Interviews

Prof. Babatunde Osotimehin Interview in New York in September 2015

What is your assessment of the General Assembly so far?

I think it’s gone very well. Indeed I think, leading up to this, we’ve had a great collaboration because to get all the member states to agree to the Sustainable Development Agenda and also agree to the Addis Ababa Action Agenda was quite something.
What we have now is a transformative agenda that if we implement well will actually lift many millions of people out of poverty and would be inclusive and also ensure the rights of the people.

Looking at the SDG goals, do you think even though they are expansions of the MDGs, are they too lofty? Are they realisable?

They are more than expansions of the MDGs. When you look at the MDGs which are eight goals, there are specific things in what we have now which we didn’t have before in the MDGs. For example human rights, for an example climate; for an example governance, rule of law, all of those things were not there. And then when we look at what we put together this time we are talking of sustainable cities, we are talking of migration. So there is a larger more comprehensive agenda. Plus, because of the way we anticipate this to be implemented, partnerships is critical is key, because this is a trillion dollar agenda and governments, private sectors, civil society, everybody has to pitch in for us to be able to do it effectively. So if we drill it down and you look at how this would work and how we would do it, it is about making sure we can mobilise on the ground in every country of the world all of the actors to support the government. So, it is a different agenda entirely.

Looking at Nigeria’s representation at this event, would you say Nigeria is adequately represented to get the best leverage out of a global forum like this?

Well, I think that given where we are in our transition, I think the President put together a team and I think that they have attended most of the strategic meetings. Of course if there was a cabinet, it would have been different because then we would have had interest groups coming to specific themes which would have you know, been a lot more. But it is the beginning of a process and this is going to go on for a long time. So, the way I anticipate would happen is that once the cabinet is in place, ministers would latch on to the specific things in the SDGs that relate and pertain to their pre-occupations. But I think what is most important for me is that we have the President who has an overall view of it because the SDGs is about integration, the SDGs is about making sure that everybody works together. So maybe that is the message to take away. So when people are inaugurated they must be told that we can’t afford anymore to have health just doing its own, education doing its own, water resources doing its own, they must come together and work together.
Let me take about the issue of maternal mortality which is close to my heart. To reduce maternal mortality, 60 per cent of the factors are outside the health sector; they are about transportation, they about power, they about water supply, about ability to communication, care givers, all of those things are what matters. So if we don’t all come together…because they are issues now they are not just interventions. You know the issue of being able to have a child who can go through school and can come out feeling fulfilled and reaching his or her full potential is the project we have and not just about enrolment at school. It is about the child going to school, being able to go safely, it is about nutrition, you know there are too many things there. I think that the job we have now is ability to transform the people’s thinking to be able to do that effectively.

You mean at the continental, global or country level……

But I think what would matter most is what happens in the country because the resources for this sustainable development agenda, most if it would be resources within the country. And I can tell you that the anticipation and I think the vision is that the private sector for an example would play a major role not just corporate social responsibility but actually being part of planning and implementation and being held accountable to it. So if for an example you decide to put an emphasis on education, they must be part of it, they must provide the inputs, they must make sure that those who go to school stay in school they must also ensure that they give them the skills that enables to be able to find jobs in their companies. I think that is really where it is going. So the accountability profile is important.

In Nigeria, we know that inequality is a big issue especially in the Northern part of the country. Now looking at the targets, what available spaces or loopholes can we use to our advantage to address this problem?

Inequality is everywhere, in the South in the North, it is everywhere. We cannot speak of an equitable country where some people have such conspicuous consumption and there are people who cannot even get access. And that is not a Northern phenomenon, that is a Nigerian and an African phenomenon. It is a global phenomenon. In this country you go to the streets you see it. So inequality is a major issue, so this agenda seeks to be inclusive, seeks also to provide equity. It is difficult but we have to do it. So what I expect is that if there one big thing which we haven’t done well in the past it is about data. So even though Nigeria will say they have 174 million people, those are estimates, not everybody in Nigeria is registered, not everybody in Nigeria can be traced, not everybody in Nigeria can actually come and say I am a Nigerian. We have to solve that problem, when we solve that problem, it would be easy to disaggregate data. It would be easy to say, you know, this is where the problem is, because we have not reached this place. And then monitoring would be easy. If we decide for an example that we want to reach all the farmers in Nigeria, we have no database to do it, we don’t even know where they are. So we need to improve on our data system considerably so vital statistics, all of those, has to be. And I think that is the tool we need for implementation, and for monitoring because that is the only way we can hold people accountable. Because if I come to your state, and in your state you say you have 8 million children who are supposed to go to school, can you account for all of them, which school are they going to? What level are they? What standard of education are you promising? How are the teachers performing? Those are things we need to know. So it is not just about throwing money, it is about efficiencies, it is about accountability.

