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Intro: Hello, and welcome to The Good Council, the podcast of the World Future Council. In each episode, we’ll highlight current challenges and policy solutions. And we’ll also take you on a journey of inspiring stories. Listen in to another of our intergenerational dialogues from around the globe.
My name is Annika, I’m 25 years old, and I’m a consultant at the World Future Council. In this episode, I’m speaking with Maria Fernanda Espinosa, who is one of the Councillors of the World Future Council. On 5 June 2018, she was elected as President of the United Nations 73rd General Assembly, as only the fourth woman to hold that office in UN history.
Maria Fernanda has more than 20 years of experience in international negotiations and multilateral issues, such peace, sustainable development, women’s rights, and biodiversity. She was a Permanent Representative to the UN in New York and later in Geneva. She has also served as Minister of Natural Heritage and Minister of Foreign Affairs on two occasions.
Today, I’m delighted to learn more about her as a person, as well as her work and mission in life, including her amazing engagement within the World Future Council!
Annika: Good morning, Maria, how are you?
Maria: I’m very well and very pleased to be with you, Annika!
Annika: Well, I’m very pleased that you are here and that you’re taking the time out of your very busy schedule. It’s a pleasure to have this conversation, thanks so much.
Maria: No, I have to thank you.
Annika: Thank you.
So let’s start with a brief look into your childhood. What was that like? And in what way has it shaped who you are?
Maria: Well, first of all, I grew up with three brothers and in that, I think was very important to shape my personality. It was I had a mother, she of course, was my role model, very independent, very strong, very much in charge, self-educated, because in my mom’s generation, and women didn’t go to university, they just got married and had children, but she prepared, self-educated herself. And she was an independent, a very successful businesswoman. And then very much in charge of our household, even though there was very much like a male accent—my dad, very traditional, conventional, and my three brothers. So the team was my mom and I and, she made sure that I had the strength, the independence, and the voice, with my three brothers, of course, but in the family and outside the family as well. So I would say my childhood was a happy childhood.
A little tough on the school front, because at the time, when I grew up, there was no idea about what today we call bullying. And at the time, we didn’t have that category. But, uh, now that I—you know, I think about the past, in a way, I realized that, yes, I was subject to bullying, because I was different: I had a lot of freckles, red hair and I was left-handed. And so I wasn’t—when you are a kid, the only thing you want is to be exactly the same as your peers and classmates. So I had this problem of writing with my left hand. And I was different, you know, my physically different because of freckles and I had all kinds of nicknames and all of that. But my mom was extremely supportive. At when I grew up, there was this idea that writing with your left hand was a bad habit, and that you need you needed to fix it and use your right hand, that was the right thing to do. And my mom was extremely, extremely strict at school saying, “My daughter’s left-handed, just let her do and don’t force her to use her right hand”. These are things that, you know, may appear unimportant, but they were, and I think all these elements shaped my personality as a as a very strong person. And, and I think it had a, you know, a strong impact on my future and in my career and life choices.
Annika: I can imagine. I would have never guessed but then you’d never know these things about someone else until you ask great, right! But what a story, looking at where you are now and who you are. And it’s a really powerful lesson for everyone who’s listening and maybe goes through the same struggles in their childhood.
So, if you look at your really successful career in politics and international diplomacy, is there anything you’d like to tell your younger self?
Maria: Well, I think one of the moments in my life when I was growing up, that were extremely important for my future is—very early, I don’t remember how old I was, my mom, something happened and she came and said, “listen, no one is going to knock on your door and tell you, here you have this opportunity. You have to fight for it, you have to shape your own future in a way”. And in I think that was so transforming in a way, I always knew that I had to fight for my dreams, and to follow my principles and values and to put all my passion and energy on the things that I wanted to do and change and transform. And when I was a child, my favorite, you know, game to play—very strange!—but I had my cousins and my brothers. So I would always organize school. And I was playing as if I was a teacher, teaching things, you know, and I think what this was also a landmark in my life in terms of being able to share, to learn, to interact, that I think was very important for the advocacy work I started very early in my career, supporting indigenous peoples on their rights and struggles; being an activist on the environmental front, in a very early stages of my professional career as well. And I started working and living with indigenous communities of the Ecuadorian Amazon for a long time. Then I went to work for IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature], I became the regional director and I started to really shape my international career.
But I really started, you know, touching the ground living in the Amazon, learning amazing things in worldviews, from indigenous people, especially Indigenous women. And then I started to go into different scales, working at the national level, then internationally, and that also shaped my diplomatic career. But I think it’s always important to go back to the roots to remind yourself over and over again, what are you, what is that you’re fighting for? For the dignity of people, for human security, for planetary security, for a different way of shaping our societies and the way we relate to nature, the way we relate to our environment as a global commons. And so I think that it’s a process, nothing happens by a miracle, especially for us, for women.
