• English

Fair Finance: The women entrepreneurs lifting communities out of poverty

Goodwill Ambassador Sonia Gardner. UNCDF

Moroccan-born Ms. Gardner, is one of the most prominent senior women in the financial sector, and has been an industry leader for over two decades, as president of a multi-billion dollar New York-based global alternative investment fund. She has pledged to use her new role as the first-ever UNCDF Goodwill Ambassador to promote opportunities and resources for women business owners, and improve living standards for underserved communities. 

UN News: Why is it important to help more women gain access to finance?  

Sonia Gardner:  First, finance can play an important role in facilitating economic growth in the world’s poorest countries and that, in turn, can improve the investment climate and living standards for underserved women in those communities.

Separately, women have traditionally faced many obstacles in building their careers in the finance industry. For example, in some areas of finance, the percentage of women in C-Suites (executive-level managers) is less than 10 per cent, and gender inequality tends to become more pronounced as one moves up the career ladder, particularly as many women drop out in middle management for a variety of reasons.  

These are the types of challenges I hope to help address as Goodwill Ambassador for UNCDF.  I am truly honoured and humbled to serve in this role.

UN News:  What are some of the challenges faced by women?

Sonia Gardner: I think one of the biggest challenges faced by women continues to be unequal treatment in the workplace.  Since I entered the workforce 30 years ago, there has been improvement, but there still is much work to be done to eliminate systemic inequality.  

In 1986, I entered the world of finance and built a business working closely with my brother.  In part because of that, I didn’t face the same challenges that many women in our industry have confronted as they have worked their way up the corporate ladder, or hit the glass ceiling.  I faced different challenges; at the top of the list, was the experience of being the only senior woman in the room on too many occasions over the last 30 years.  

Much has been written about how to solve the problem of systemic inequality, and although some progress has been made over the years, there is still much work that needs to be done to increase the number of senior women in finance.  As you can imagine, gender inequality in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) is a far greater problem.

The United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) is supporting women’s economic empowerment in the world’s 47 Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

UN News: As Goodwill Ambassador, who are you advocating for?

Sonia Gardner: My area of focus is on gender equality in the 47 least developed countries working to give women access to economic resources.  These women in the LDCs need capital to start and grow businesses and provide a path to lift their families out of poverty.

I absolutely believe that most men and women see that change is necessary. Women in the LDCs are particularly underserved and vulnerable.

UN News: Why are you so passionate about this issue?

Sonia Gardner: This issue is critical to me because the inequities are so stark and so few women experience financial inclusion.  

My personal background has helped shape my perspective.  I was born in Morocco and, at age four, I immigrated to the United States with my family. I grew up in a small two-bedroom apartment and shared a room with my brother and sister for many years.  

My parents came here with almost nothing, and their primary goal was for us to have a good education.  They made incredible sacrifices and we all went to college and law school on scholarships and loans.  I’m grateful every day for the success I have had over the years and I believe giving back is central to anyone’s success. I have truly lived the American Dream.

Despite my modest upbringing, I was afforded numerous opportunities in my life that helped me to achieve success. I want to give my time and use my voice to help improve the lives of women in the LDCs because that’s one of the areas where I see the greatest needs, at this time.  

The United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) is supporting women’s economic empowerment in the world’s 47 Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

UN News: What will you do to bring about change and make it easier for women to access finance?

Sonia Gardner:  Last year, I was able to meet Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the incredible mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone.  Since meeting the Mayor at an event during the UN General Assembly, I have helped her build an early learning centre at the Congo Water Market in Freetown, for 40 preschool children ages one to five.  A second centre for an additional 40 children will be built later this year.   

These centres will allow women working at the market to have their children get a head start on a quality education.    

I look forward to broadening this type of support, for UNCDF to make finance work for the poor and help to achieve the SDGs. 

In much of the world, women are the providers. They, like the market women in Sierra Leone, are earning money and supporting their families every day.  It’s very hard for them to get any sort of financing or backing or even childcare. I’m planning my first trip to Sierra Leone, which will hopefully be in the fall, to visit the childcare centres and see first-hand the positive change for these market women and their children. 

UN News: What do your peers in this male-dominated industry make of your appointment as Goodwill Ambassador?  

