Deputy Secretary General: From Tanzania to the U.N.

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Asha Rose Migiro was selected as deputy security general of the United Nations earlier this year, the second most powerful post in the international organization. Migiro discusses her life growing up in Tanzania and her rise to power as a female in the developing world.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a Wisdom Watch conversation with the head of the Pentagon's new Africa Command. He also happens to be the Army's only African-American four star general.

But first, a newsmaker conversation with a woman who's been breaking down barriers for much of her career - Asha Rose Migiro, the United Nations deputy Secretary General, the second in command of the organization. She was appointed by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in January. She's only the third person to serve in that decade-old post.

Before assuming her duties at the U.N., she held various high-level positions in her home country, Tanzania. Most recently, she served as the minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation - the first woman in her country to hold that post since the country achieved independence in 1961.

We caught up with her last week on her first official visit to Washington in her new post, and I asked her what she hoped to accomplish.

Dr. ASHA ROSE MIGIRO (United Nations): I have broad areas of responsibility in the area of management reform and making the United Nations system work better. This is an area that I deal with together with development issues relating to dealing with poverty and diseases, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

MARTIN: Were you conflicted when you're approached to take this position, because it's no small thing to be minister of international affairs, in essence secretary of state for your country. It's a great honor, it's a great responsibility. It's also a critical post. Was it a conflict for you to take this?

Dr. MIGIRO: No, it wasn't at all. It came as a surprise, but it was a pleasant surprise in that it was a show of confidence, I think, in my country and in my continent. And as you rightly said, I come from Tanzania, one of the poor countries of the world. One of the countries from the developing world. It was some sort of an honor, a challenge.

MARTIN: And as you must know, the U.N. is a controversial institution in this country, as it is in many others. But we'll talk about this one. There are some who believe that the institution is, if I could use this term, a white elephant, draws enormous resources without a lot of impact. Others feel it's too controversial, it's too polarizing. It is too much of a forum for countries with agendas that are anti-American. Do you think any of those are legitimate criticisms?

Dr. MIGIRO: The United Nations is an important multilateral institution and it has played a crucial role in a number of areas, in peace and security, in development, in humanitarian assistance. So it does have a great contribution to make to humanity.

It is made up of countries, 192 countries, and there are bound to be different types of interests at different points in time. So it is not surprising that at times there will be controversy surrounding the United Nations. But at the end of the day, it's an institution that was created by member states and it stands by and large in the interest of the principles that were enshrined in the charter and with such important founding members like the United States.

MARTIN: You mentioned that management is part of your responsibility and that is, of course, critically important because one of the reasons that Americans are skeptical, some Americans are skeptical of the United Nations, as well as these large multilateral institutions, because they don't know where the money goes. I mean, they feel that it's too easy to have large sums sort of disappear, there aren't many controls. Are there any reforms that you can discuss that would assuage the concerns of people who are critics?

Dr. MIGIRO: There are strands of reform that have gone a long way to addressing some of the concerns. The intention is to serve member states in an efficient manner, in a transparent manner, and whatever that has happened, which has sort of questioned the credibility, the management style, this is something that we have attempted to address.

And in recent months we have had proposals, and luckily these proposals have been positively received by member states in the area of strengthening the oversights of the organization, to ensure there is more transparency, there is more accountability, not only for actions, but also for resources. We have an independent advisory audit committee which will look into our affairs, monitors, and…

MARTIN: Is that new? Is that new? Is that - because, forgive me, Deputy, with respect, all organizations whenever they're criticized say that they're instituting reforms to make them more open and transparent and accountable. I'd just like to know specifically how that is to be accomplished.

Dr. MIGIRO: This is a recent creation. We are looking into our rules and regulations concerning procurement. This has already been done by the procurement task force, which is there to do investigation to simplify procedures, to make them more transparent, and to give membership access to what we are doing.

MARTIN: If you would talk to me about a situation like Darfur, Americans like many people around the world continue to be horrified, distressed by the events there, and they wonder why - you know, Americans, I think, are prepared to accept that Americans acting unilaterally - perhaps that's not the appropriate way to address a situation like that, but they think isn't that what a multilateral organization like the United Nations is for? Why can't we make more progress in a situation like that's so clearly a crisis?

Dr. MIGIRO: Darfur, as many will agree with me, is a tragedy, and the most important thing right now is to address this problem, which the United Nations has been doing. Now all is underway to deploy a force that will be a robust peacekeeping force, and we are in the process now of getting logistical support, getting the relevant equipment for addressing big challenges in Darfur.