I think you have to craft your own life and your own future, and be very mindful that we still live in a world that is not gender equal, that has transexual inequalities, when you’re a woman from the global south, and a woman of color. And it’s, I would say, a tougher struggle. But it’s worthwhile. You have to pursue your dreams. I’m convinced.
Annika: Thank you. You touched on many issues there that I’d like to get back to in the course of the interview—fantastic teaser: inequalities, how it is being a woman on the international stage—but first I’d like to ask is, you joined the World Future Council in 2012. Why did you join the World Future Council and why do you care about the rights of future generations?
Maria: Well, 2012—I was then the Minister of cultural and natural heritage, a working a very, very hard to ensure that our policies and our interventions on the ground brought together culture and nature and that we basically, through the right policies, erased these artificial wall between culture and nature in a way and it’s strongly working to recover our heritage as a nation, and the inextricable connection between our cultural diversity with our biological diversity. So I was working on that as a minister, and I received the invitation from the World Future Council. And I really was fascinated by the work of the Council for two reasons.
First of all, this emphasis on assessing, looking, exploring at right policies for sustainable development and how the right policies, the right legislation, can really bring transformation and change in a country, but beyond a country. So, I really—this public policy, right policy approach, I really like that.
And the number two, of course, is this concept of transgenerational justice in a way. Transgenerational justice, when you are an environmentalist, it’s absolutely critical. Because this harmony between nature, the economy and politics can only happen if you think about the future generations and the legacy that you’re going to leave to future generations. So, I fell in love very quickly, with the mission, the vision of the World Future Council, and I accepted. And I’ve been so privileged that I have been re-elected as a Councillor a few times now. And now very soon, I’m going to have my 10th birthday, being part of the World Future Council family, and I feel very, very proud of being part of the family being part of the mission and being part of the transformative work that the World Future Council does every day.
Annika: Well, and we are very, very lucky to have you. So, thanks so much for all the wonderful support and the engagement that we enjoy having you! In a sentence though, in being a member with the World Future Council, what do you want to change in the world?
Maria: Well, I think that the World Future Council is a very powerful instrument to bring about transgenerational justice, especially transgenerational environmental justice. But at the same time, I think it is the right setting and the right means to make sure that we contribute, even if a little bit, to empower young people to have their own voices, to be the change makers that they want to be and that they deserve to be. So basically, this contribution, to both transgenerational environmental justice, but also to work on the right policies, policy decisions, and legal scaffolds, to build a true sustainable development for all, leaving no one behind, including the younger generations, I think that’s what the World Future Council brings.
Annika: Fantastic. So, I have to ask, though, because the challenges of our time are becoming increasingly evermore complex. Could please explain how all of these issues are interconnected: climate change, the rights of young people and women, and the destruction of natural habitats and peace? How are they interconnected?
Maria: I think, Annika, we live in a world of paradox. I am always amazed to see you know, the level of technological development that humanity has reached: the new technologies, the information and communication technologies, we are more interconnected. We know more, you know, the sophistication of science. The opportunity to access knowledge and technology. So, and yet, you know, we are unable to come up with a really holistic responses to these interconnected crises. You said it well, we are living a profound I would say, crisis of culture and civilization. Because as a society, we are unable to use what we have in our hands—in terms of knowledge, science, technology—to address and solve the critical issues, the critical challenge that humanity faces. And there is a strong connection basically, when you say the climate crisis, when you say the extinction crisis, when you say the inequalities crisis, that I often say is that these are symptoms of this dysfunctional system, in a way. So basically, what we need to fix, what we need to heal is the relationship between society, the economy, politics, and nature.
And one of the problems is the disconnection between the times of politics and the times of nature. Usually a politician, a head of State and government, you think about the next elections, you don’t think about the next generations, the future generations and other future elections. And usually, the time span for policy choices, for political decision making are four or five years. The cycles of nature are longer, they do require long-term planning, long term vision, responsibility with future generations.
And I also think that we are living a very particular moment in humanity’s life because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been just a synonym of loss, of fear, of uncertainty about the future. But at the same time, it’s providing us an opportunity to build forward better, to rethink the way we as humans relate to other species, to have, you know, a true profound reconciliation, with nature. And this, you know, goes through rethinking our economy, a just start thinking about why is that we are so driven by greed, and by overconsumption. And these are issues that might seem you know, philosophical or abstract, but they are critical to fixing the path that we are shaping as humans. And I am stubborn optimist as late Kofi Annan used to say, and we are here because we can change course.
Of course, we need leadership. But you know, I’m not a person that believes in these messianic leaders that are going to come and fix everything for us. It’s shared leadership! It is exercising our role as citizens, as committed and responsible citizens, young change makers, academic scientists, the private sector, and of course, governments, but we cannot leave governments alone to fix all the problems that we are facing. Co-responsibility and co- building, I think are perhaps the keywords.
