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Lisa Singh,
UN Resident Coordinator for Mauritius and Seychelles

“The ‘Leave No One Behind’ agenda is the highest one on our radar”

We are privileged to welcome the first in-depth media interview of the United Nations Resident Coordinator since her posting to Mauritius. On the occasion of the International Women’s Day, Lisa Simrique Singh answers our questions on her previous postings to Afghanistan and Chad and gives her observations on issues related to gender, leadership, governance, accountability and institutional frameworks. She also elaborates on the recent yearly USD 500 million UN Stimulus Package, the Multidimensional Vulnerability Index, the opportunity for Mauritius to be the voice of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) at the G20, and the ‘Leave No One Behind’ agenda.

Rudy Veeramundar 


You have been posted to a number of countries and a few of them were very conservative ones. How challenging was it for a woman to be the UN Resident Coordinator in countries like Afghanistan, Chad and Mali?

Thank you for this question, which is a very interesting one in the sense that, if this question is still being asked, it means that there is still work that is left to be done at every level.


The issue of gender actually starts at household level. It is an issue which is deeply embedded in the cultural and societal aspect. So, unless we address the issue of gender from that angle, making progress remains challenging. For my part, I come from a society where women’s rights are not necessarily taken into sufficient consideration. I come from Nepal, South Asia, where we do lag behind when we look at the indicators. In that sense, for me, as a woman, I was lucky that my parents were in a position to invest in my schooling. Education is really an enabler that can open doors. I have been lucky, but it’s not only about luck, but the concrete effort that you make


I have worked in so many countries in Asia and Africa, including Chad, Mali, and Cameroon too. I travelled to South East Asia and Afghanistan, as you mentioned. It is difficult as a woman, not only because of gender, but also age. I was quite young during these postings, and combined with gender, it created some barriers to being heard and taken seriously.


One of the cornerstones of the UN’s work is the principle to ‘leave no one behind’. Even if an issue such as gender may be considered ‘sensitive’ in a county, the UN is committed to reducing inequality. You need to couch the message in such a way that it resonates with the people. For example, if you want to be resilient as a nation, every single member of your population needs to be included, needs to be capacitated, and receive basic education, and healthcare, which is a perspective that is hard to argue with.


For the UN, the whole issue of sustainable development is central to the 2030 Agenda. The Sustainable Development Goals are ambitious; they are meant to bring the world together to achieve them. It is not an agenda of the UN, but an agenda that was agreed upon by every single member country, and it resonates because it is universal and it is applicable to every single country, whether it a developed country, an LDC, or a SIDS.


Why did the UN choose to appoint a woman in Afghanistan, at a time which was a difficult one?

The UN has a very specific policy for gender parity. Gender parity is a fundamental human right. At the level of the UN, in terms of every single agency, including the headquarters, gender parity is a big strategic orientation. We’ve had equality in terms of resident coordinators globally, and equality of North-South nationality profile of the resident coordinator. So it’s not only about gender, but about the representation of North and South. In the same vein, in the last five years, our agencies have achieved gender parity in terms of their workforce. Despite progress, there remains a lot of work to be done, including at the level of the UN, especially when it comes to mission settings and humanitarian settings. It is challenging, and Afghanistan is challenging. I have been there and I can tell you that we were not equal in terms of the work force. It is challenging to get women there, but at the same time, it is important that we, as the UN, go there, including women, to tell the government “look, why are you not allowing your women to contribute and be effective members of your society when we have members from the UN, including south Asian women, from Iran and surrounding countries, contributing to the development effectively?


We used to go and engage with the government, the ministers. We were very respectful of the norms of the society, but at the same time, we wanted to ensure that they saw us being active, engaged, efficient and professional. This passes a very strong message. If at the level of the UN, you say that women should be working, but at the same time, you only have men sitting there and talking to the government, it gives the wrong message.


Before closing this chapter, may we know what your first reaction was, as a woman, when you received your posting to these conservative countries?

