Botswana’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Collen Vixen Kelapile, is the current President of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) that is tasked with coordinating UN efforts on sustainable development and advancing internationally agreed goals. He took office amid a global pandemic, climate crisis, rising poverty, and growing inequalities, among other challenges. In Part 2 of this interview with Kingsley Ighobor, Ambassador Kelapile discusses Africa and climate change, tackling gender inequality and peace and development on the continent. These are excerpts:
You were elected the President of the 77th Session of ECOSOC at a very challenging time. What will success look like for you at the end of your tenure next year?
Indeed, we have COVID-19 and other pre-existing situations such as climate change, extreme poverty and inequality. And then there is the imperative to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But I must say, even during normal times, leadership itself is already a serious enough responsibility because there are so many expectations to deliver on all the agreed objectives.
In my case, implementation must be done amid the challenges posed by COVID-19. However, I’m confident that even in tough times like this, one could be made a strong leader.
First, success would be if ECOSOC, under my leadership, is able to have clear analysis on the situations that you referred to: COVID-19, extreme poverty, climate change, and so on, so that we are in a better position to offer proper policy guidance to member states on how to respond to these challenges, including recovering from the pandemic while making progress on SDGs implementation.
Second, success would be measured on the extent to which we can mobilize the political will around climate change, especially if we can improve the understanding about its social and economic dimensions. The most vulnerable countries—the small island nations, the least developed countries and the landlocked countries – are bearing the brunt of climate change.
Third, would be if we are able to reinforce the mandate of ECOSOC itself. We should use ECOSOC’s convening power to act as a very formidable, multistakeholder platform that also focuses on fostering dialogue amongst the member states.
Fourth, is if we can galvanize momentum and impetus to engage more in producing evidence-based policies. This relates to the first point as well, which is how to effectively address some of the deep-rooted issues such as inequality – an amplification of structural racism and discrimination especially during the pandemic.
The fifth measure would be the extent to which ECOSOC can mobilize solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lastly, success would be inclusivity, which is one of my eight priorities. It is the extent to which other stakeholders’ voices are heard and factored into the decisions that we make as ECOSOC. This would go a long way in advancing the work that we do and in achieving the SDGs.
Everything you have highlighted requires a multilateral approach. What would you say is the state of multilateralism today?
A very good question. I think multilateralism didn’t need a pandemic to get worse; things were already bad. The divisiveness that has over the years creeped into multilateralism has undermined the comparative advantage that comes with when we speak with one voice. Over time, many debates that should focus on the mandates of the intergovernmental bodies, norm setting and deliberations on very important issues had almost become diluted by confrontational approaches. So, there is no doubt that over the years, multilateralism suffered a lot of erosion.
Are you confident that you can accomplish the goals that you have set?
Oh, yes! If we cannot be confident in what we have set ourselves to do, we might prematurely give in. There are challenges we face, but our current situation can translate to an opportunity to achieve the transformation that we need, especially in the implementation of the SDGs.
As the 12th African president of ECOSOC, what should Africa expect from your tenure?
As you know, ECOSOC is there to serve the people. There’s no exception to who ECOSOC serves, but of course, for Botswana, we are very proud to be doing this for the first time since 1945. For me, this [presidency] gives Africa significant leverage and opportunity to advance our own continental Agenda 2063.
I think as much as I’m here to serve all the member states based on the programmes of the work of ECOSOC, it goes without saying that home is home and that obviously, I’m expected to also help identify priorities that are significant to my continent. So, it’s a moment that allows Africa to leverage the leadership of ECOSOC, through me, to ensure that we implement that vision of the ‘Africa We Want’ and also because it reinforces the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
COVID-19 has had ramifications for Africa’s social and economic development. While vaccination is key to containing the virus, Africa is the least vaccinated region currently. Is there a role for ECOSOC in this regard?
When I was confirmed in this position on 23 July, I said in my statement that one of my broad priorities was to advocate for all developing countries, especially in ensuring equitable access to vaccines. In fact, I said in my statement that I will do exactly what my predecessor did – convene a special session of ECOSOC during the first quarter of 2022, at which the member states, the global community and all stakeholders will take stock of how far we have come, especially in our response efforts, particularly on this issue of equitable distribution or access to vaccines.
What more can you achieve with the session you plan to convene?
There’s a lot that can be achieved. Of course, convening a meeting itself doesn’t achieve anything if the outcomes are not going to be followed through, which is often the case. But there is value in deliberations. The convening power, the amplification of messages of critical importance, and in this case, the advocacy for equitable access to vaccine is what one would want.
