Dr Paul Vallet: Welcome to the Geneva Centre for Security Policy weekly podcast. I'm your host, Dr Paul Vallet, Associate Fellow with the GCSP Global Fellowship Initiative. For the next few weeks, I'm talking with subject matter experts to explain issues of peace, security, and international cooperation. Thank you to all our listeners for tuning in. The focus this week at the Leadership and International Security Course is Africa, and among the specialists who are giving their insights to the course participants. We have Ambassador Yvette Stevens, who I'm very pleased to also have as a guest on the podcast this week. Ambassador Stevens represents the great combination of experience and diversity among the GCSP Global Fellowship Initiative with 28 years of International Civil Service with the United Nations and another six as a diplomat for Sierra Leone. Original career began as a trained engineer from the Moscow Power Engineering Institute and Imperial College London, which recently honoured her for her subsequent accomplishments. After teaching engineering in university, herself, she joined a UN agency first the International Labour Organization and then the United Nations High Commissioners Office for Refugees in both Geneva and country postings, and later, the United Nations Office of the Special Advisor for Africa. Her final UN function was as the United Nations Assistant Emergency Relief Coordinator and Director of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva from 2004 to 2006. But this was far from over as she then became a freelance consultant on humanitarian issues and disaster risk reduction and also advised the Sierra Leone the government as Energy Policy Advisor. In 2012, she was appointed Sierra Leone his Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, where she worked the full range of issues handled by the UN Agencies here, from human rights to trade and to disarmament. She's also designated a Geneva Gender Champion. So welcome to the podcast, Ambassador Stevens.
Ambassador Yvette Stevens: Thank you. Very pleased to be here.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well, thank you, for you to join us this morning. Given this remarkably wide experience of yours, my first question to you is, with your engineering background, what are the events and factors that drew you to an International Civil Service and diplomatic career?
Ambassador Yvette Stevens: Well, it started a long time ago, I remember as a child, and maybe at age six. And we used to listen, our only contact with the outside world was the BBC Radio. And I used to sit with my uncle as we listened to the BBC Radio. And I imagined this world outside my country, I was growing up in colonial Sierra Leone this world. And I felt I had to be a part of it, but I didn't know how. Later when at school, I was doing well in in maths and physics. And, of course, I decided to do a career in engineering, which was, again, strange for a woman in those days in can imagine the 60s in Africa. But then I got, I was really determined that I wanted to do something you know, especially something that, I could give him and make a contribution to my country's development. So that was how I came back, I'd finished my studies, came back to Sierra Leone, I was practicing engineering, and I was teaching at the university. When one day, I'm thinking, Oh, well, this is this is me, engineering. I’ll help my country. But then one day, I was sitting in my office, and then somebody came, it was the director from ILO. And they were, he was on a recruitment mission. And he said to me, and we are starting this project, on technologies for rural women in Africa. And when we are setting up this team of a sociologist, economist, and an engineer, and we thought we wanted to have women to do this, but we never knew we would know about an African engineer to come and work, we got the sociologists or the economist, we are thinking we'd have to go somewhere else to look for the engineer, but then somebody just gave me your CV to say, there is a woman engineer. And so, he tried to, convince me. At first, I thought it was I had had a difficult time because I had my children in UK and it was very difficult, which is why I give up my studies in the end. So, I said, Oh, no, thank you. Can we have the project here? And he says, No, no, no, no, no, it has to be in Geneva. And then that night, after refusing, I was thinking that night, and I said, yeah but, remember, you really wanted to be part of this international scene. And here isn’t this your opportunity. Because as I said, Before, I didn't even know that engineers had any place in the UN. So then, I came back, and I said, Yes, and this was how I came to Geneva. But what was interesting for me, so as I was working on these subjects with my own country, and I felt that doing it from the level of the ILO, and the international scene, would help me not only to help people in my country, but also in other countries. So, this was how I came to the international scene, as an international civil servant. Of course, later, I got sucked into it if you like. And then I saw the all the other aspects that are so important for countries to move forward that I, first of all, at the time, when I went to UNHCR, there are many refugees in the world, most of them were from Africa. And I felt that there was a role to play there, I was head of the section setting of camps and settlements. And I was able to be my engineering knowledge into the design of camps and settlements for refugees. And this was so this was it. This was how I came. And I said, I came for initially three years, and I said the next 28 years in the United Nations.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well, you know, that's absolutely remarkable, this realisation of how your being on a wider world stage could have such an impact an intensely local impact in your country, on your continents, and indeed, the trail that you blaze for, for women and for women engineers in particular, that's something that is really good to have seen recognised as a need by the UN among others. So, my next question is about of course, this international career. What lessons has it brought to you about both the wider world’s workings as much as the workings of Africa?