Sonia Gardner: My peers are very excited that I’ve taken on this role, and have been very supportive.  They agree that we need to improve the pipeline and build a system that supports women, to eliminate the systemic inequality women have traditionally faced.  

Studies have found that, because mentorship for young women is so important, both senior women and men need to participate.  I saw this in my work as the Chair of 100 Women in Finance, which does important work with its NextGen programme. My hope is to create a network of my peers, men and women alike, who will mentor women in the Least Developed Countries and help find solutions to lift them out of poverty.

The UNCDF and a fairer future

  • The UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) makes public and private finance work for the poor in the world’s 47 least developed countries.
  • By strengthening how finance works for poor people, UNCDF contributes to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1 on eradicating poverty, and SDG 17 on developing partnerships that advance the UN’s goal of a fairer future for all.
  • Ms. Gardner’s designation as the UNCDF’s first-ever Goodwill Ambassador is a recognition of her achievements in both finance, and philanthropy and her commitment to the cause of gender equality.

Children among dead following bomb attacks in northern Syria

According to media reports, a car bomb detonated in the town of Azaz on Sunday, killing four and injuring at least 22. One of the dead was reportedly a 12-year-old girl. The attack comes just a day after an attack in Afrin, also in the Aleppo region, also a car-bombing, which reportedly killed six civilians, three of whom were children. 

In a Tweet published on Sunday, Mark Cutts, the UN Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, strongly condemned the bomings, and called for the attacks to stop, describing them as the latest in a series of indiscriminate attacks on civilians: at least 22 children have reportedly been killed in Syria this year. 

“These recent attacks are a stark reminder that violence continues in Syria and children continue to be in danger day in, day out”, said Bo Viktor Nylund, UN children’s agency (UNICEF) Representative in Syria, in a statement released on Sunday.

UNICEF, added Mr. Nyland, reminds all parties to the Syrian conflict of their obligations to protect children at all times and refrain from violence in civilian areas.

Ten years on from the beginning of the conflict, children continue to be the hardest hit by unprecedented destruction, displacement and death. “They have lost their lives, homes and childhoods”, declared Mr. Nyland. “It is high time that the violence in Syria comes to an end”.

The attacks come at a time when the Syrian peace process appears to be at an impasse. On Friday, after a meeting involving members of the UN-facilitated Syrian Constitution Committee, in Geneva, Geir Pedersen, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, expressed his disappointment at the slow progress being made, and called for a new approach from all sides in the conflict.

FROM THE FIELD: Celebrating the power of centuries-old farming techniques

An ancient olive tree in Spain © Mancomunidad Taula del Sénia

From the Peruvian Andes, to the steep slopes of Shikoku in Japan, ancient agricultural practices, steeped in knowledge passed down over several generations, have allowed people to understand how to best cultivate local crops, and maintain the health of the soil and land.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is highlighting some of the best examples, designating them as Globally Important Heritage Systems, which can provide pointers on the best ways to restore ecosystems.

They could also be useful to help improve degraded soil, increase fish stocks in overfished waters, and restore polluted lands.

Discover more about the Heritage Systems, here.

Hopes of fresh momentum in fight against leprosy, but stigmatization persists

“We should learn from the history of leprosy. To better fight against an epidemic or a pandemic, we must eliminate discrimination and double standards for those who have been systematically left behind”. This is the message from Alice Cruz, an independent UN rights expert, and Special Rapporteur on the elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members, on World Leprosy Day.

Setbacks likely, inaction blamed

Ms. Cruz notes that the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic – which range from deprivation of the right to education, housing and employment, to domestic and sexual violence – mirror those experienced by sufferers of leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease) over thousands of years.

In May 2020, the independent UN expert raised the alarm of the disproportionate effect that the pandemic is having on leprosy sufferers, in an open letter addressed to governments in which she called for detailed actions plans.

In her message for World Leprosy Day, Ms Cruz warned that an inadequate response from countries where the disease is prevalent, is likely to lead to a setback in leprosy control, transmission and prevention of disabilities, as well as in the worsening of an already extremely precarious standard of living.

Changing mindsets

Leprosy is curable, if treatment swiftly follows a timely diagnosis, but if patients are not treated, they can be left with irreversible physical impairments and disabilities. However, in his message for the Day, Yohei Sasakawa, the World Health Organization (WHO) Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, points out that early diagnosis of leprosy and prompt treatment are not enough to overcome the disease. 

