Thought Leader: Bineta Diop

March 6, 2013

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Bineta Diop. A native of Senegal, Ms. Diop is executive director and founder of Femmes Africa Solidarité, an NGO working on issues of gender, peace, and development.

DEVIN STEWART: Ms. Diop, thank you very much for coming today. It's an honor to have you.

BINETA DIOP: Thank you for your invitation. I am very glad to be here today.

DEVIN STEWART: Our pleasure.

We start these interviews by trying to understand the world as it is today in the eyes of the interviewees. How would you describe the world today, what's unique, and particularly from a moral perspective?

BINETA DIOP: I think this world as I see it, in the eyes of where I'm situatedand I think it's important that we see that as an African woman's perspective, in terms of the continent where I come from vis-à-vis the global worldI think that there are a lot of things that we can say that have been good in general. But still, we have inequalities that exist. If I see the continent that I come from, we see a lot of conflicts still going on. Those conflicts are civil wars that did not exist before. For me, a war is a country against another one. But now we have internal conflicts that affect the population and, in particular, the civilians. That's what I see.

I see also inequalities in terms of distribution of wealth.

Also, we have so many conventions that all UN member states have accepted, in particular the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, but when it comes to the implementation, and the access of the rights of the people, the individuals, but also the collective, I see a lot of inequality still going on.

We have also challenges in development. Certain nations have been in the development road for quite some time, and you see those that are still lagging behind. I think that the Millennium Development Goals were good targets in general, good commitment. But again, implementation is lagging behind.

DEVIN STEWART: The implementation of the conventions, as you put it, and the lack of equality, or inequalityand you also identified civil warswhat are the implications of these major trends?

BINETA DIOP: I think the major implicationI have quoted one of themis it creates tension among the population, tensions in the world that I see. Maybe also misunderstanding, misinterpretation. There is a lot of non-communication among nations. The issue of culture, the issue of diversity sometimes for me is a positive trend, but at the end of the day it brings also the tension among countries and among nations, sometimes inside the country, but sometimes also among nations.

I think of the wealth that the world has in their hands and gross inequality of distribution. But also, when we use the issues of culture and diversity, instead of it being something that we can benefit from, what has ended up is those cultures and those traditions being used to really bring conflict among the people in the population.

DEVIN STEWART: Ms. Diop, you mentioned something that has been a common theme in these interviews. One is inequality. Another one is tension between particular cultures. No one thinks that culture is going to go away, nor should it. Do you have any observations or recommendations for people to reconcile cultural tensions?

BINETA DIOP: I think that we will still continue to have those tensions. Conflict is natural in humankind relations. I think that for us it is the way that those conflicts are managed, misunderstanding each other. I think international relations and negotiation are part of the international norms and standards, and the application of those norms and standards is to sit together and understand each other and also identify a common denominator where we can agree and respect each other.

I think we go back to the fundamental rule of law, human rights standards, and also all the legalese that we have ratified, most of us. But the main issue is how do people integrate it, how it goes down to the people to make sure that it makes sense to the population.

But I think that it goes back to the discussion around the table and solving our problems without taking guns. I think there is a way of solving the problem at the international level. But we still face the kind of conflict that we see in the name of the culture or religion. It is the names that have been used.

But I think the root causes of those conflicts should also not be neglected. Sometimes you have to deal with the processes. When I think of a country like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example,those are African conflictswe see that the wealth of the Congo is part of the problem and not part of the solution.

So we need to deal with the root cause of the conflict. Sometimes we neglect to go to those root causes of the conflict. Sometimes the religious issue has been used to fuel the conflict in some of our countries. I am talking particularly in Africa. Ethnicity is not the root of the conflict, but it has been used by leaders in our continent to fuel conflict, to use the ethnicity or to use the religion to continue to keep power. The whole issue, as I see it, is power sharing.

DEVIN STEWART: You've also mentioned a common denominator among cultures. You mentioned rule of law and human rights. Do you see shared values across cultures? We're looking at a global ethic here. Does that mean anything to you, and what does it mean?

BINETA DIOP: Yes. In terms of the global values, people tend to say thatand I can refer to even the discussion that I have been seeing in the UN right now, where we see two sides in terms of the fundamentalists, the extremism, and so onthey have the same motivation, but they don't come from the same background. They are rallying in the name of ethics, because they say that we are Muslim or we are Christian, but extreme. So religion brings them around the issue

They found a common ground by combating something that for us is part of the global ethic. For example, the right to protect. Wherever you come from, you are a Muslim or you are a Christianfor me it is important that this is the human value, and it should be part of our ethics. So globally, the right to protect whatever kind of citizen you are, it has nothing to do with religion, it has nothing to do with culture. This is the right to protect the citizenship, the individuals.

I see today we have been discussing violence against women. I think, wherever we come from, that should be part of the global ethic. Wherever you come from, you need to protect your citizens and you need to respect each other. Those are for me fundamental issues, that wherever you are coming from you should have those ethics and values.

DEVIN STEWART: Regarding those values and protecting people, are you optimistic? Do you think things are getting better or worse today?

BINETA DIOP: We have a lot of hope. I always say that at the time of my mother, things were so much more difficult. She worked for maybe 24 hours a day. But there were not the tools that we have now in terms of communication, the new technology. She didn't have all the necessities to make her life better.

