has been a delay in getting it going. But my energy behind the governance agenda has not been any less than the energy on the humanitarian or other issues. The Media Council is an important reform agenda for the media, because that is where governance starts.
It is during my time here though that we came up with a comprehensive governance program, which speaks to the different reforms that are required, including sessions supporting dialogue with opposition party leaders. It was not an easy governance program to come up with. We had intense negotiations with the government for this. Parts of the pillars of the program are to open up the political space for the greater participation of the opposition.
Q. You are leaving Ethiopia at a time when things are delicate. There is a new administration that is undertaking reforms rapidly. What is your take?
I feel hopeful. Three years ago there were many things I did not witness that are happening today. People spoke in whispers, because there was such fear and anxiety in the atmosphere. Today, I see Ethiopians speaking freely and opening up and being able to express their views. That is a huge achievement.
I once told my staff when we went for a retreat – there was a song playing, and they were exhibiting energy and a sense of freedom – that it was like they were just released from jail. In public, this palpable sense of being freed to express opinions can be sensed.
Q. What do you think it would take to sustain this?
It has to be anchored in the institutions. Institutions have to catch-up with this climate of openness and participation.
Q. But in the midst of all this euphoria and joy, do you think the ruling party and the many people who are supporting what is taking place now are paying attention to the building of institutions?
I would hope so. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed [PhD] is doing his job by creating the hope and nurturing reconciliation and unification of the country. It is a real investment on his part. And he is not operating alone. He has the whole cabinet of people who have the responsibility of helping build institutions. I would hope that they are connected to the changes that are taking place, and are doing their part to integrate those changes within the institutions.
Ethiopia already has institutions. It is not like they have to start from scratch. It is just a matter of ensuring that the reforms are institutionalized, which is not a one-man job. It requires the whole of the government to engage.
Q. Ethiopia is challenged with a population bulge, growing polarization, ethnic conflicts, unequal distribution of wealth and abject poverty. Do these define the nation on the world stage or do you see Ethiopia differently?
It is a mix. I think that Ethiopia in the world and the global scene is not reduced to a country that is in constant conflict and misery. Ethiopia is a member of the [UN] Security Council, and there are Ethiopian leaders on the global stage. It is a nation that plays a strong role within the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
Ethiopia is distinguishing itself as one of the serious players in keeping peace around the world and in the region – especially in Somalia – as well as the fight against terrorism. There is a whole other narrative out there that keeps the international community interested. There is also the narrative of Ethiopia’s success in reducing poverty and growing its economy in a short period.
Mixed in are challenges that are not confined to the country but are faced by many countries in the world. There are problems in having to keep up with unemployment, managing diversity and trying to transform the economy that is commodity-driven.
Q. How do you see the choice of the Ethiopian government when it comes to its economic policy, which has been state-driven with constrained space for the private sector? Is that not a concern?
It is a concern that has been acknowledged even by the government. At some point, you need to create space for the private sector, especially if you want to create jobs for the thousands of young people coming out of universities [each year]. It is not something that the public sector alone can handle, as is evidenced by countries around the world.
Q. Why do you think the government has been stubborn not to give the private sector space?
These questions have been asked of the Prime Minister and previous leaders. The PM has been asked this in his engagement with players in the private sector. The answers ranged from the need to invest in infrastructure with the help from the proceeds from many of the parastatals to the need to keep the resources at home rather than create opportunities for capital flight.
It is a developmental state model. Such a model has a bias towards public investment at the initial stages, but at some point there needs to be enough space for private sector engagement.
Q. What wakes you up in the middle of the night when you think of Ethiopia?
How to unify the country.
Q. Within the United Nations, there are growing incidents of corruption. There was, for instance, the case of a CEO at the Ethiopian Tourism Organisation (ETO) who was getting paid by the UNDP as well as the government, which is against the procedures of the UN. There is also a project that has been going on for the past four years without reaching completion. There are as well complaints about nepotism and sexual harassment.
The leadership of the UN is very clear about where it stands when it comes to these issues. This conversation around harassment and corruption is not something that any leader of the UN wants to be associated with the UN, and therefore, declares zero tolerance for it. The Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has been clear on this, having established measures to ensure that we have a maximum integrity of our systems.
Agencies are, of course, autonomous, and things can happen, but those agencies have the obligation to account for it when things go wrong. This is why we have audits. Can we guarantee that there will never be any corruption or a case to investigate? I do not think so. I do not believe that any institution or organization can guarantee such a thing at 100pc.
UNDP is one of the most transparent agencies in terms of the publication of its audits. If we observe that something has gone wrong, we take responsibility to put it right through a proper investigative process. That is what integrity is.
Q. Two things stand out. Whistleblowers are not protected by the UN system whenever something goes wrong, and they are being exposed to retaliation. And actions are not being taken in time, and when they are taken, they are too little, too late. They are also not properly communicated to the public.
The Secretary-General has been clear on this too. There is protection for whistleblowers. Most agencies have been instructed to put up hotlines to allow people to come forward. There are also clear guidelines of protection measures. These new measures will help improve the system. We are now getting more and more reports that had not come out before. It is a growing trust in the system. It is not that we have more cases, but there is more trust that the systems will protect them giving way to the higher volumes of reports of this conduct.
Q. We see that the African Union is going in the direction of multilateralism, as is evident with the signing of continental free trade agreements when the rest of the world is not. Is it advisable for the African Union to do that?
It is a great opportunity for Africa to lead the world. Greater integration is needed for all rather than the shrinking and hardening of borders. For instance, it is a remarkable thing that is happening between Eritrea and Ethiopia. At a time when people are erecting walls, these two countries are softening their borders. It is Africa stepping out and showing leadership.
The rest of the world is failing to recognize this shared humanity of ours, while Africa is stepping up and showing the value of it. It is at the beginning of its own development and transformation. Being able to deploy this incredible value on which many civilisations have been built, but are now seemingly being abandoned, is a huge opportunity for Africa to emerge as a world leader.
Q. If you are to take one thing from Ethiopia, and only one thing, what would that be?