“It also requires changing mindsets”, he says, “so that leprosy is no longer a source of shame or prejudice. We must remove all barriers in the way of those seeking medical care. We must eliminate the obstacles that prevent affected individuals and their families from living in dignity and enjoying all their basic human rights as full members of society”.

Mr. Sasakawa expressed confidence that the WHO’s Global Leprosy Strategy for 2021-2030 will generate new momentum in the fight against the disease, and looked forward to “an inclusive society in which everyone has access to quality treatment and services, and a diagnosis of leprosy no longer comes with a possibility of devastating physical, social, economic or psychological consequences”.

Fair Finance: How can the global inequality gap be narrowed?

UN Special Envoy Hiro Mizuno. Hiro Mizuno

Before his appointment as Special Envoy, on 30 December 2020, Mr. Mizuno, of Japan, served as Chief Investment Officer of the Japan Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF). He serves on the board of the Principles for Responsible Investment Association (PRI, an UN-backed body that aims to create sustainable markets that contribute to a more prosperous world for all), and has taken part in UN discussions on promoting the Sustainable Development Goals.

UN NEWS: How did you come to be involved with the UN and sustainable investment?

Hiro Mizuno: My journey started with a charity dinner around seven years ago, when I found myself sat next to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. I was a partner at a private equity firm at the time, and Mr. Annan asked me why Japanese investors were not interested in ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance investing, otherwise known as sustainable investing). I couldn’t answer, because this was the first time that I’d heard of ESG! When he explained, my first reaction was that, in fact, this sounded very much like a natural fit with Japanese corporate philosophy.

I’ve been working in the financial sector throughout my professional life. However, up until I became the Chief Investment Officer of the Japanese Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF), I had always struggled with the concept at the heart of the investment industry; that, to win, you have to beat the market by outsmarting everyone else. I questioned whether the industry was adding any added value to society.

Then, when I joined the GPIF, which holds more than $100 trillion in assets, I realised that we effectively were the market. This is when I came up with the idea of universal ownership: as universal owners, it made more sense for us to contribute, by making the system better for everyone.

We soon started to get questions from the big portfolio managers, asking us what we were trying to achieve, and how they should respond. We started to use the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a convenient way to explain our strategy to corporate executives.

CIFOR/Tri Saputro
A farmer harvests rice in Bantaeng, Indonesia.

UN News: How can the financial sector address the growing gap between rich and poor?

Hiro Mizuno: The famous French economist Thomas Piketty, writes that the returns on investment outperform the economic growth rate. This means that those who hold financial assets become wealthier than the general workforce, who earn money from a salary. His conclusion was that, as a result, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.

When I was at the Japanese Government Pension Investment Fund, my aim was to reduce that gap. We handled huge financial assets and, by growing the fund, we could use pensions to allow ordinary people to benefit from the returns.

As CIO, inequality was always on my mind, all kinds of inequality, including between men and women, and between the Global North and Global South. If you look at the 17 SDGs, you can classify them as being about either sustainability, or inclusiveness.

Achieving inclusiveness is, of course, a way of reducing inequality, but so is sustainability: if we fail to deal with the climate crisis, we will be creating a sustainability gap between past and future generations, one that is unfair on those who will be left to deal with a world that is in a worse state than at present.

© UNICEF/Dhiraj Singh
A woman combs her granddaughter’s hair outside their home in Maharashtra, India.

UN News: Should the financial system be completely overhauled?

Hiro Mizuno: One of the problems with the financial system is that it’s largely based on an investment theory that is at least thirty years old. Redesigning a system takes a long time. It may, eventually, work much better, but expending the effort may mean doing nothing else for too long.

We only have 10 years to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and that is not enough time to change the whole system. What we can do is try to address technical hurdles. If we do that, we’ll get less pushback from investment professionals.

It’s true that many of those who work in finance feel constrained by the system, but things are changing: 10 years ago, investment professionals felt awkward about putting the word “sustainable” in their portfolio, but now that is seen as being acceptable.

What we need, I think, is much more innovation. There are so many technically smart people in this industry and, if we can address technical issues, there will be a domino effect that will lead to real, systemic change. 

UN News: What can you achieve as Special Envoy?

