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Profile: Wangari Maathai

Author(s):
International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
February 2006
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Development requires a holistic approach, says Kenyan Nobelist

In 2004, when the Nobel Committee awarded Kenya’s Wangari Maathai its Peace Prize, it cited “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.” The committee made special mention of her work in founding the Green Belt Movement, which mobilized African women to plant more than 30 million trees, and her courageous stand against political oppression. Maathai, commended for combining “science, social commitment, and active politics,” is a member of parliament and Deputy Minister of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife. She spoke with Lynn Aylward of the IMF’s Policy Development and Review Department about why she believes peace, conservation, and good governance are intertwined and so critical to development.

Aylward:How does it feel to be part of the system, when you worked outside it—maybe even against it—for so long?

Maathai: Well, it’s good to be in the system to see how it works. When I was on the outside, I was often frustrated—it took so long for it to move. Inside, you see that not all these problems and frustrations are solved! I am not in the cabinet, and the position of assistant minister in Kenya is to some extent political rather than operational. So I experience frustration within the system also. But, on balance, it is better to be inside. After all, this is the government that the people of Kenya brought to power.

Aylward:You have called for a holistic approach to development, and you say that Kenya’s Green Belt Movement exemplifies such an approach. What exactly do you mean by that?

Maathai: I like to use the traditional three-legged African stool to explain holistic development. This stool is made from a single piece of log. You chisel its three legs at once, so that you have a stable foundation. I compare the legs to the three pillars of government. One leg is the sustainable development of resources and equitable distribution of the same. The second leg is good governance, which allows for the sustainable development and equitable distribution of resources. And the third leg is peace—the deliberate working for peace within and among countries. If people are stable and secure, they can innovate, create wealth, and develop themselves and their resources. But if one of these legs is unstable or even missing, then resources, people, and relations among peoples are exploited.

Aylward:Is there any truth to the stereotype that, since you are an environmentalist, a liberal, and a proponent of sustainable development, you don’t particularly like or trust the private sector?

Maathai: No. It gets back to the stool. When the three pillars are there, then the private sector can thrive and create jobs for people. But when there is, for example, bad governance, it creates insecurity, which is bad for the investor and keeps investment away or allows resources to be exploited in an unsustainable fashion.

Aylward:What are the roots of the Green Belt Movement?

Maathai: In 1974, I was president of the Kenyan Association of University Women and the Committee of Women of Kenya and was teaching at the University of Nairobi. I was preparing for the very first UN Conference on Women, to be held in Mexico in 1975, and had in mind focusing on the sharp discrimination that academic women faced in Kenya. But the women I was meeting through the Conference on Women were raising very basic issues, such as needing enough firewood to prepare meals for their families, or growing tea and coffee only to see their husbands receive the income from their small holdings and share it at their pleasure.

These realizations gave birth to the Green Belt Movement. Planting trees may seem simplistic, but it solved many of the women’s problems: trees could provide wood for fuel, address soil erosion and deforestation, provide substitute food supplies for crops that had been supplanted by commercial farming, generate income, and address poverty. I immediately connected the women’s initial complaints with the environment. Their complaint about the lack of firewood made me remember my own childhood, when there was no exposed soil except where land was being prepared for cultivation. That memory inspired my first book, The Naked Earth.

Aylward: Much has been made of the fact that the Green Belt Movement also helped empower women.

Maathai: Yes, but I learned something about that. For our first tree-planting exercise, I was able to have a forestry agent come and teach the women how to plant trees. But he came with many trucks and a back-hoe, assistants, and a range of grades of soil material, from the finest sand to little pebbles. To be honest, it was overwhelming, and these were not supplies that the women could replicate. I learned a lesson then about using technologies that are too complicated.

Aylward:Despite this rocky beginning, the movement thrived. In interviews, you have tried to draw some attention away from the fact that the prize was given to the first African woman recipient and focus more on the fact that it was given to an environmentalist. Can you comment?

Maathai: I really applaud the Nobel Committee for recognizing the connection between the environment, governance, and peace. A country concerned about the welfare of its citizens—present and future—is usually democratic and concerned about the rights of its people. Citizens can greatly assist their government, too. It is again an example of the stool and interconnections: to achieve the common good of a sound environment, strong national governance, and international peace, citizens need to demonstrate individual responsibility, and the government, political accountability.

