Interview with Asha-Rose Migiro, Former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations

Former Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro. UN/M. Garten

3 July 2012Asha-Rose Migiro of Tanzania took office as UN Deputy Secretary-General on 1 February 2007, and her term ended on 30 June 2012. She was the third person to occupy the post since it was established in 1997 and the first African woman to do so.

Prior to joining the UN, Ms. Migiro served as her country’s first female foreign minister, from 2006-2007. In addition to her extensive experience in government service, she also pursued a career in academia in Tanzania.

On the eve of her departure, Ms. Migiro spoke with UN News Centre about some of the challenges she faced during her tenure, as well as issues she worked closely on such as the Millennium Development Goals, the global anti-poverty targets with a 2015 deadline, and the ‘Delivering as One’ initiative launched in 2007 to test how the UN can provide more coordinated development assistance in eight pilot countries – Albania, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Pakistan, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uruguay, and Viet Nam.

UN News Centre: You are the first African woman to serve as Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. What is the significance of this?

Asha-Rose Migiro: I humbly acknowledge that fact. You know very well that here at the UN any of the issues we deal with pertain to Africa – development, peace, security, health, education – and so it is important that when you have such issues, you also have a person who can give voice to those issues. Yes, I am the first African woman to serve in this position. I feel humbled and honoured. It is also, on the other hand, a reflection of Secretary-General Ban’s commitment to Africa and to the empowerment oEvery day was an honour for me and every handshake will remain a memory. I am privileged to have been given this opportunity.f women.

Unfortunately, women are part of a marginalized group and it means that we have to be focused on what we do in these areas. We know that when you empower women, you are really empowering communities. So the work that we are doing here relates to development generally but our focus is also women. In my work I have engaged with young people, including girls, and with boys, and so my being here has also been a point of significance in the sense that the capability is there. It does not have to be that gender specific, but the fact that women and girls are marginalised means that a position like this can work as an inspiration and also as a testimony to the commitment that the United Nations has, and also the Secretary-General. So I feel privileged to serve in this capacity and what we are doing here also shows that it is also possible to have firsts and to continue to remain there.

Ms. Migiro at the opening of the thirteenth session of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD XIII).

UN News Centre: What are some of the main challenges you faced as Deputy Secretary-General?

Asha-Rose Migiro: The UN is an organization that confronts a lot of challenges and in that regard, I have met many. Of some of the most outstanding, I would like to share with you two. One of them is the challenge that we had in establishing UN Women [the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women]. It was a mammoth task to work with others, to realize the establishment of UN Women.

Before then, we had four disparate entities with inadequate funding, inadequate human resources as well, so we didn’t have much impact. So we had this responsibility of ensuring that we consolidated our work. We brought our strength together to establish UN Women. We had to deal with a whole range of stakeholders. We had to make sure we supported them to reach a consensus towards establishing UN Women. We had to support the President of the General Assembly, and because it took quite a while it was more than one President of the General Assembly we had to deal with. But we also had to do outreach, outside the UN to the civil society, to other stakeholders. This was not an easy task but at the end of the day, we managed to come to a position where we all agreed that we could move forward.

We started IUN Women – an organization, or an entity, that will be more coherent and more efficient in supporting Member States. We are pleased with the leadership of Madame [Michelle] Bachelet and we think we are now in a position where our support to Member States will be more effective.

Ms. Migiro (right) meeting with Michelle Bachelet, UN Women's Executive Director. UN/JC McIlwaine

My second challenge was dealing with the aftermath of the Abuja terrorist attack last year. When I went there I was very saddened by what I saw. There was destruction of property and some of our staff had been injured. There were people who were killed, scores of people both national and the local staff. This was a huge challenge. It was very saddening to see this type of thing. It was also a sad realization that the UN flag was no longer a cover for us. So the first thing was really to address trauma, to work with others in the system to ensure that we had a response mechanism that would address the injury, the dealing with the dead, arranging for burial, ceremonies for those who had perished… this was a huge challenge.