Ambassador Yvette Stevens: Yes, as I said earlier, it's that it gives me a perspective, as an engineer working in Sierra Leone, I never had this wide perspective about how everything fits together to give a certain result, coming to the UN made me know that it's not just concentrating on energy, on engineering on development, but that all these pieces fit together, human rights, peace and development, they're all parts of the same, am I wrong to say coin because it can only have two sides. But they're all parts that have to fit in together. If you're going to advance... I didn't, for instance, when I was working as an engineer, I had heard about refugees and humanitarian work, I didn't think that was important for me. But coming to the UN, I became absolutely convinced that you have to have a wider view of the world. If you want to succeed in your profession, you cannot ignore the other aspects which make things work.
Dr Paul Vallet: So indeed, the engineer basically is trained to devise the machinery and understand its workings. And you just take it, of course, to another plan, in that sense. So according to your experience and viewpoints, you identified different challenges for Africa, that your career has brought in perspective to you, rather than the ones that people in different positions would be doing?
Ambassador Yvette Stevens: Well, I wouldn't claim to be as these ideas, but I think I should bring it up, because those are the things I feel strongly about. I think, first of all, initially, when I joined the UN, it was still at the stage where Africa was looking up to the United Nations looking up to the outside world, for its development, and all of the things and I was happy that in 2001, something started that Africa had to actually be in the driver's seat, Africa had to stop this donor beneficiary mentality where they come to with a begging bowl to beg, they should approach this or identify their priorities, and work with international communities as partners, because Africa has a lot to give. And I believe that this donor beneficiary mentality is something that that went against what Africa was looking for, in terms of its own development. So that was one. And the other things I felt that was important is that Africa needs to have better leadership. I think leadership is a big problem in Africa, Africa has failed to have the sorts of leadership that a country like Singapore had, for instance, and I stress leadership, because all too often people talk about “Oh, democracy, democracy”, meaning democracy means having democratic elections every four years, every five years. For me, democracy is important, provided that you have the right leaders, because you can be changing, governments every four or five years, and you still remain in one place. Because in the context of Africa, I should also add, that when you have a new government, it doesn't necessarily mean you have a better government. It is just a you know, all sorts of things come into play, ethnic affiliations, etc. And the leaders of Africa that we have had, unfortunately, many of them put self before country. So, what you have what you see, and if you look at it, country after country, a leader comes in. And then later you hear about all the corruption of trying to, you know, acquire as wealth as they could get from being the leaders. And also, you know, corruption, I think, is something which really needs to be given serious attention in Africa. And it is not only that corruption is unique to Africa, there is corruption everywhere. But the thing that makes it different in Africa is that if Africa is poor, of corruption on top of that, it makes it even more serious. And another thing I think, also is that, I think ethnic preferences also, you know, when Africa was divided in Berlin in two different countries, it did not respect ethnic lines. And of course, when the African Union came into existence, when the OAU Organization of African Unity came into existence and they thought it wise that borders should remain where they were, because if they had opened that up, God knows where that would have gone. So we think we find that within countries, there are many ethnic backgrounds, and countries and people tend to cling to leaders of their ethnic background, one of the reasons being that if people are poor, they sort of want somebody in, in the lead, whom they could come to come to, and cray to, and whatever. So they tend to back parties, not on the basis of their ideologies, but on the basis of their links to that particular person, ethnic links, and that is something also which is going against the grain when it comes to African Leadership. So those are those are two of the some of the things I think I would give a lot of focus on. And I think that needs to be focused on a lot more if Africa is to move. Indeed, there have been examples of good leadership. And I think Botswana, for example, Botswana, had good leadership. It is way ahead in Africa and many other countries because of its leadership.