Annika: You mentioned something really interesting there. You wrote a recent article where you say, I quote, “addressing today’s inequities demands a far more comprehensive and critical assessment of underlying systemic forces. The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women, for example, is a direct result of deeply entrenched patriarchal rules and norms that perpetuate segmented structures in the home, in the labor market and in the workplace”, and it ties in with the answer you gave before. Because it’s how we structure societies, isn’t it, that really is one of the root causes for all the inequities that we’re facing. But how can we change these systemic forces?
Maria: Well, as I said, in writing that article that you are citing Annika, basically there is no you know, the golden bullet, the one kind of answer and response. I think that many things that you need to tackle at the same time. One is for example, the inequities in income and opportunity. And for that, the right to a quality education that is inclusive, that has a gender perspective embedded; a part of what we learn everyday is so important, the way you grow up, family and the way you set up priorities and values in life is important. And not only the issue of education, but the issue of preconception and of prejudice, and the things that you naturalize: you feel that it is natural to have women having certain roles in society and men having, you know, other different roles; that it is natural, when you have the same qualifications than a perfect male professional, it is okay that you receive a lower salary, it’s fine—it is not fine! And in basically, we part of the role we have as citizens is just to say no, is just to raise our voices. And the same goes when we are looking at you know the most vulnerable in society, they have to have a voice, they have to be empowered.
And let’s think about any dysfunction in society: look at climate change, and look at the depletion of critical ecosystems, look at pandemics such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Who suffer the most? Of course, women and girls because of the staggering domestic violence because of lockdowns, etc.
When you look at the other health workforce, 73% of the health workforce, are women, at the forefront. But when you look at these national COVID response high level committees—or however they’re called—80% are men. So, men take the decisions, but women are at the forefront giving the service the attention, taking care of patients, etc, etc. And when you look at what is happening with women with disabilities, and the pandemic: women and these abilities and the impacts of climate change. So, I think that we are not in shortage of data or information of understanding and knowing that there is a there is a systemic inequality, multiple inequalities, transactional inequalities that cannot be naturalized, that need to be at the forefront, when we take decisions at all levels, within our family at the domestic level, in public life, in legislation design, in public policy. In the work we do as advocates, as concerned citizens simply, and we have to raise our voices and just really be very serious about not letting it become part of the normal.
Annika: Right, and you mentioned the violence against women. That’s also a huge problem in many societies around the world. The World Future Council had a Future Policy Award on that, which you were a big part of, by organizing also a meeting of women in the embassy in Geneva, you also supported the World Future Council on the FPA on youth empowerment. Can I ask you; how can they actually help?
Maria: Well, I think that these Future Policy Awards are perhaps one of the shining outcomes of the footprint, I would say, of the World Future Council. I think it not only has a value because you acknowledge a country’s people, local governments that are doing the right thing in terms of sustainable development, but it also sets the example the good practice in order to be shared with others. And I would say when you look at the bank of the policies that have won the award, basically, you have a collection of good practices that I’m sure that have had an impact in other regions, in other places with other stakeholders that have learned from the good policies that the World Future Council is acknowledging. So basically, what I think it’s one of the footprints, of the one of the identity contributions of the World Future Council.
Annika: So, in your work with the World Future Council, you are also one of the Co-Chairs of the Commission on Rights of Children and Youth. And you were also on the panel at the launch event of the world future councils Youth Forum, Youth:Present—which this intergenerational dialogue between you me is also a part of—what do you think about the activities, and political and civic participation of young people today?
Maria: Well, I cannot even imagine a to have a collective responsibility for improving and reshaping our world, for building forward better, for reconciling and making peace with nature, without the agency, without the intelligence, without the creativity of younger generations. And sometimes, you know, in my long life and career, sometimes you worry because it’s, it’s nice to have, you know, to have a young person and to tick the box and to say, “Yes, they are part of this table, dialogue, conversation, etc”. And I have learned, and I am, every day, I am more convinced that they are fundamental actors in whatever we need to do.
If you look at the younger generations, young leaders, young professionals, they are essentially interconnected. And they are creative, engaged, committed. And basically that what we need, is the food, the precondition for transformation, for improving the way we relate to each other as humans, but we relate to our environment, to our Earth system in a way. And what is challenging, I would say, is to go from tokenistic engagement of young leaders and changemakers, to naturalize that whatever decision is taken in the multilateral arena, in national decision-making, at the local level, young changemakers, young actors have to be part and parcel of the decision making. And I know how much quality, how much legitimacy, decisions that are taken in this intergenerational form have, so with it’s a win-win. And it is a precondition for successful and lasting, wise decision making.
Annika: Do you have a piece of advice that you could pass on to young people today?