For a lot of women, and I talk not only about myself, there is always that family context that plays a big role. When you go to countries like Chad, Afghanistan or Mali, you are essentially taking a decision to ensure that your professional career does not suffer, while at the same time realizing that you have to leave your children and your family behind. So, it is a very tough decision, but sometimes we have to do it from the professional perspective. You have the choice of taking up easy postings, but at the same time, these are the postings from which you get a lot of experience.


Is it also a question of conviction?

It is also a question of conviction because when you go to postings where the challenges are amplified, the risk for you is personally amplified; but you can also see the impact of the UN’s work and core values of the UN – addressing the issues of vulnerability, resilience, gender. You see this much more tangibly when you are in conflict zones, but at the same time, as we have seen in the last decade, things are not improving. So, that brings us to the question: what can we do better? Where have we not really used the opportunity? That brings us back to partnership, and it’s not only about donors, governments and the UN. It is really about understanding and working with the communities, which gives a bigger picture of a country’s challenges and opportunities for change.


Whatever we do must have a sustainable feature in it and it’s not about capacity substitution because you can bring a whole bunch of experts and get things done, but you can also, as the saying goes, teach them how to fish.


Do you have any anecdote, during one of your postings, where you achieved something in your capacity as a woman?

Actually, I had this experience in Afghanistan. I was the head of the Livelihood and Crisis and Poverty team at UNDP, with an annual budget of USD 90 million. One of the conditions for Afghanistan as part of the HIPIC (Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative) was to hold national consultations, and everybody told us that we couldn’t do it because of security issues. The way it was structured by the ministry, it would be held in different provinces in Afghanistan, and there were 32, and we would have all these consultations held with men. We said, from a life expectancy perspective, that women outlived men, and so, where were their voices?


What I designed with my team was a process where we would meet women leaders from the communities. It took us a lot of time. We negotiated with women leaders in closed group sessions which were not mixed. I still remember that I was sitting in a room and all I saw was a sea of blue, because they wore their blue hijabs and most of them had the nets and in between, you saw the children, holding their mums’ legs. The women said that this was actually the first time that somebody was asking them how they felt. They felt safe to say it because they were in a room with other women, and not in a mixed setting.


So, I think that when you talk of participation or mixed participation, you have to be careful in how you get the participation, because if you don’t do it right, they will not be open to expressing themselves. You have to give them a safe space and that, for me, was so fulfilling because in a matter of four to five months, we were able to get the national consultation done. We were able to ensure that women participated, not by proxy, but by themselves. It was quite a big achievement and a personal satisfaction. When people ask me “why do you work in Mali and Chad?’, these are the moments I think of when I tell them ‘this is why I do it, because I can see how I touch people’s lives directly.”



From a global perspective, we have had a woman Prime minister in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto; a woman political leader in India, Sonia Gandhi; and Angela Merkel as the German Chancellor. What is your assessment of the leadership position of women in the world right now?

My feeling is that women can be as good leaders as men. What prevents them from progressing is systemic. The governance context is very important and you need to have strong institutions. You need to have strong accountability and transparency. You need to have civic engagement and a process by which there is credible elections in place to allow women, who are as capable as men, to do their job well.


If you have a weakness in the institutional framework, you may end up with a token representation. What we need are results and the results depend not only on the capacity of the leader, but also on what systems are in place around her or him in terms of institutions that are credible, and separation of powers between the judiciary and the administration. The context really impacts on how a country performs in terms of gender, in terms of “leave no one behind”, in terms of marginalization.


We’ve had five Prime Ministers in Mauritius since independence, and all of them have been men. Even if you have only recently been posted here, is the country ready to have a woman Prime Minister?  

I can see that Mauritius is an inspiration for Africa. Looking at the “Ease of Doing business”, you have moved quickly in one year, from 2019 to 2020, I believe. The Democracy Index just came out, and you are at the top, even though you’ve slipped a little bit. You look at other indicators, and you’re at the top of the list. No country can top these lists if it does not have a strong human resource, human capital. So, by logic, you have very strong, capable women here. The question is how do we nurture them? How do we support them? How do we mentor them?


I have no doubt that in the future, you will have a woman leader. They are already there. The big question is how they want to position themselves.


