Kenya A beacon of Hope, says UNDP Representative Siddharth Chatterjee*

BERLIN | NEW DELHI (IDN-INPS | WION)Major Siddharth Chatterjee (Retd), the United Nations (UN) Resident Coordinator and the UNDP Resident Representative in Kenya, a humanitarian and development professional, a feminist and a passionate advocate for youth empowerment who has served in many war-ravaged and fragile parts of the world spoke exclusively to WION about his passion for advancing gender equality, his impressions of Kenya, the UN reform, and his transition from the Indian Army to the UN.

Below is the full transcript of the interview, first published on WION on November 15, 2017. It is being reproduced with due permission.

Q: Why this passion about gender equality and women’s empowerment?

A: I would say my passion for gender advocacy was cemented by my experiences in the Indian Army and at a personal level. My own grandmother was married at the age of 11 and had 15 children, 9 of whom survived. My early years in conflict settings also brought home the reality that women and children are worst effected during wars and natural disasters. While serving in the army as a young officer, I was horrified to find out that a soldier from my unit had raped a young girl.

I remember the sheer fear and trauma that girl went through, and the helplessness of her family.

It was a life changing moment for me. While the punishment that followed was swift and uncompromising, it was at that moment that I swore to fight all forms of misogyny, discrimination and violence.

In many of the countries I worked in, disease outbreaks, lack of water and sanitation were the order of the day. Reproductive health services, including midwifery outreach services, antenatal care, management of prenatal complications and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS were not readily available in conflict regions. These problems had particularly harsh consequences among women and children.

The years I spent in fragile environments will always remain a poignant reminder of the disparate harm that women are predisposed to whenever one form or other of humanitarian crisis arises.  Some were victims of rape and torture, others were widowed at young ages, their husbands murdered or kidnapped.

Regrettably, even in peace time, many societies still exhibit levels of patriarchy and misogyny that are simply appalling. The psychosocial status of the women who survived such atrocities are issues that continued to preoccupy me.

When I joined the UN in 1997, I felt the need to advocate against all forms of discrimination against women and children.

Q: What were your first impressions of Kenya?

Siddharth Chatterjee presents credentials as UN Resident Coordinator to the Foreign Minister of Kenya, Ambassador Amina Mohamed. October 2016. (MFA Kenya)Ans: Kenya is a beacon of hope in a region mired in instability and a regional economic hub was of course a good break for me, away from the war and conflicts of my earlier duty stations. 

It was also a chance for me to continue with my personal mission of championing the causes and elimination of gender-based violence as well as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriage, which is still an egregious practice in some parts of Kenya.

Kenya’s prevalence of violence against women and girls is unacceptably high, with one in every four women having experienced physical or sexual abuse in her lifetime.  The biggest problem in Kenya like many others, is the conspiracy of silence around gender based violence.  

In Kenya, gender inequalities are revealed in various ways. Too many Kenyan women have no control over their own fertility. They cannot decide the number and timing of their children. A lot of the unpaid work within families falls on the shoulders of women therefore they are left as economic dependants. Many girls are uneducated, and those who go to school rarely proceed beyond primary level.  In addition, men continue to occupy most positions of political and legal authority.

Yet it is clear that Africa’s economic take-off will not happen if we do not invest in young people, especially adolescent girls. How to work with other stakeholders towards making Kenya lead the way towards gender equality was my challenge when I took office in UNFPA and now as the UN Resident Coordinator and the issues still need to be faced today.

Q: Could you tell us about your work with the First lady of Kenya?

Ans: I must say I was very fortunate to begin my term at UNFPA almost at the same time that Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta also came in as First Lady.  Her personal mission in the plight of women, especially in regard to HIV and maternal mortality, dovetailed perfectly with the global mission of the UN family in Kenya.

Her leadership and personal involvement in the Beyond Zero campaign meant that the issues gained high level international and local visibility.  It was unprecedented to see a First Lady so passionate about the rights of women and girls and who participated in the London Marathon as well as her initiative to run several Half Marathons to advance the cause.

As a whole, the government has recognised the central role of maternal health, leading to the programme of free delivery services in public health facilities.  Within the first three years of that programme, deliveries under the care of health workers increased from 44 per cent to 61 per cent.

The government support was also crucial for us at the UN as it was a time when we came up with a project to enlist the support of the private sector to create new and more-effective products, services and technologies towards maternal health, especially in remote counties.  For instance, just six out of the 47 counties in Kenya carry close to 50 percent of the maternal mortality burden in Kenya.

We were supported by the government to set up a major public – private initiative now going on in those six high-burden counties.  Today, the Beyond Zero Campaign has delivered mobile clinics to all 47 counties in Kenya. I also commend Philips, Safaricom, Merck, GSK, Huawei and Kenya Health Care Federation who joined the initiative.