Hiro Mizuno: I’ve only been in this role for a short time, and I’m still trying to figure out what leverage I will have, but what the UN certainly has, is the power to bring decision-makers together to solve some of the world’s greatest problems. I’m very excited to work with the different parts of the UN System, as well as with the Secretary-General, to see how we can achieve change.

My goal is to use the financial sector to speed up the transition to a more equitable world. At a more practical level, I want to make investments more compatible with the Sustainable Development Goals. 

As we head towards to UN climate conference in November (COP26, due to be held in Glasgow in November), I want to see us create momentum, and get businesses aligned between themselves, as well as with our social and environmental goals. One thing I’ve learned throughout my career is that, when everyone is aligned, everything accelerates.

FROM THE FIELD: COVID crisis creates new wave of self-reliance for Tonga

The Tonga Rural Innovation Project © IFAD/ Todd M. Henry

COVID-related travel restrictions, and increasing prices of imports, have created new challenges, on top of destructive weather events, such as tropical cyclones which can sweep over the archipelago, destroying crops and infrastructure.

UN-supported projects are encouraging the inhabitants of Tonga’s 36 inhabited islands to return to rural areas and grow food, reducing their dependence on imported products, and boost the local economy.

Initiatives include training on how to develop backyard plots, healthy eating tips, and outdoor classes where farmers learn about new plant varieties, and improved cultivation practices.

You can find out more about the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD) work in Tonga, here.

Myanmar: UN chief following developments ‘with great concern’

“The Secretary-General is following with great concern recent developments in Myanmar”, his spokesperson said in a statement on Thursday. 

Tensions have been rising following the outcomes of the November 2020 general elections, in which the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) claimed an overwhelming victory. 

According to media reports, other political parties disputed the results, alleging the polls were marred by irregularities. Media reports also said that earlier this week, a senior military official made a statement against the election results, which added to the tensions.  

The new parliament is scheduled to convene on Monday. 

‘Adhere to democratic norms’ 

In the statement, Mr. Guterres called on “all actors to desist from any form of incitement or provocation, demonstrate leadership, and to adhere to democratic norms and respecting the outcome of the 8 November general election.” 

“All electoral disputes should be resolved through established legal mechanisms”, he added. 

The Secretary-General also reaffirmed the support of the United Nations to the people and Government of Myanmar “in their pursuit of peace, inclusive sustainable development, humanitarian action, human rights and rule of law.” 

‘We can’t continue like this’: UN envoy’s grim assessment of Syria peace process

Mr. Pedersen said that he had conveyed his disappointment to the members of the Small Body of the Committee – which comprises 45 delegates (the full body contains 150 members, drawn from representatives of the Government, opposition groups, and civil society) tasked with drafting a new Syrian constitution – in frank terms.

“I told the 45 members of the drafting body that we can’t continue like this, that the week has been a disappointment. I set out a few things I thought we should be able to achieve before we started this meeting, and I am afraid we did not manage to achieve these things”, said Mr. Pedersen. “I believe the reason for that is that there has not been a proper understanding on how we are going to make progress in the Committee”. 

During a Security Council briefing on 20 January, Mr. Pedersen signalled his low expectations of Friday’s meeting, the fifth time that the Small Body has come together, warning that the political process is not delivering real change, and that free and fair elections “seem far into the future”.

Citing disagreements on process between the two Co-Chairs, representing the Syrian Government and the opposition, Mr. Pedersen said that a new approach to the talks is needed, if they are to continue.

Geir O. Pedersen, UN Special Envoy for Syria (file),
by UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

No timetable 

Given the current state of the talks, Mr. Pedersen said that he was not able to announce a date for a sixth session. The Special Envoy’s upcoming plans include a potential trip to the Syrian capital, Damascus, to hold talks with the Government, as well as discussions with the Turkey-based Syrian National Council, an opposition coalition, and meetings with representatives of countries including Russia, Iran, Turkey and the US.

Syria has been beset by brutal conflict, economic collapse, and a disastrous humanitarian crisis for some ten years. The UN humanitarian office, OCHA, estimates that around 80 per cent of the population lives in poverty, and civilians face a range of dangers, from instability, arbitrary detention and abduction, to criminality and the activities of terrorist groups.