And what is your assessment of gender balance in Mauritius, at the professional and economic levels?

I am new here, but it just seems that there is a concern about women dropping out of the work force They are still especially under-represented in STEM subjects. Globally, women account for just 22 per cent of professionals working in artificial intelligence and 28 per cent of engineering graduates. However, at the UN, we recognize that the full and equal participation and leadership of women and girls in the science and technology communities is more important than ever. Tackling some of the greatest challenges of the Agenda for Sustainable Development – from improving health to combating climate change – will rely on harnessing all talent. The jobs for the future for Mauritius are in economic diversification, circular economy, FinTech and digitalization. It is not a classic route where you go from A-level to Baccalaureate and onwards. I know we need doctors and lawyers. We will continue to have them, but the jobs of the future are also through the polytechnics, and this where we have a lot of opportunities to involve women, to think about alternate options.
This is where we need to start investing in girls. So, already at the age of 10 or 11, you can start by inspiring them, by creating that curiosity and enthusiasm.


When you look at the demographic of this country, it’s an ageing population. It’s not like mainland Africa, where you have over 60% of the population in the range of 20-25 years old. Here, we have an ageing population and it is not getting any younger because the fertility rate has also gone down.


If you look at the health sector alone, what should happen is a paradigm shift, because the burning issue is now the non-communicable diseases. That requires a paradigm shift in terms of geriatric care, a care economy… That, by definition, already creates new job sectors for the youth.


If you look at the geostrategic position of this country, it is a gateway to Africa and Asia. There are a lot of opportunities that come with it in terms of the service industry, digital, connectivity, and also in terms of trade.


COVID-19 has also taught us, with supply shocks, how in one year, you can lose 15% of GDP and tumble from a high income country to an upper middle income country. But it has also taught us that crises, unfortunately, are not gender neutral. We need to make sure that women fully participate in the economy of the country and address the challenges that they face. I am happy to note that Mauritius has a gender strategy and also an action plan to curb the issue of gender-based violence.


How is the response to the SDG Investor Map so far?

 The future is really about how the business community can play a bigger role in terms of the sustainability agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We just launched the SDG Investor Mapping and it has provided the ‘raison d’être’ and evidence for the business sector to understand that applying the sustainable criteria, applying the green criteria doesn’t mean that you are losing out on profit, doesn’t mean that you are doing social services, but you are increasing the potential profit of the future.


It has been enthusiastically received by the private sector, and it also means, at the same time, that the government also has to do its job in terms of de-risking. There is already a good collaboration between the private sector and the government, and this is a collaboration that needs to continue. There is also the issue of matching skills.


The Secretary General of the UN recently launched the SDG Stimulus Package, which is intended to address the vulnerabilities of countries, including the SIDS (Small Island Developing States). We must not forget that although Mauritius is an upper middle income country, it is at the forefront of the climate emergency. Because it is a SIDS country and an upper middle income country, many people forget that everything is more expensive here. Servicing your debt is more expensive, building infrastructure is more expensive, importing food is more expensive, exporting food is more expensive.


So, we have our own vulnerabilities here and the SDG financial Stimulus Package is also intended to make sure that we help countries, including the SIDS, to address their financing.


The Stimulus Package intends to unblock around USD 500 million a year just by looking at three angles: How to help them have more longer term financing, help multilateral development banks to be more cognizant of their situation, so that the terms of financing are better, and also to have better drawing rights, that take into context and respond to issues of disaster.


The UN is working with member States in developing an MVI, which is the Multidimensional Vulnerability index, and this index addresses some of the issues of Mauritius. Because you do well, you are not eligible to concessional financing, and it’s a catch-22 situation. The MVI is intended to go beyond the GNI (Gross National Income), because the concessional financing is linked to the Gross National Income per capita, and if you are a High Income country, you are not eligible.


The MVI goes well beyond the GNI and we can say, “look, we have our own vulnerabilities”.  It allows countries like Mauritius to get the financing that they need to address climate issues and other vulnerabilities.