Dr Paul Vallet: Yes, indeed, I think this this focus on really a qualitative assessment. I mean, you know, both in the development policies, but also in the quality of the leadership is something that obviously ties to my next question, which would be precisely what are the priorities that you would identify for the international community to focus their efforts on behalf of Africa?
Ambassador Yvette Stevens: Okay. I think first of all, there is a problem in Africa in a problem that I've never got to understand. And for which, you know, one gets the point of frustration, is that Africa, in terms of natural resources, Africa is the richest continent. And yet Africans are the poorest people in the world, something does not make sense to me. Again, it's because Africa depends a lot on exports of its commodities, commodities by prices, which are fixed by the buyers themselves. And the African farmer who has worked hard, let's take the chocolate industry. And the cacao, the African who has worked so hard in going to crop only has a tiny weeny percentage of what of the profits from the crop that is grown, then again, what African would need them to address that is, and this has been said over and over again, is to add value to its commodities. Now, it's been said that when I went to New York to work as the Director for Africa, it was all, yes, there was a new partnership for Africa's development. And it's been, it's been repeated time and time, again, that Africa needs to add value to its commodities. But it has not been able to do so in a way that would actually take Africa from where it is and bring it to a higher level based on what is natural resources. Some of the reasons, of course, that I could give to that and which needs some, which needs a lot of my attention. And as I say, it's not new. I mean, it's everybody knows except that there is no action is that first of all, Africa needs the infrastructure, you cannot talk about value addition, if you do not have infrastructure, and I will look at infrastructure two levels, you need to have the physical infrastructure, you know, to be able to, to even if you want attract investment, now an investor is not going to come to your country, if you don't have no electricity, for instance, I mean, an investor is not going to come to your country, if your transportation system is so weak, that by the time they move whatever they are manufacturing into to the port, it's the cost is multiplied three or four times over. So infrastructure is one a way I feel that any well-meaning initiatives to assist Africa should be focused on because yes, eventually the private sector will come in, but the private sector will come in only you have the infrastructure, I don't care what you do, they will not come in because they are not humanitarian, and they're not going to come and help Africa, they have to make money out of it. Let's face it. So, if you do not have infrastructure, to attract the private sector, they will just not come in. So, I think the focus on infrastructure is something which is extremely important. Of course, now also you look at IT, it's also important you know, we see that in many countries in Africa, in spite of the fact that we take IT for granted, you and I are speaking now once you go to Africa, and I see that every time I go, because I used to spend a lot of time going back to from Sierra Leone, the first thing that hits me is that it costs me as much to have internet access, as it is basically what is considered a medium wage in my country. So how many people are going to afford that? You know, you do not have Internet access is everywhere in the world, you have to go to Africa to understand what this means, you know? And then, of course, also, education. Yes, I believe that education needs to have a lot of priority and education that is based on today's requirements, not yesterday's, you know, most of our universities are still teaching Greek, whatever, I don't know what else. But we need to have the university programmes that are adapted to the world realities of today, this will make it possible that Africans qualified from the universities are able to take the challenge of developing Africa. So, I think education is also important. But for some countries, like bank, even forget about university level, even education at the lower levels, with quality, the quality has not increased, it has gone down. And what do you do with children who leave school nowadays and cannot even understand the basic concepts. So, what I believe is that education and training is also important to have Africans to be able to contribute to their country's development. Another area which I think because focus is trade, I think Africa should be given an opportunity, so to discuss to have fair terms of trade for their commodity, even if they are only trading in commodities. I think this fairness has to come through the trade related organisations that Africa should give some focus on Africa. Why is Africa not benefiting from trade? Again, it's not only trading goods and trading services, we see how many countries in Asia have benefited from trading services, it doesn't necessarily mean that people have to go from Africa to the countries, but if they are trained and able to provide the services, then that will give a lot of employment to young people. And this opening services to Africans would also help to develop Africa. So, I think those are the main areas where I see that that which needs to be given priority. Of course, I need to also add health. Because I think one thing, I think the Ebola crisis, when I was, I was Ambassador, was that the health system in some African countries is nothing to write home about. We believe that because before the Ebola crisis, we believe that we're going along with what the WHO was giving us, we were not even meeting the requirements of WHO, but we're always a bragging about, you know, our health clinic is open, our health is doing this, our health is well. Now, when Ebola came, we found that our health systems need to be developed. And also, the Ebola also had a good part of it is that it does what got the African Union itself to know that Africa should have its own Center for Disease Control. And now it's working. And now we see that for the COVID crisis that Center is very active, it's going to assist countries working WHO to assist countries to address the COVID crisis. Well, most of what I believe should be brought to the forefront.
