By: Franck Kuwonu
Ambassador Agnes Mary Chimbiri-Molande is the first female Malawi Permanent Representative to the United Nations headquarters in New York. She spoke to Africa Renewal’s Franck Kuwonu about her priorities and what Africa can do to mitigate the effects of climate change, COVID-19 and the Ukraine conflict as well as build resilience against future shocks. Here are excerpts:
How has your journey to this role been?
It started in my childhood. I was the girl child that the UN wants to be empowered. I did most household chores while my brothers did little. I was an early bird and have remained so both at school and at work. My childhood experience created windows of opportunity for me.
My work experience also prepared me for this job, professionally and mentally. I worked with the Malawian government, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), other UN agencies, and the World Bank in Malawi. My experience includes coordinating government institutions, analyzing development issues, and implementing policies and programs. I also collaborated with various development partners, including the EU, USAID, bi-lateral donors, the private sector, and national and international NGOs. Interestingly, here in New York, I am working with the same range of partners.
My educational and professional journey links development theories, policies and interventions with real-life situations. My initial college qualification was in education and at the UN, education is a priority for transformative development. My first post-graduate degree was in International Affairs, which relates to what I am currently doing. My second post-graduate degree, again, connects development processes at international, national, and sub-national levels to household decision-making processes. As an Ambassador, I am the voice of Malawians and of the President of Malawi [Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera] whom I represent here and at any forum where I may speak. Therefore, the knowledge and experience that I gained in my education and previous jobs have proved to be invaluable for my current job.
What would you say are your top three achievements as Malawi Permanent Representative to the UN here in New York?
Firstly, I started my job in January 2022, and in March, I managed to convince our President, who is the Chair of the LDC [Least Developed Countries] Group, to come here to engage on the LDC agenda and preside over the adoption of the Doha Programme of Action 2022-2031 [a set of commitments to support LDCs on the path to achieving internationally agreed goals].
Secondly, I also invited the Vice-President of Malawi [Saulos Klaus Chilima] to the Financing for Development forum (FFD) and arranged for critical engagement with partners, including Green Climate Fund (GCF).
I joined a group of Ambassadors to convince 191 member states to support a resolution that established 24 June as the International Day of Women in Diplomacy. This day will be used to promote the importance of women’s participation in diplomacy.
These high-level visits created opportunities for Malawi leadership and my delegation to engage with various partners, including the private sector, on mobilizing finances and technical support for LDCs, Africa, and Malawi in particular. I also organized co-sponsorship of a high-level dialogue on the sidelines of the FFD forum to discuss climate finance and other investment issues. As a result, the conceptualization of a Water (Blue) and Climate (Green) Bond Initiative for Southern Africa is underway. If successfully negotiated, the initiative could transform countries surrounding the river basins in the region into catalysts of water and climate action for sustainable food and energy systems.
Thirdly, I joined a group of Ambassadors to convince 191 member states to support a resolution that established 24 June as the International Day of Women in Diplomacy. This day will be used to promote the importance of women’s participation in diplomacy. The group has been approached to co-sponsor the organization of a pre-UN General Assembly Banquet and First Ladies Luncheon for Transformative Leadership in the world.
What is the most challenging part of your job so far?
Balancing the interests of groups of member states such as the LDCs, SADC [Southern African Development Community], and the Africa Group, and ensuring the interests of Malawi are given priority in various UN platforms because Malawians also expect me to bring new partnerships and opportunities for transformative development in our country.
Every country is having to ask where the money is coming from to build back better. Rising food and fuel prices and tightening financial conditions are causing serious human suffering in Africa. The African Group welcomes the Global Crisis Response Group (GCRG) on food, energy and finance that the UN Secretary-General put in place. The GCRG is assisting decision-makers to mobilize resources and develop strategies to help countries address the food, energy and financial crises. I think we can overcome these challenges if we work collectively rather than in silos. African solidarity is more critical now than ever before.
Moving forward, what are your top three priorities?
My first priority is mobilizing climate financing for adaptation and resilience building in the Southern Africa region, ensuring that sustainable food, water, energy and finance systems are in place. I have already advanced this idea with my regional colleagues and other stakeholders, and international partners are eager to support its rollout.