The campaign has been instrumental in raising the consciousness of the entire nation regarding the plight of many often underserved women and girls in desperate need of care.  It was only fitting that Her Excellency the First Lady was voted as the 2014 UN Person of the Year in Kenya.

Siddharth Chatterjee presents a communique to the First Lady of Kenya signed by 15 County Governors to improve maternal and adolescent health, in November 2014 (UN Kenya)

Photo: Siddharth Chatterjee presents a communique to the First Lady of Kenya signed by 15 County Governors to improve maternal and adolescent health, in November 2014 (UN Kenya)

Q: Why was there a particular focus on North Eastern Kenya?

Ans: Achim Steiner, the UNDP Administrator has emphasized, “The critical importance of leaving no one behind and reaching the furthest behind first”. Due to various historical, climatic, cultural and logistical challenges, the counties in Northern Kenya have the highest health and economic challenges in Kenya, and have been left behind. 

For instance, 6 of the North Eastern counties in Kenya have a disproportionately heavier burden of reproductive, maternal and child health burden. It is with this in mind that the government and various partners have came together under what is called the RMNCAH(Reproductive Maternal, Neo Natal, Child and Adolescent Health) 6-County Initiative to address critical bottlenecks in the health systems in north eastern Kenya.

Under the stewardship of the National Government and respective County Governments the initiative has mobilized a multitude of partners across sectors to go there where not many went before and to collectively and holistically help increasing demand for and access to affordable quality RMNCAH care.

The Private Sector Health Partnership Kenya, which was launched in September 2015 at the global launch of the UN Secretary General’s Strategy for every woman, child and adolescent health, is a clear demonstration of how the initiative has mobilized non-traditional players in the development sphere.  

By engaging a wide range of partners from across sectors there is great potential to develop new models that offer the best of both public and private sector, with the potential for scaling-up the delivery of healthcare for vulnerable and poor populations in low-resource settings. It also provides opportunity to ensure long-term engagement of partners, and sustainability and scalability of new models, through shared value creation.

We are confident that there will be collateral gains, not just in health, but in sectors such as security, because the feelings of exclusion in these areas have created fertile ground for youth extremism.

Q: Kenya recently had elections. What would you say to the new governors who have been recently elected in Kenya?

Ans: At the UN system in Kenya, we will continue to work with the Nairobi county governments especially towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. It is known that more than half the population now lives in urban areas. However, it is in such areas where the problem of inequality is most visible. Too many urban residents grapple with extreme poverty, exclusion, vulnerability and marginalisation.

Like any African countries, urban settlement patterns in Kenya are changing as slums and informal settlements are emerging along the peripheries of cities. The majority of people who live in these slums have no proper sanitation, clean running water, housing, proper collection and disposal of waste, among other urban amenities. As a result, they are exposed to all kinds of diseases and sometimes even death.

An issue that is particularly close to my heart is the place of youth. Unemployment rates among the youth in Kenya are the highest in this region, and the country must create one million new jobs annually to accommodate those joining the labour market.

County governments must do all to prepare the youth to participate in the economy if the country is to reap the benefits of the demographic dividend.

Investments in health, education, skills, empowerment, employment and economic policies must be underpinned by good governance, the exercise of public authority which entails adherence to the rule of law and enhancement of human rights applied universally.

By ensuring healthy, educated, productive populations, do we have any chance at all of making the Kenyan dream of a prosperous middle to high income country a reality in our lifetimes, Achieve Vision 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals.

I have seen tremendous strides made in health care in Kenya. Kenya as a matter of fact can lead the way in achieving universal health coverage.

Q: UN reforms seem to be the order of the day. What are your views?

Ans: There are many thorny issues facing the world, and the UN Secretary General Mr Antonio Guterres and his Deputy Ms Amina Mohamed have called on the United Nations staff and member states of the UN to stand up and unite to tackle the challenges of extreme violence, large movement of refugees, underdevelopment and poverty, and civil strife.

They are together driving some of the boldest reforms of the UN system at the country level, which is where the UN makes a real difference. They are leading efforts to ensure that the UN is more effective, efficient, coherent, coordinated and a better performing United Nations country presence with a strengthened role of the UN Resident Coordinator and a common management, programming and monitoring framework.

I am privileged to be working with an incredible United Nations Country Team in Kenya, led by a highly professional and committed group of UN colleagues. I coordinate the work of 27 UN agencies represented here and our work, in a nutshell, is to work with the people and government of Kenya to achieve the national goals including what is known as Vision 2030 and the SDGs. 