Maria: Well, basically, I would say that don’t be afraid. I think audacity drive, commitment, engagement is extremely important. When you look at young people in my own region in Latin America, you see that, unfortunately, younger generations, they don’t want to get involved in politics, for example, they are afraid, because sometimes, politics and political lives, especially for women, and young women, it’s like a scary, scary choice, a scary place. It’s tough. I’m not saying that it’s not difficult, but don’t shy away from politics from, you know, being engaged from raising your voices, from being active. And really, you know, convince yourself that you are capable of shaping and crafting a better, better world—in the present and in the future.
If it’s the world of politics, if it’s the world of academia, if it’s the world of advocacy, of civil society engagement of working in the private sector, wherever you are, you have to feel that you are changemakers, that you have a responsibility, and you need to be engaged. Especially, and here I’m speaking specially to young women changemakers, we need more women in power. I have met so many in my life, and they are really making the world shake, in a way—the Greta Thunbergs of the world in a way and the more you raise your voices, I think it the better the world and world leaders are going to respond wiser, in a wiser way I would say.
Annika: Recently, you also participated at the UN Generation Equality Forum in Paris. And in advance of the event, you spoke about the need to tackle issues, like gender-based violence and inequalities that women and girls are facing. Do you know of any policy solutions that you can share with us?
Maria: Absolutely. And here, again, this paradox I was mentioning, Annika, because we are not lacking knowledge, data or understanding what is happening. The whole Generation Equality Forum was about commemorating the landmark Beijing Declaration in Platform for Action—26 years ago. And when you go back and look at the commitments or the documents that came out of Beijing, it’s clearly you know, a roadmap on gender equality, and women’s rights. And you see that there’s a huge implementation gap. Lots of words, but very little actions. And when you look at the numbers, you see, we you know, something is fundamentally wrong.
Why is that we still have 75% of world parliamentarians are men and only 25% are women and female? When you look at the pay gap between men and women, same capacity, same background, same experience—different salary. Why is it still happening, there is a pay gap, a gender pay gap of 20%. Automatically, women earn 20% less, for the same job. You know, the arithmetic of gender inequality happen almost everywhere, in all areas of public life of the economy.
How many female CEOs are there, among the 500 biggest companies worldwide? So we still need to do, and to act to use the existing policy and legal scaffolds to really make changes and societal profound changes in all levels. Political violence against women—that’s why the younger generations are so afraid to get to be engaged into formal politics, because they know that the path towards having you know, positions of power in politics have high costs for us, for women. And I speak in a you know, with a lot of experience on that front.
And basically what are the things to do: is go from words to action, improve national legislation, we still have a big space for improvement in policy and legislation at the national level, but also be very serious about the multilateral decision-making regarding gender equality. The CSW, the Commission on the Status of Women, the existing human rights treaty bodies, CEDAW, the Convention on the Rights of Women, as well. So there is a lot of space for policy improvement, for legislation improvement, but more importantly for action.
And the Generation Equality Forum was very much geared towards acting and geared towards these action Coalition’s on six fundamental issues of the of the agenda, including strengthening the feminist movements towards economic empowerment of women, and the fight against all forms of violence and discrimination.
The generation equality forum crafted a very important new instrument, which is a compact on women peace and security. The role of women in building peaceful societies, in being mediators of conflicts is extremely important. And here, the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 is a very important instrument. But again, the shorthand of all of these is: deeds, not words.
Annika: What is it like being a woman in power?
Maria: Well, first of all, when I was president of the General Assembly, I had this initiative called Women in Power. And you know, of course, I invited female heads of state and government to New York, so they could exchange their own experiences as heads of state and government, but I also made sure that they could interact with younger activists and change makers, female, in terms in a way of sort of mentoring or exchanging. And basically, to have women in power is not only about having women in Parliament’s or women heads of state and government. Exercising power in all spaces of private and public life is what is going to transform our world, it is not only waiting, you know, to see when is that I am going to be a female parliamentarian, or I’m going to be, you know, the head of state etc.
It is about exercising your power, your wisdom, and in every space of your life. And you cannot be a different self in private and public, you have to be the same person, grab the opportunities, exercise your decision-making, your capacity.
When I was appointed Minister of Defense, I still have, you know, the reactions of some newspapers in my country. And they said why is that they’re appointing a poet to this position? They completely ignored, you know, my 25 years of professional career, and, you know, being a geographer, etc. No, they just picked up because it seemed like a weakness that you’re a woman, and a people not making comments about what I did, or I said, but the way I was, for example, the way I was dressing for an event, etc.
And so, it’s a tough call, and there are higher expectations, and people are more demanding when you are a female it is true, it happens, it does happen. And there are so many women out there, trailblazers, at breaking the glass ceiling, etc. And they have to perform and you have to perform it twice as well and twice as good a