Looking at Goal 1, target 1, sir, which talks about eradicating poverty for all peoples by the year 2030, do you think that is realisable? Is it one of the hard targets?

You see, that is an aspiration, you cannot totally eradicate poverty. What you can do is you can reduce poverty to its minimum because as we speak if we suddenly have earthquakes as we did in Nepal and peoples’ incomes and livelihoods suddenly disappear they become poor immediately. It is not their doing but that is what it is. We have to respond to that, and the international community can do some, but what we are talking about is the system being resilient enough to respond and do what they have to do. So there would be periods in the world where this would happen and I can tell you it is going to get worse because climate change is a reality. So all the cyclones, all of those things are going to keep happening. I was in Japan when Vanuatu happened and I was looking at it, it just wiped away the entire community. Now, that is not something we can control but that is something that is going to keep happening and the people in those circumstances are going to be in the same situation as you have described. So we will reduce poverty, we will minimise it, we will try and make sure we put systems in place to respond to it. But you know, eradicating it, it’s not like malaria, it is difficult.

Sir, integration is key to development. In Africa for example, we have issue of lack of integration between the countries between the hubs. For example Nigeria is key in West Africa, Kenya is key in East Africa and South Africa is key in the northern hemisphere and in North Africa we have Egypt. Now how does this issue of integrating within the regions affect what you do at the global level. Like on this issue of poverty, the other agencies are supposed to complement what you do; does it really happen in reality? How would that help to make things happen faster?

You see the reality of international development is that they cannot be too hurried. We can aspire for it, we can determine that this is what is expected. But the human factor sometimes plays into it and we never quite get the traction and the forward proportion that you want. But I know for a fact that roads are being constructed across Africa now, I know for a fact that ICT infrastructure is growing across Africa; I know for a fact that many people are looking inwards to sell their products. So I think what we have to do is to continue to encourage them to begin to sell because inter-Africa trade is what is going to sustain Africa. You know when you have one billion people buying from each other, you don’t need anybody else. And I think that is something which the regional commissions like ECOWAS would have to continue to push and then the EU also would have to step up in doing it. I think it is key and I think it is going to take a lot of political will and cooperation.

Whenever your name is mentioned people will remember the effort you made in creating awareness on the fight against HIV/AIDS prevalence. But these days when you look at the statistics you would be skeptical and the awareness is very low compared to before. How will you rate the awareness now and what can be done to raise the tempo?

I don’t live in Nigeria so I cannot comment on what takes place in Nigeria. But what I can tell you is that globally we are committed to getting to zero level. There are specific things we can do. The one that is closest to achievement is preventing mother-to-child transmission. That we can do in a very short while because we know what to do and how we can do it. There is an interception between those who do production and those who look after pregnant women; we can do that. Now the other rising issue in Nigeria and other parts of Africa is the issue of young people, particularly adolescent girls. They are the ones who are getting to know, so we need to raise the bar and try to get to talk to them. I think a condom marketing body has to be formed because that is the only one thing I know that can prevent it apart from of course abstinence by people which we can preach but it doesn’t work for men.
Now the thing about it which also is an interesting thing for me, when we look at the young adolescent girls who get infected, and then you look at the adolescent boys of their age, the boys are not getting infected. The infection is coming from older men who are chasing little girls. So we need to appeal to these older men to please use condom. I think there are strategic ways to bring it down and we are committed to it.

Nigeria as a country is very good in policy formulation, but implementation has always been the problem. How can Nigeria get out of the woods in implementing policies?

I am glad that Nigeria has been able to conduct a free and fair election in a manner which Africa has never seen. Once you are able to put in those democratic institutions and you have watchdogs like the media and civil society, they will start asking questions, because it is not enough for you to accept and sometimes domesticate international policies without implementing them. We should begin to see an evolution of civil society and the media who will hold government to account on instruments not implemented. Once you start this within a democratic system, people will listen. So it is about monitoring, it is about asking the appropriate questions. You don’t have to confront because we are all working towards the same goal.

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