Mr. Pedersen announced that he will update the Security Council on the situation in Syria, on 9 February.

Central African Republic: 200,000 displaced in less than two months

More than half are displaced within the country, but 92,000 people have crossed into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), while more than 13,200 are now in Cameroon, Chad and the Republic of the Congo. 

UNHCR Spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov, said the continuing volatility has hampered humanitarian response, making it more difficult to access people displaced inside the CAR. 

Armed groups present 

He added that the main road used to bring supplies has also been forced shut.  

“Armed groups are reportedly present in the Batangafo and Bria sites where displaced communities are sheltering, in violation of the humanitarian and civilian nature of those sites”, said Mr. Chershirkov, speaking during the bi-weekly UN briefing in Geneva. 

“Such presence poses a grave protection risk for those displaced, from risk of forced recruitment to restriction of movement to extortion or threats.” 

Crossing rivers to safety 

Central Africans arriving in the DRC have crossed the Ubangi, Mbomou and Uele rivers which form a natural border between the two countries.

They have settled into some 40 localities in the provinces of North Ubangi, South Ubangi, and Bas Uele.  Many are living in dire conditions in remote, hard-to-reach areas close to river arteries, without basic shelter and facing acute food shortages.  

The refugees are dependent on catching fish and whatever local villagers can spare, although they themselves have extremely limited resources.  

“For many, the river is also the sole water source for drinking, washing, and cooking. Malaria, respiratory infections, and diarrhoea have become common among the refugees”, the UNHCR spokesperson told journalists. 

Partners on the ground are treating patients and distributing medicine amid mounting needs. The vast distances and extremely poor road conditions means it is taking time for aid to arrive. 

Mounting humanitarian needs 

“UNHCR is pre-positioning emergency supplies in Yakoma, North Ubangi province, before vast areas become inaccessible by road with the looming rainy season in six weeks, when costly airlifts will be the only means of delivering assistance”, Mr. Chershikov said.  

The UN agency has appealed for international support so humanitarians can continue providing lifesaving assistance to the refugees and their host communities. 

Although some $151.5 million is needed this year, only two per cent has been received so far.

Follow the science: UN plans for a stronger pandemic recovery

In her remarks to the event, Ms. Mohammed noted the far-reaching social, economic, and health impacts of the pandemic, the disproportionate effect that it has had on the most marginalized populations, and the 70 million extra people who have been pushed into poverty as a result of measures taken to curb the spread of the virus.

A new future’

“COVID-19”, said the deputy UN chief, “has made it evident that we must build a new future through transformative changes that prioritize equity, resilience and sustainability”.

We must build a new future through transformative changes that prioritize equity, resilience and sustainability Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General

The Open Dialogue on Science for Development in the Context of COVID-19, billed as a first-of-its-kind event, was convened by the UN and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, to highlight the importance of science and global collaboration. 

The discussions between the senior representatives of research institutions and senior UN officials were based on partnership strategies, including the UN Research Roadmap for the COVID-19 Recovery, released in November 2020.

With the virus exposing stark global inequities, the roadmap is designed to address the complex health, humanitarian and socio-economic consequences of COVID-19, while boosting speedy recovery efforts, and encouraging targeted research for data-driven responses that focus particularly on the needs of people being left behind. Many of the experts who contributed to the Roadmap also participated in the Open Dialogue.

A scientist tests a sample suspected of containing a bacterial toxin.

Closer collaboration

The event served as a stepping-stone towards the UN’s aim of ramping up progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, through closer collaboration between researchers, funding agencies, governments and civil society organizations, as well as UN entities.

“To succeed, we need solutions and global action that is focused, coordinated and unified”, declared Ms. Mohammed. “It will require new and strengthened partnerships across the global research community and between researchers, research funding organizations and the United Nations”. 

The UN response to COVID-19, as of January 2021

  • 118 Socio Economic Response Plans have been finalized by UN Country Teams 
  • Two billion dollars in new funds have been mobilized 
  • Three billion dollars have been repurposed 
  • 127 UN Country Teams have repurposed existing funding towards COVID-19 recovery 
  • With UN support, 75 countries have national COVID-19 Socio Economic Response Plans 

Get help now

Send a message with a description of your problem and possible ways of assistance and we will contact you as soon as we consider your problem.

    [recaptcha class:captcha]