Aylward: But some commentators suggest that a sustainable environment is a luxury. Do you have some sympathy for their argument that it is better to build a big factory, accept some environmental degradation, increase employment, and worry about a pristine environment later, when more people have enough to eat?

Maathai: As we speak, Kenya is importing timber. Fifty years ago, when I was a child, Kenya had large tracts of forest, even though only one-third of the land is arable. We had large forests, but we opted to clear them. We could have replanted trees, but we did not. In two generations, we needed to import timber—some of it now coming from the Congo. Maybe in three to four generations, the Congo’s forests will be finished, too. Where is the luxury in that? Taking care of the environment isn’t a luxury; it’s the necessity that makes luxury possible.

Aylward:There is a very active debate in academic economic circles about whether international aid works—that is, does it produce economic growth and poverty reduction? The debate is motivated in large part by disappointment with the past 50 years of experience with aid. Some say aid works if governance is good in the recipient country or if institutions are strong. Others say you must strip out emergency relief—which should be provided but should not be expected to produce growth—or allow for a longer lag time for aid to have an impact on health care and education. From your experience, does aid work?

Maathai: It can. It should. But not in the face of the constraints you mention. In my 1995 speech to the UN Conference on Women in Beijing, I used the term “bottleneck” and I mentioned corruption. I was strongly criticized—10 years ago was too early to mention corruption! But it was important to draw attention to the need for democratic space to energize the local people and to have good institutions. Aid works, but it doesn’t do all the work for you. I can get money to plant trees—but money can’t plant a tree; people do that. And money can’t stop soil from washing away—the tree that an individual plants does that. It makes me sad that, despite some progress, I could write the same speech all over again today. All the money in the world will not produce results in a situation of bad governance.

All the money in the world will not produce results in a situation of bad governance…. I long for the day when we have made more progress in addressing the governance shortfalls that donors say stymie the effective use of funds from debt relief.

—Wangari Maathai

Aylward: What are your feelings about the IMF?

Maathai: Every time I want to criticize the IMF or the World Bank or the G8 [Group of Eight] countries, I am confronted with the realities on the ground. I look forward to seeing studies that show that debt relief is working. For example, I am hoping we see some good results come out of debt relief and good governance in Tanzania if it follows the rules.

I was at Gleneagles, where I was humbled to find myself with the Bonos of this world. Bono cares deeply about the poverty he encounters when he travels, and I think it is painful for him to hear from the IMF and the World Bank and the G8 that debt relief won’t necessarily reach the people he cares about.

I long for the day when we have made more progress in addressing the governance shortfalls that donors say stymie the effective use of funds from debt relief. Then I can critique the IMF, the World Bank, and the G8. Then I can say that these institutions do not have a human face.

Aylward:How has your Nobel year been, and what projects are on your radar screen, in addition to your parliamentary responsibilities?

Maathai: The year since I was awarded the Nobel Prize has been extremely busy. But I recently looked back and realized that it was a year when I was never in a bad mood, not once!

Let me mention two projects. Eleven heads of state have joined to protect the Congo ecosystem. They have signed a treaty to do so, and I am taking these governments at their word. They say we need resources, but they want to avoid the pitfalls of mismanagement. So whatever resources they receive, including, I hope, some debt relief linked to environmental protection, would be channeled into a trust fund to be managed by an independent body. The hope is that it would deal with logging—legal and illegal—and promote the rights of the indigenous people who live in the forest.

At the Second Heads of State Summit for Conservation and Sustainable Management of Central Africa’s Forest Ecosystems in February 2005, I accepted an invitation to be the roving ambassador for the Congo Basin, advocating for the sustainable management of this world heritage site.

The African Union has also asked me to help create an advisory body that would consist of two representatives of civil society from each member country. This is a great step—bringing in civil society to advise the Union and mobilize at the national level.

Perhaps the main thing I have learned is what a huge constituency there is for the Peace Prize and how many people seem energized by it. I meet with schoolchildren who want to plant a tree with me, with college students who want to hear more about governance—even with men who want to tell me their stories! And I believe the awarding of the prize sent a message to the girl child of Africa. I hope she thinks, “If Wangari could do it, I can do it too!”

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