The UN Country Team during a visit by former UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, in August 2016 (UN Kenya)

We are committed to the Delivering as One process, therefore as the Resident Coordinator I am responsible for harmony in the outputs of our programs as the UN family in Kenya. This includes all objectives as identified in the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF), where we are supporting the government to deliver on its priority development milestones. Developed under the leadership of the Government, the UNDAF reflects the efforts of all UN agencies working in Kenya and is shaped by the five UN Development Group programming principles: Human Rights-based approach, gender equality, environmental sustainability, capacity development, and results-based management. The UNDAF working groups have developed a truly broad-based Results Framework, in collaboration with civil society, donors, and other partners.

We are also assisting the Government of Kenya by an appeal to respond to the current drought, ensure timely and effective humanitarian interventions and to build the resilience of communities in the face of climate-related hazards.

As a United Nations Country team in Kenya, we have come together to advance Mr. Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General’s Prevention Agenda. With over 65 million people displaced around the world due to conflicts and natural disasters, there are increasing violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses. People are fleeing their homes on a scale not seen since the second world war and the scourge of violent extremism threatens every region.

In fact Kenya has been a victim of cross border terror stemming from instability, in the region. Meanwhile, climate change, a rapidly expanding youth bulge, rapid urbanization, food insecurity and water scarcity are adding to the tensions and instability in Kenya and the region. Kenya is also home to nearly 500,000 refugees. As the UN Country Team and we intend to sharpen our focus to assist the Government of Kenya in responding effectively to the above issues.

With a median age of 18 years, Kenya can lead the way in reaping a demographic dividend, ensuring gender equality and women’s empowerment and achieve its Vision 2030. Vision 2030 aims to transform Kenya into a middle income country and providing a high quality of life for all its citizens by 2030. We have as a UN family in Kenya committed to walking this journey with the Kenyan government and the Kenyan people.

Q: Would you have a comment on  the recent allegation being made against the UN Deputy Secretary General, Ms Amina Mohammed that despite a ban in force on the export of rosewood, an endangered resource, she signed thousands of certificates authorising the shipment of vast quantities of the wood?

I am not sure I am authorised to answer that question, but having been a target of malicious and fake news myself for close to 10 years, let me just begin by saying that I feel very sorry for Amina Mohammed. It is most unfair. This is yellow journalism and premeditated mendacity.

Rev. Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1855) said “If you want truth to go around the world you must hire an express train to pull it; but if you want a lie to go around the world, it will fly; it is light as a feather and a breath will carry it.”

In my view that is how this news is being spread.

Let me state unequivocally Amina Mohammed is a leader of highest and unquestionable integrity and character.

I applaud and admire Mr Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, for having promptly and firmly come out in defence of his deputy, Amina Mohammed. He has stated categorically that she has his “full support and confidence.” A mark of a true leader.

She has explained with crystal clarity what happened in different media platforms and I would encourage people to read her interview in the Pulse. The Government of Nigeria has also issued a detailed clarification in her defence.

Frankly what I am seeing being flung at her is careless, unsubstantiated rumours and meant to undermine her as a woman of substance and a phenomenal leader.

Q: You have had a unusual career track, from a soldier to a humanitarian and development professional. How did you manage this transformation? 

Siddharth Chatterjee was an Indian Army Special Forces Officer

Ans: I owe my ability to adapt and embrace adversity and diversity to the foundations my alma mater, the National Defence Academy and to the Special Forces unit I served in. My year of study and reflection at Princeton University was perhaps one of the most significant intellectual growth spurt and sharped my understanding of public policy. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity I had at Princeton.  I encourage everyone to take a year off in their careers to pause and go back to school. It gives you the freedom to pursue your intellectual interests, develop new capabilities, expose yourself to new approaches and methods and advance your career.

*Siddharth Chatterjee joined the United Nationas in 1997. He has lived and worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq (two tours), South Sudan, Indonesia, Sudan (Darfur), Somalia, Denmark, Switzerland and Kenya. In South Sudan, he successfully negotiated the release of 3551 child soldiers from the rebel army of the SPLA and led the largest ever demobilization of child soldiers in 2001 during an ongoing conflict. Watch his TEDx(Video) talk on the topic. A prolific writer, Mr Chatterjee has a blog in Reuters and Huffington Post. He has a Master’s degree from the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, USA and a Bachelor’s degree from the National Defence Academy in India. He is active on social media, his twitter handle is: @sidchat1. [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 November 2016]

Photo (top): UNDP Resident Representative in Kenya, Siddharth Chatterjee. Photo (bottom): Siddharth Chatterjee was an Indian Army Special Forces Officer.

IDN is the flagship of International Press Syndicate. –

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