Hopefully there will be actions that will emanate from that process. It’s easy to say no one is safe until everyone is safe, but how are we making sure that we follow that statement with concrete actions? So, my hope is that after such a convening, we would emerge with concrete pledges and commitment, followed by action, not just words.
Prior to COVID-19, there were socioeconomic inequalities between countries and regions. The pandemic has worsened the situation. Do you have a formula for bridging this inequality gap?
I wouldn’t say an outright formula exists, but of course we need to do something about the situation. It’s certain that these inequalities, which predated COVID-19, will widen as you rightly point out. This issue is one of the eight broad priorities that I outlined in my 23 July statement. The pandemic will increase inequalities both within and between countries. And the problematic aspect is that developing countries have very little capacity to cope.
The recovery also is not going to be easy. The fiscal space has shrunk. Stimulus packages have at least supported the advanced countries, but for Africa, this has not been easy. Again, we need to work on access to the vaccines.
We need to make sure that the recovery process is inclusive to prevent any worsening of inequalities. We need stronger and resilient social protection and health systems, and we need to support those who are the most vulnerable in our societies.
We need multilateralism and global cooperation to ensure that we address the issue of debt, for example, ensuring debt is at levels that are manageable by developing countries. There is already talk about what can be done about the Special Drawing Rights allocations held by the IMF. We can also look at our tax systems in Africa. Our domestic resource mobilization is undermined by the fact that we are not really maximizing tax revenues to enhance our fiscal space.
You have been very consistent and persistent in calling for the bridging of the digital divide. What would the world look like if that divide were to be bridged and what can we do to achieve that?
There are several aspects to answering your question. The approaches that we take must be multidimensional. First, we must understand what constitutes access, and then look at quality. During COVID-19 lockdowns, we have been doing more telecommuting and virtual meetings, which were never done before.
So digital technologies have been essential for those who have access. Also, how can we do things that we did well before the pandemic using these technologies and still achieve results?
I think there needs to be a more coordinated and scaled-up global digital capacity building effort. And we need this, for sure, in developing countries. An enabling environment is required. We need sufficient resources. We need the infrastructure itself. We need to educate our people, the users as well. We need connectivity that is of quality. And it must be inclusive. I should add that a lot of effort is already underway. For example, the UN Technology Bank for Least of Developed Countries is facilitating access to digital technologies for these countries, assisting them to transform their ways of doing business and to stand a better chance of achieving sustainable development.
Again, the Technology Facilitation Mechanism, hosted by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and supported by UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is providing access to many technologies, including digital technologies.
How might digital technologies help African youth contribute more to economic development of the continent and what more can ECOSOC do to support them?
The youth of Africa are one of our comparative advantages. The innovators, the most creative, the energetic—those are African youth. The continent has a huge advantage with this demographic, and we can leverage this in science, technology and innovation. But we must translate their energy into real dividends by investing in science and technology and innovation. Africa’s working age population will grow by 450 million between 2015 to 2035. Of course, we also have a shift from manufacturing services to information-related services, which then gives us a good opportunity to leverage both technologies and the youth. But for us to reap the full benefits of that, we need to build the capacities of the youth themselves, by equipping them with the knowledge and skills that they need.
In Africa, 57.8 per cent of innovative technologies, since the start of the pandemic, have been ICT driven, including chatbots in South Africa and the self-diagnostic tools in Angola. Young people have been directly involved with other technological aspects of responding to COVID-19, including developing solar-powered automatic hand-washing tools and mobile applications that build on Africa’s rapidly growing connectivity. So clearly, we get a huge benefit if we can tap from the energy, the vitality and the integration that comes with Africa’s youthful population.
Let’s talk about climate change. Africa contributes the least to greenhouse gas emissions but suffers the brunt of the climate crisis. What advice would you give African representatives at the Conference of Parties (COP 26) in Glasgow this November?
That’s a very pertinent question. Precisely, Africa contributes around 2 to 3 per cent of the total global emissions yet it is disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. It is the most vulnerable continent.
Regarding COP26, the continent already has good experience in how to succeed in negotiations. Remember that Africa played a significant role in the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that includes the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The process started with Africa adopting a common position. So, I would advise for a similar approach to COP26. Africa needs a common position. In doing so, they must also reflect on several advantages that climate action presents, including being an investment opportunity and a source of socioeconomic development.
It shouldn’t just be to complain about climate change being a problem. Yes, it is a problem, but they must work to at least tap the potential that can be derived from the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the SDGs.