I had an opportunity to meet with the Nigerian authorities there to evacuate those who were injured. This was a huge challenge indeed. But at the end of the day I did see that, despite the trauma, despite the very serious concerns that staff raised in relation to security, they were ready to continue carrying out the good work that they were doing. When I came back to Headquarters, it was another reminder that we had to strengthen our system, both in terms of protection, but also in terms of dealing with the aftermath. I am glad that we have been able to reach a stage where more robust arrangements are made to address issues of security for our staff.

UN News Centre: What is your assessment of the progress made in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)?

Ms. Migiro with students during an inspection of three classrooms built with funds from the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). UN/P. Gorriz

Asha-Rose Migiro: There has been remarkable progress on the MDGs. I think one of the first things that we have to realize is that with the establishment of the MDGs as a blueprint for development, the United Nations and the international community decided to put people first. These are supposed to be at the centre of public policy, at the centre of programmes, and this has been unique because development has always to relate to the needs of the people. We have seen notable progress in addressing the question of extreme hunger. We have seen reductions in maternal and child health. We have also seen improvements when it comes to enrolment of children in school. We have seen movement towards gender parity. These are some of the advances that we have made. There has also been access to safe water for a number of people in the world.

We are still facing challenges in terms of reaching the goals by 2015 but we have made sufficient progress to give us the confidence that if we increase our support, if we increase our focus on policy that delivers for the people, we will be able to meet the targets. We do see that despite the progress that we have made in these areas which I have mentioned – health, education, access to water – we still have women and children dying from preventable causes. For women, we still have unacceptable rates of maternal mortality. For children, we have moved, for instance, in malaria from having a child die every 30 seconds to one dying every minute. That is not good at all. But it simply shows that if we scale up this support, we will be able to conquer these challenges.

But we still have to work hard on MDG 8, which is about international partnerships. We know that countries are going through difficult economic challenges. But this should not be used to affect the work that we have been doing. And we have seen progress and the challenge now really is to build on what gains we have made to ensure that by 2015 we make more progress than what we have been able to do and try to achieve some of the Goals by then.

UN News Centre: What is your assessment of the progress made in global health?

Asha-Rose Migiro: Global health is an area also which has been the focus of our work. Under the leadership of Secretary-General Ban, we have addressed a number of issues – HIV and AIDS, maternal mortality, infant mortality – and we have made some progress. But it is unacceptable that we still have children dying from malaria, a disease that is preventable. That is why we have to continue to build partnerships, to put our efforts together to address the various global challenges. We have seen that with the introduction and use of bed nets, it has been possible to reduce malaria-related deaths. We have seen that if we are more focused and we are putting in resources, we will increase access to anti-retrovirals. We have also seen that, even in some parts of the world, polio has been eradicated. This is an area where we have worked very hard and Secretary-General Ban has been leading our work in that area. We know that success is almost within reach if we continue to commit ourselves and to put in place policies and resources to address various issues relating to global health.

Ms. Migiro speaks to the press outside the national hospital after visiting people injured in the suicide attack on the UN compound in Abuja, Nigeria. Photo: AP/R. Blackwell

UN News Centre: How effective has the UN’s ‘Delivering as One’ initiative been?

Asha-Rose Migiro: The intention here was to ensure that we deliver better in terms of what we are doing with Member States. We know that we have different entities within the United Nations. We have different mandates and programmes. But it is absolutely key that if our work is going to be effective and relevant, that we deliver in a more coherent way. So this has happened in these [eight pilot] countries.

What we have learned from the eight pilot countries is that if we work in a coherent way, we are more effective in terms of helping countries to address their priorities. We see countries having more ownership of the development programmes. We also give them the capability to access the expertise and resources that we have at the United Nations. So we have seen the benefit of ‘Delivering as One.’

And countries have come out to say that this is the way that we should continue doing business with them. It brings down costs because instead of a country dealing with a number of UN agencies, they can have one channel through which they bring their concerns. We have also seen that it is very easy when you’re delivering as one to prioritize and therefore to make good use of resources. We have mentioned that countries are going through dire economic situations, so it is also important at this time that we make sure we put to good use the resources that we have. And ‘Delivering as One’ is one of the key programmes that will enable us to do that.

