Political Leadership, Human Rights, and Activism: What Is the Connection?
Today the world celebrates the International Day of Human Rights, and lately I have been reflecting on conversations that I have been engaged in where the topics of leadership, human rights, and activism become points of curiosity for me.
In late November, I attended the fourth annual African Women and Political Leadership conference in Lilongwe, Malawi, which was hosted by United Nations Development Programme (or UNDP) and the African Women's Development and Communication Network (or FEMNET). I did not participate at this conference as a current or emerging political leader, but as a speaker at the invitation of Dinah Musindarwezo, FEMNET’s executive director who I met for the second time at a civil society advisory group meeting that was co-hosted by FEMNET earlier that month.
I spoke during the conference’s foundational session, Making It Matter: Women in Leadership, and could not help but step back and reflect on our collective understanding of the intersection of leadership, human rights and activism. I set the stage for my presentation by reviewing some key points on the reality of human development in Africa as reported in the UNDP’s Africa Human Development Report 2012: Towards a Food Secure Future. Among the points:
- >> Even though Sub-Saharan Africa’s current economic growth averages about five to six percent every year, an estimated 218 million people—or more than one in four Africans—are undernourished.
- >> Despite Africa’s impressive GDP growth rates, these numbers have not translated into the elimination of hunger and malnutrition, indicating a growing need for inclusive growth and people-centered approaches to food security.
- >> To ensure a growth in food supply, a series of proposals for public action are needed to spur agricultural productivity, advance nutrition among children and women, build resilience in households and communities, and empower women and the rural poor.
- >> To ensure food security, new approaches across multiple sectors—from rural infrastructure to health services to new forms of social protection—and the empowering of local communities are need to ensure that the poor and vulnerable have a stronger voice in local government and civil society groups.
- >> Two major biases have been principal factors hindering food security: a bias favoring towns rather than rural areas, and a bias favoring men, not women.
- >> African governments spend between five and ten percent of their budgets on agriculture, which is well below the 20 percent that Asian governments devoted on average to the agriculture during its green revolution in the 1960s.
- >> Even though women are significant food producers, their control of land in sub-Saharan Africa is less than in any other region.
My presentation focused on highlighting certain frameworks, or tools, that I think would greatly enhance the political leadership of women (and men) for effective leadership and human development. Some of these included leveraging:
- Values based leadership with a focus on humanistic values and principles;
- Caring Economics and partnerism based on the work of Riane Eisler;
- The human capability development approach based on the work of Martha Nussbaum;
- African philosophies and values, like Ubuntu, that seek to uphold human dignity, highlighting the work of Chiku Maluga and some inspirations from Sam Ebale;
- The Human Rights Framework offered by the United Nations Children’s Fund; and
- Cultural transformation theory, which is also based on Eisler’s work.
During my presentation, a Malawian participant talked about the work of Malawi president, Joyce Banda, and how it reflects some aspects of Eisler’s Caring Economics. The participant said Banda, who had opened the conference and so generously invited us to the state house for dinner, has taken it upon herself to visit the countryside often and ensure that food reaches the people it is supposed to reach. Banda, the participant said, is also exploring various options to ensure long term and sustainable food security for the people of Malawi.
It surprised me that Banda is facing heavy criticism from various quarters for the work that she is doing to ensure that people have food. Based on what I was told at the conference, it is my understanding that Banda is being accused by some of being an activist and not a leader. My response to this was that Banda’s critics reflect what Eisler refers to as the “systems of domination,” which are characterized by:
- >> Authoritarian and inequitable social and economic structures
- >> A high degree of abuse and violence
- >> Subordination of women and “femininity” to men and “masculinity and beliefs
- >> Stories that justify and idealize domination and violence”
In my opinion, “systems of domination” create and perpetuate cultures that breed human rights violations where the “dominated” are denied access to basic human needs, such as social acceptance and recognition, food, health, education, justice and access to other resources. Clearly, some of the points addressed in the UNDP human development report mention this type of thinking. Those who think that leaders , like Banda, who have taken it upon themselves to ensure that people have access to food—a fundamental human right—must rethink their positions and re-examine their understanding of leadership and its role in people’s lives.
James Macgregor Burns once wrote: “Moral leadership emerges from, and always returns to the fundamental wants and needs, aspirations and values of the followers. I mean the kind of leadership that can produce social change that will satisfy the followers’ authentic needs.”
In my view, leaders are most effective “satisfying” the “authentic needs” of the people they govern by taking a stand for something. Whether the leader is an activist or not, he or she has been entrusted to facilitate the process and create conditions for the realization of humanity’s full potential. The leader must therefore make clear what their position is on fundamental human rights matters, like access to food, education, health care, housing and others for the people that they lead. Without this, we remain doomed to the tyranny of leaders who seek to continue to dominate and exploit people as well as violate fundamental human rights. Leadership with integrity cannot be separated or distanced from activism that looks out for the interests of the people, like the protection and realization of fundamental human rights.
Like others at the conference in Malawi, I applaud Banda for her unwavering quest and bold efforts to stay focused on meeting the “authentic needs” of the Malawian people despite the heavy criticism that she faces. More leaders in Africa and other parts the world should emulate Banda and join the movement to create a more humane, equitable, and dignified existence for all people, not just a select few. In my view, leadership, activism, and human rights are inseparable and activism should not be considered a derogatory phenomenon. Leaders with integrity must take a stand, declare and demonstrate what they stand for in meeting the needs of the people who they have been entrusted to lead.