My second priority is digital transformation to help our region recover faster from COVID-19 and to better prepare for future shocks. Digitalization in Africa should be a priority in order not to remain behind. Digital transformation will facilitate needed reforms in financial architecture, governance, education and ecosystems and will help bridge the gender, rural-urban and wealthy-low-income digital gaps. I will be helping to ensure global solidarity in advancing Science, Technology and Innovation.
The third priority is Financing for Development. In this area, I will aim to support my government, the Southern Africa Region and the LDCs to mobilize partnerships for innovative and sustainable development financing and to build back better. I will be seeking new partnerships, especially with private investors, including development banks.
You are part of the African Group of Ambassadors here in New York at a time when the world is facing multiple challenges—climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the war in Ukraine. Are there African positions on these issues?
All countries have been affected by these challenges, although the impact is felt more in vulnerable countries in Africa and LDCs. Within the African Group, we agreed to continue dialoguing on the impact and possible solutions to these crises that will have lasting effects on the world’s social, economic and political systems. We also agreed to work in solidarity and optimize opportunities for Africa to survive these difficult times and build resilience against future shocks.
There were, for example, discussions at the European Union – African Union Summit [in Brussels in February 2022], and we need to follow through on the decisions made there. Are the EU countries still committed to their promises? We see that the EU is preoccupied with providing support to Ukraine, including hosting Ukrainians that are fleeing the war. The African Group is worried that development aid could be diverted to humanitarian response and reconstruction of Ukraine in the post-war period. Our plea to the EU, the UN System and other development partners is that they should continue to provide development aid to Africa, as per their commitments.
The other question is about the opportunities the situation in Ukraine may create for Africa. Because Ukraine and Russia were supplying over 70 per cent of wheat and other grains consumed in Africa, Africa must now look at filling the gap. Are we able to produce to that level? Can Africa access international markets with its excess produce?
Can Africa produce the fertilizers that will enable the continent to be food self-sufficient and even export its excess produce? The African Group is engaging various stakeholders to find means of enhancing Africa’s capacity to produce fertilizer, food, and energy for consumption and export within the continent and to other regions.
African leaders are interested and committed to advancing their economies, but the issue is money. Every country is having to ask where the money is coming from to build back better. Rising food and fuel prices and tightening financial conditions are causing serious human suffering in Africa. The African Group welcomes the Global Crisis Response Group (GCRG) on food, energy and finance that the UN Secretary-General put in place. The GCRG is assisting decision-makers to mobilize resources and develop strategies to help countries address the food, energy and financial crises.
I think we can overcome these challenges if we work collectively rather than in silos. African solidarity is more critical now than ever before.
Free trading under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) kicked off in January 2021. What are your views regarding how women, and Africans at large, can take advantage of the AfCFTA?
If Africans have what it takes to organize and mobilize themselves to access international markets, they may benefit. Data shows that women are highly vulnerable and largely operate in the informal sector, which keeps them off the big national and international markets. Yet, when women take business loans, evidence shows they are good at repaying. So, if they are given the opportunity to access markets and trade freely across Africa, I think Africa could boost its economies.
I think the fact our leaders agreed on the AfCFTA is a sign of political commitment. Now, we need to empower our people to be ready. So, we need to lobby governments, our lawmakers, and others to make sure that all businesses, including SMEs, can access these opportunities.
I have observed that some policies and business, legal and policy frameworks in various countries are not conducive for business. Export strategies are not inclusive. There is a need for political commitment of African governments to actively support small and medium enterprises [SMEs]. SME owners, including women and youth, should be involved in decision-making processes. Africa’s hope is in the youth who are in large numbers. Leaving them behind will deter progress.
Do you see that happening any time soon?
It will not be easy, but I think the fact our leaders agreed on the AfCFTA is a sign of political commitment. Now, we need to empower our people to be ready. So, we need to lobby governments, our lawmakers, and others to make sure that all businesses, including SMEs, can access these opportunities. Private capital will be key in this process.
Finally, what is your message to fellow Africans?
I would say that the climate, COVID-19 and the Ukraine crises also present opportunities for Africa. Africa contributes close to zero global carbon emissions and therefore can engage in carbon trading. We should grab the climate financing opportunity that international financiers have put in place for addressing the food, energy and financial crises. Africa also qualifies for ‘Blue (Water) and Green (climate) bonds’ that will enable access to certain innovative financing instruments for supporting initiatives that have sustainable environmental benefits.