If you were to ask how this can be done, I would say, first, that investing in clean energy based on renewable energy solutions is one example. Some 570 million people in sub-Saharan Africa do not currently have access to electricity. Renewable energy is becoming a cheaper energy solution, and so anybody in business would say these investments make perfect sense. This is the case in many parts of the world, and I think it’s the same in African countries that are moving into renewables.
Second, Africa should go to COP26 with a view to seeking to make a breakthrough on adaptation.
The Global Commission on Adaptation has found that every $1 invested in adaptation could yield about $4 in benefits. This makes sense considering that Africa is on the frontlines of many drastic climate impacts, including traumatic events from floods and droughts. And I understand that one in three Africans are not adequately covered by early warning systems.
There continue to be deep-rooted practices that impede women’s empowerment, particularly in Africa. What message would you send to African leaders regarding gender inequality on the continent?
There are many forms of inequalities, and gender inequality is a particular challenge. I must acknowledge there has been progress. At the same time, some of the practices have been part of cultures and addressing them seems to be taking longer than necessary. A lot can be done to improve the situation.
Gender inequality is not just the empowerment of women, it is also an essential tool to transform economies and to build a more just, equal and inclusive society.
So, my message is very simple: let us not just narrow the existing gaps; we should take deliberate actions to permanently solve this issue. Women make significant contributions to our economies but are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are amongst the most vulnerable because of the situation they often find themselves in – they are unpaid care workers and continue to be victims of domestic violence, which surged during the pandemic.
I would encourage African leaders to place particular emphasis on making progress towards gender parity in decision-making and to address gender-based violence. One other thing that can be done is disaggregation of data because without that, you cannot even measure the problem itself, nor can you measure the progress you are making. The problem becomes undeniable when data is clearly disaggregated.
There is often talk about the nexus between peace and socioeconomic development. Can you share your reflections on this, given your role as the ECOSOC President?
Certainly. This nexus has been part of the agenda of ECOSOC for many years, and it continues to be the case today.
In the early 1990s, I shared a recommendation with ECOSOC, the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council regarding the need for a comprehensive approach to development, conflict and humanitarian challenges. It included a need to coordinate support to countries that are in conflict. ECOSOC created a mechanism in 2002, which was an ad-hoc advisory group on African countries emerging from conflict. At that time there was no Peacebuilding Commission.
This advisory group transferred its responsibility to the Peacebuilding Commission in 2007-2008. This mechanism helps us look more closely at how social and economic dynamics intersect with political insecurity, and from that process we are able to make recommendations for consideration by the Security Council, which is another principal UN organ we work with closely.
The UN General Assembly has now mandated a meeting on transition from relief to development. So, there is now a new platform, just approved by the General Assembly, that will provide the opportunity to promote the synergies of development, the humanitarian aspect, and also support for peace in societies.
Can we realise the dream of an Africa without war?
Yes. Africa, through the African Union (AU), in 2013 adopted the theme Silencing the Guns by 2020 (now extended to 2030). The key to having an Africa that is not in conflict or at war is when guns are silent.
Let us do whatever it takes to silence those guns. I believe the AU has agreed on the mechanisms for realizing this. We must implement what has been agreed, the decisions by African leaders themselves to silence the guns. I don’t think we should give up on it. I believe that it can be achieved.
Given the civil conflicts currently in different parts of Africa, in addition to the climate crisis and the COVID-19 situation, do you think countries can still meet the SDG targets by 2030?
Yes. I’m very positive because I think there’s value in being positive. We will stand a chance of achieving the SDGs if we look at the situation the same way I advise we look at the climate change discussions at COP26; that is, how we use the experience of this challenge to engage in more transformative ways of approaching the SDGs. I have hope that we can do it. I know it’s overly ambitious.
I want to touch on the issue of the levels of indebtedness of our countries. I know there is a lot going on to relieve countries in Africa of debt. Yes, some African countries have received or have been offered some partial debt service relief, debt service suspension, by the G20.
And I know there is ongoing work on the cancellation of debt for vulnerable countries. This is very important because it offers liquidity support needed to at least respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is the most immediate challenge. It will also allow countries to create the needed fiscal space to work towards achieving the SDGs.
The SDGs were purposely designed to be very ambitious, and I believe we can still achieve them.
I think if we take an integrated approach to make the structural changes that are needed to realize the SDGs, we can achieve something. We are talking about the right social and economic transformation, combating climate change in different ways, working to reduce inequality, expanding social protection, increasing access to health, education and more.