But that doesn't mean that we're going to start with peacekeeping. We have also been supporting the political track, which is very important, to bring the different parties together, to ensure about they seat and they are inclusive in finding a solution.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and I'm speaking with the United Nations Deputy Secretary General Asha Rose Migiro. May we speak about you for a moment?

Dr. MIGIRO: Yeah.

MARTIN: When you were growing up, did you envision this life for yourself?

Dr. MIGIRO: I didn't envision that I would be working for the United Nations, but coming from a country where there was emphasis on education, there was emphasis on self-reliance, I knew that I would have a contribution to make to the development of my country. Now that I'm at this level, I'm satisfied. I feel honored that I can also join forces with others to contribute to issues of global importance.

MARTIN: And you also have two daughters, if you don't mind my mentioning that. Is it ever hard for you to balance your responsibility to them with your very weighty professional responsibilities?

Dr. MIGIRO: Yes, definitely, because raising up kids is a full-time job, and if has some other responsibility, be it a man or a woman, that has an impact. But for women, because of the nature of division of labor in our societies and even biologically, I find myself having to spend more time with one side of the coin than the other.

MARTIN: How do you do it?

Dr. MIGIRO: My husband supports me very much, but as a person coming from Tanzania, we still have the extended family and this provides supports too. So that when you're concentrating on work, it is not that the family will suffer such as to distract your attention, but you know that there's somebody else also supporting you in that regard, and this has helped very much.

MARTIN: I know that people from the continent sometimes get irritated when we refer to, you know, Africa as like this one big place. You know, it is a series of countries. It's not, you know, just a continent. But one cannot help but notice how many high-powered global leaders Africa is now producing. I'm thinking about Dr. Wangari Maathai. I'm thinking about, of course, the president of Liberia. Of course there are many women in high positions, the legislatures, throughout the continent. I'm just sort of wondering, you know, why, why do you think that is?

Dr. MIGIRO: Africa is not, definitely it's not - it's not one country. But there is something that runs across Africa and probably other societies as well. And this is about the role of women in society.

If you are to look at this traditional division of labor, women have been at the back. They have not been in public life, much as they have in contributing to bringing up society, they have been contributing to productivity.

Now, in the wave of change that is blowing through Africa, women's contribution has come to be not only seen but to be recognized. And this is what is happening right now. And we see Africa producing the first democratically elected woman president. And we have a number of other women who have done a commendable job and a remarkable job.

So time has come to recognize the role of women. This is what is happening now. It is not that women have not been contributing. It is not that women have not been capable. But now this is brought to the fore, from the kitchen to the front.

MARTIN: Do you feel perhaps an extra level of scrutiny in a post like yours because you're a woman?

Dr. MIGIRO: Not that I feel right now, and even when I was honored to serve in the cabinet in my own country, I didn't feel that way. But I do know, of course, because of the sort of scarcity of women leaders there, there is much attention to a woman who emerges to be a leader. But as I went about my responsibility, even now as I confront my task, I do not feel like I'm doubly scrutinized. But on the other hand, I feel very much supported by the wealth of skills that I have at the secretariat.

MARTIN: Maybe Americans don't have much contact with the United Nations. To the degree that they do, it's when there is sort of a crisis someplace and one sees the U.N. Secretary General appear on the scene or perhaps when the meeting of the General Assembly in October, when the world leaders come to New York and give their various presentations.

When you have this opportunity to speak to Americans about what the U.N. does and what you hope that it can accomplish, what would you like them most to know?

Dr. MIGIRO: I would like to tell the Americans that already they are contributing a lot to the work of the United Nations. They may not know, but they are contributing to the work of the United Nations, in humanitarian work, in development work. They look at things that relates to human rights, things that relate to governance. This is what they are contributing to.

What they need to know is that the United Nations does more than what appears on TV screens. The work that is done in Darfur, in Somalia, in Ivory Coast, in Cote d'Ivoire, even places - the humanitarian work in Iraq and Afghanistan -all of these is part of the contribution that the United States makes to the work of the United Nations.

So what really needs to come out very clearly is their contribution and how we can work together to enhance the principle of multilateralism in addressing issues of global importance.

MARTIN: United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Asha Rose Migiro, the second in command of the organization. She's in Washington, D.C. for her first official visit. She was kind enough to join us in our studio here in Washington.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Dr. MIGIRO: Thank you.

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