You seem to advise a focus on MVI…

My mandate right now is related to two SIDS countries. I am responsible, as UN Resident Coordinator, for Mauritius and Seychelles. I go and say to my development partners, as well as the UN agencies, that we all have the corporate strategies, that we all have our Africa strategy, but are they tailored to the context and special needs of SIDS countries? The particularities are different. Generally, when you talk about SIDS, they are at the forefront of the climate emergency. They are accountable for 0.2 percent only, and the MVI is something that is intended to take into account their particular vulnerabilities, going beyond the GNI. Given its observer role at the G20, Mauritius can be the voice of the SIDS countries to make sure that they champion what the SIDS’ issues are, in terms of their specific vulnerabilities as island countries, ensure that these issues are heard, are lobbied for and that there is a consensus. There is no better platform than the G20 to discuss such SIDS-specific issues and make much progress in that regard. In fact, I understand that the current international financial architecture, namely debt resolution and the global financial safety net, is currently being discussed at the level of the G20.



Is there a particular issue which Mauritius can focus on and voice out at the G20?

I think that financing is a big issue. In most countries, especially since COVID-19 and Ukraine, and the impact they have had on rising inflation, debt servicing has become a big issue. The issue of access to climate financing is also suddenly big on the agenda.


Adaptation is one thing, but it costs money. So how do you ensure that the financing architecture doesn’t take money from one pocket and put it in another pocket? This is always a challenge, especially with the war in Ukraine.


The World Bank and the IMF have come out with a global projection. It’s not good. I think that this is where, within the auspice of the Alliance of Small Island Countries, Mauritius has a real opportunity to make sure that the messaging they are doing is consultative. What we have advised and discussed with the government is that it is an opportunity for Mauritius to really ramp up the discussions, via the Alliance of Small Island Countries as well as via the Indian Ocean Commission, which Mauritius is chairing this year.


Let us now talk about food security and its importance within the SDGs.

There was a study done where they have tried to assess which SDG has the most impact across other SDGs and which SDG has the least impact. And we found that SDG 2 has the most impact on other SDGs. It has been considered as one of the big pillars by addressing food security and food production.


We see food security as a catalyser for other SDGs. When you talk about food security, you are talking about green economy, blue economy, the ocean, jobs and certainly, economy.  I refer to what I said earlier about jobs of the future.


There is also a debate on self-sufficiency in Mauritius. How far is it a relevant one?

It is relevant, but I think there also needs to be a bit of innovation around it. You are a small island country of 1.25 million people. Is it really realistic for the country to produce everything? No. In my opinion, it’s not realistic that the country produces everything, but what we can do is that we can reduce that dependency by further strengthening the value chain and capturing the value chain locally in terms of production along the value chain. That gives you a leap ahead, and it also allows you to create jobs.


We can do a lot concerning food security by applying innovation, but also by being a bit more horizontal in terms of how we can tap in it to create synergies between households.


But going beyond that, I think that in terms of food security, the Africa Free Trade Continental Agreement is a big deal for Africa, including for Mauritius, in how we benefit from it. Often, the Africa Free Trade Continental Agreement is seen as being for mainland Africa.


However, it’s a question of how we strengthen the supply chain. It doesn’t have to be about trading in final goods. It can be intermediate goods and products. For small countries, from the economy of scale perspective, you need to start trading in intermediate goods and services.


Regarding Mauritius, much progress is said to have been achieved in the last 55 years, since it became an independent country. At the level of the UN, which area do you think we now need to focus on?

For the UN, the ‘Leave No One Behind’ agenda is the highest one on our radar, as well as the climate resilience agenda. The ‘Leave No One Behind’ agenda is really about ensuring women, youth, and groups that are not sufficiently represented are not economically left behind. So, resilience for us is about making sure every single pocket of the country and every single pocket of the population get the same opportunity and are invested in. Often, it requires a bit of targeting and this is true in any country. Progressive targeting is important to make sure that everybody moves and benefits at the same pace.


The climate agenda is also very important, because for us, it is clear that global issues are amplified in island countries. So, for that reason, helping countries to be more resilient is also about what I said earlier in regard to the economic diversification and ensuring that everyone in your population benefits from the opportunities and is invested in.