Dr Paul Vallet: Yeah, I mean, you're giving us really quite a fascinating range of insights on general upgrade programme, really, in the quality of the leadership and the quality of the essential infrastructure, and how these are ingredients that will then provide for a self-moving mechanism to take Africans forward. So, we're given that we're reaching towards the end of the interview. I'd also like to return to your quite remarkable background from engineer to diplomats. And I was thinking, as you were, spanning also, the history of your country that you you've been through. So perhaps my last question is, is a little bit personal. But I was wondering what sort of advice you would give to a young person and probably a young woman from your country, who's looking at you and perhaps, intending to follow in your footsteps in an international career, what you would suggest they do?
Ambassador Yvette Stevens: Well, I suggest, first of all, that they go for it, you know, I'm not saying that every engineer should try to be an international civil servant. Because I know I mean, when I got the Imperial award, I got many engineers sent me “Oh, how do I get into a career in the International Civil Service”? I'd say no, no, there's still a lot to do as an engineer back home. And please, please be an engineer, but only be aware of what is happening in the world around you, and how all that fits into what you're trying to do. But for those who have the opportunity to have an international career, I think it's also good, because one of the things I feel I would like to believe I have contributed to, is to instil in some of the thoughts that I had for my engineering background into the overall process. Because I remember when I first came to, to ILO, it was like, you know, it was like a different world altogether. All of a sudden, all my life had been doing engineering, math, science, and then suddenly, I came in the social sciences, economics, whatever. And it was, like in a different world. I said what? This exists? But later on, I tried to understand them. And I could see how I couldn't see or, you know, relating to engineering, and I think I was able to convince a few people to, and also throughout my work at the UN, I've been able to bring in the engineering dimension. I mean, when we had the new partnership for Africa's development, I was director for Africa. I was supposed to be doing advocacy for African development. But then I said, No, no, no, let's look at energies specifically so I was able to bring this in. But not every engineer has to come an international civil servant. And then I was when I another interesting thing, when I retired from the UN, I went back home, I wanted to continue my engineering career before I was asked by the government, and I thought, Okay, well, I come because I have so Insider's knowledge of the UN that could contribute to my country's development. So, I will go ahead, but not every engineer has to become an international civil servant.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well, you you've certainly also managed to remain the teacher all along, too. So, I want to thank you very much. This is all we have time for today, Ambassador Stevens, for joining us today. And of course, many good wishes also, for your later discussion with the Leadership and International Security course this week. I'm hoping it's going to be a really fruitful exchange. So, thank you very much for that. And for listeners, thank you again. And, of course, you can listen to us next week to hear the latest insights on peace, security, and international cooperation. I'll remind you do not forget to subscribe to us on Anchor FM on Apple iTunes. You can also follow us on Spotify. And on SoundCloud. I'm Dr Paul Vallet was the Geneva Center for Security Policy. And until next week, bye for now.