There has been initial evaluation. We have seen value in that. Many countries have come to say they also want to do it that way. In review meetings that we have had, it has been absolutely clear that there is no going back. This is the way that the United Nations will have to go. Secretary-General Ban has been calling for us to continue to deliver as one, not only in terms of development but also in other areas where we’re working with Member States.

UN News Centre: As the Deputy Secretary-General, you are required to travel around the world for various events and occasions. What’s your most memorable visit overseas?

Ms. Migiro speaking at a ceremony commemorating victims of the 12 January earthquake during her visit to Haiti. UN/S. Paris

Asha-Rose Migiro: In this position, one gets an opportunity to travel around the world and for me it has been very inspiring to meet colleagues on the ground, men and women of the United Nations working hard to support communities, to support countries in addressing their various challenges. But there has also been cases where your heart kind of sinks when you are in certain situations. In this context, I would like to recall my visit to Haiti after the major earthquake that hit that country. It was very sad. It was disheartening to see the type of destruction. When we arrived you could still see the aftermath. You could see the trauma in people.

I visited a camp. When I went there I could see people living in challenging situations. It was a small, crowded place. You could see kids running around. But, on the other hand, you would see people who were very resilient. Yes they had gone through this difficulty but they were ready to move on. They were ready to continue with their lives and were ready to build better. So this was very heartening compared to the challenge that they had gone through in dealing with the quake. But it was also encouraging for me. We had staff who had also been affected by the earthquake. Some of them had lost their loved ones, some of them had seen the injury that their colleagues went through but they were ready to stand up and to work to help the community. So this is something that will remain with me for a long time.

It simply tells the strength of the people of Haiti. If one looks back, you will see that they had economic problems. They had been affected by earlier natural disasters. But this was a huge one. But that did not discourage them from working towards building better their society and this is something that will be memorable in my stay here at the UN.

UN News Centre: How would you sum up your experience overall as the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations?

Asha-Rose Migiro: Well, this has been a very interesting, exciting journey. Every occasion that I had is memorable for me. If I had an opportunity to give a speech, to give a statement, that was a privilege. Every day was an honour for me and every handshake will remain a memory. I am privileged to have been given this opportunity. I want to thank Secretary-General Ban. I want to thank Member States for supporting me personally, but also for supporting the work that we have been doing. And I am also grateful to my country and continent because being here as an African, as you rightly say the first African woman to hold this position, was a huge responsibility. But I was always encouraged by those that I found here, Member States… and the Africa Group gave support to me so I want to thank them. It was a huge honour and a privilege.

UN News Centre: What advice would you give to your successor?

At the headquarters of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), Ms. Migiro with female peacekeepers of the Tanzanian contingent. UN/P. Gorriz

Asha-Rose Migiro: I must say that I’m very pleased to be succeeded by a person who is very well known and his work is also known in and outside the United Nations. This is Mr. Jan Eliasson. I’m not sure I have any advice at all to give to him, and if any, it will probably be very little. He comes with a lot of experience and I know he’s committed to the work that we are doing here – development, peace and security, humanitarian – so I’m sure he will work very well with Member States to continue to advance our work in those areas. But I have no doubt... I have already interacted with him... that he will be very supportive in carrying forward the vision of the Secretary-General. I wish him well. I know he will do well.

UN News Centre: What’s your plan for the future?

Asha-Rose Migiro: I look forward to having a less hectic schedule, compared to the one I have had here. I look forward to reconnecting with my family and friends in Dar es Salaam and to find time to rejuvenate, so to speak. But I must say that despite this, it has been a pleasure and an honour for me to be in this position. So I look forward to a different life from here, but always connected to the work that I have been doing at the United Nations. Instead now of having a lot of briefing notes, I’ll probably find time to read books of different types, to go through leisure magazines… so this is what I look forward to.