You already have a very strong social system, where you have free education and health, but it has its limits because it puts a lot of pressure on the budget. So, what we need to do is to make sure that the system is geared to making the growth more progressive so that people can stand for themselves and are economically strong and educated. The human capital angle is very important for us. In fact, at the UN, we always say that by investing in human capital, you are really investing in your long term economic competitivity. If you don’t have a population which is educated and healthy, and capacitated in the job that you want in the future, your economic competitivity itself, as a nation, is going to suffer.


What would your recommendations be in regard to the fact that we have an ageing population? 

The ageing population, in itself, presents its own opportunities such as the silver and care economy. But it also puts a lot of pressure on the economy. That’s why we need to invest in the youth of today so that they don’t leave the country. We must create opportunities for them, and create the environment, including the educational environment, so that they are able to respond to the future needs of the economy. That’s why I keep coming back to the issue of youth and the jobs of the future.


We are in the process of developing the new cooperation framework with the government which will provide the over-arching strategy and plan for achieving the SDGs. As part of this process, we have engaged in a foresight exercise to get a sense of a vision for where the country is going – and what kind of concrete steps are required in terms of planning, budget, investments and human capital to address the challenges of the ageing population in Mauritius, and unlock the opportunities with the silver economy.


Where does technology fit in the UN strategy? 

I think technology is cross-cutting. To make progress on any SDG, there are some elements that are critical, like gender. Institutional governance, governance across the board, is a means as well as an end. Technology, there is no doubt, is also one of the aspects that can create inequality. For this reason, I think that we need to invest in the youth, the population and the institutions so that they can adapt.


One challenge is of course the issue of misinformation and hate, and these can also get amplified. We need to have very strong regulations in terms of how to manage that.


In terms of the jobs of the future, technology is something that allows you to work more remotely. There’s no need to be physically present. The challenges and limitations of geography are also something that is not there when it comes to technology. Any Mauritian can be anywhere and working, or any person or any vendor or any service provider can be anywhere, and working effectively. But that requires good regulatory framework and also clarity and coordination, and partnership on multiple fronts, whether it is the private sector, the public sector or just government. This is where the dialogue needs to continue. I think it’s very good to have this.


BIZweek is well situated to foster a platform for a coordinated dialogue between the government and the private sector. It’s already there, but I think it gives a lot of visibility to that partnership and we are really happy to ensure that you know that in all we do, we always keep the private sector at the forefront, particularly as a strong catalyser for the sustainable agenda. That’s where the jobs are and they are the ones who are going to execute the greening and the systematic agenda.


At the COP 27, Mauritius won the NDC innovative prize and that was in the tourism sector. I really think more needs to be done to ramp up the youth engagement in terms of innovation, because they have the ideas and us all, the oldies and the goldies, have the money. In Chad for example, when I was head of the UNDP, we established the innovation hub. It was a virtual hub and the kind of ideas they came up with were really fantastic.


This interview is being published on the International Women’s Day. What is your message to all the women of the world?

First of all, I want to say women, girls can do anything. I think that there is no limit to what we can achieve and to what we can do. Often, we think that there is a ceiling, that there is a glass wall, but the glass wall at the level of the UN has long been broken. We are still waiting for a woman to be the Secretary General though, so there’s still some work left to be done.

At the level of Mauritius and Seychelles, I am happy to see that the resident heads of agencies here are all women. We have the majority of the diplomatic ambassadors who are women. What I want to say is that we want to inspire girls by doing well, because we are role models for them. It’s an opportunity for us to ensure that girls understand that they have everything it takes within themselves. You talked about the digital age; you won’t believe how capacitated they have become through digital social media platforms. You see equal engagement by girls and boys, even though we do have the aspect of safety and security, which we have to ensure through a legal framework.

As long as women and men are not equally treated, championed and supported, it’s not a society that is sustainable or resilient. This is the message that we can say as a fundamental human right, and it is in every constitution. There is no constitution that says men are more equal than women. It is the interpretation of what is set that has always been the problem.

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