And yet, I think in this new age of new technology of information, there is a lot that we have in our hands that can make our life easier. I think this is a revolution. I see in many villages in Africa the women have a cellular phone. They can communicate with another. And we see in terms of health it is fundamental and transforms people's lives. So I am very optimistic in the way that the new technology, when used in a good way, can transform in terms of health, in terms of education. It opens doors.

But we have seen also a new phenomenon, the environmental degradation, the use of the natural resources, the security of the people. So while we are gaining a lot in some ways, with the research that has been going on in the entire world and the access that is happening all over the world, in the meantime we have seen also a lot of issues that we need to deal with. That needs a common conscience of global engagement in those issues.

So it is not going just to affect Europe or America; it is going to affect the most vulnerable groups that don't have a lot of protection. In the coming years, Africa is going to face a lot of challenges of population, cities, having a young population, huge numbers. That will be really a big challenge to manage.

In the meantime, we see a lot of resources as well. If it is well managed, I think also it cannot just feed Africa but it can feed the world. We have land, we have water. Still, it is the inequality that exists that keeps the poor African from eating. And not just Africa; we can see it in other continents as well.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned several global issues as well as local issues. How would you describe the greatest ethical challenge of the world today?

BINETA DIOP: I think the issue really that I see coming and continuing to be a challenge is the fundamentalists. We call it Islam. I always go from global to local, because for me the experience that I have, even if I am sitting at the global level where negotiations are happening, I refer to the local. I see the sub-Saharan Africa issues of al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, all this phenomenon that we don't understand. What is their motivation in this global world? They are fighting against modern society.

I think this is going to continue to be a challenge not just for Africa, but also for the world, because what is happening in my country, Senegal, will affect, I'm sure, other continents as well.

What we see in Mali right now, we see that France is going to protect the Malians, probably because there are some links in the fighting around those fundamentalist issues, including the status of the women.

I think, wherever you are, you need to see the status of the women improve, and the conditions in the society as well. I am a Muslim and I understand the Qur'an. But if you look at what the fundamentalists will tell you about the Qur'an, I think it is a misinterpretation. They are using the religion with people that maybe don't read and write and who might not understand for their own benefit. So the challenge is to open the minds of the people and also to say that tradition should not mean, or even religion doesn't mean, alienating your people.

I don't know how to put it. I see a major threat in the world is really the people in the dark, as I call them. They don't want evolution of the nation, of humankind.

DEVIN STEWART: This is really interesting. It kind of sounds like the Western or European Dark Ages, people who are resisting

BINETA DIOP: Change. People that are resisting change. I think that's what we see, because modernism is coming. We have the media, we have Internet. It's penetrating each village, in each corner, everywhere. You see that people in the name of their religion or their culture don't want to see this transformation happening because it has an impact, a quick impact, in the society.

DEVIN STEWART: You said we have to open people's minds to respond to the people in the dark. How do we go about doing that?

BINETA DIOP: You want a solution.

I think that there are many ways that we need to tackle that. For me the first priority is education as part of the opening of people's minds and changing the mindsets. It is giving people access to knowledge. It has to go everywhere and it is not happening, especially in the South. So access to education, I think, can lead the next generation to understanding their own culture. It really is part of human beings. Everybody should be proud of their culture. It brings diversity. It shares something that is positive in the society.

I'll give you an example. In some traditions in Africa, for example, when there is war, the women come in front of the warriors and say, "We stop it." They stop it. That is part of it. So there are positive things in the culture that we should understand and people can use. So those are good trends.

But there are other issues we need to look at as part of education.

I should also think of the distribution of wealth. We see in many countries, bad leadership, bad governance, no respect of human rights. The media, for example, in some countries, there is no access to the public. In some countries, most journalists have been put in jail. So access to information is limited.

Citizenship, as we said, has to include more monitoringopen monitoringbeing more mobilized and demanding for rights. I think that this is very important.

We have a population that is not educated, that is dormant. So the populations are not in the streets demanding. And you don't only need to be in the street; you should be in the media challenging your government, making sure that all the protocols and instruments that have been ratified should be implemented. Citizens need to be told that that is their right. The state has obligations, but also people have their right to demand.

I think that we have a lot of challenges when our governments are not accountable to the people. Politicians request the people's vote, and they are in the street and demanding that the people vote for them. But once they are in position, they are not accountable back to the people. I think that is a big challenge.

DEVIN STEWART: We nearing our Centennial, 100 years since we were founded by Andrew Carnegie. We would like to look ahead to the next 100 years, as well. What would you like to see happen in the next few decades? Is it what you have talked about or is it something even more ambitious or anything else?

BINETA DIOP: In 100 years . . . I was talking to a young student the other day, an African. I told him I would like to see a prosperous Africa. For me when I say "prosperous" it's where we have enough so we can share the wealth that we have. And at peace with itself, because I think without peace we cannot be prosperous. For me they are interlinked.

I think that for the next generation we need to give them schools, we need to give them jobs; otherwise they will continue to be in the street doing the revolutions that we have seen in the Arab world. So for me the whole issue is, in 100 years, giving access to the wealth that we have.

I am very happy to see some philanthropists, like Carnegie and others, who have used their wealth for the benefit and well-being of the people, for education, health issues, environmental issues, prevention issues, gender issues, which are global issues.

I think, wherever you are situated, you want your children to go to school. Whatever situation you are in, you want to have access to health. Those are things that people like Carnegie have done with their thinking and their resources for humanity. I think that we need to see more of this.

I am very glad about this strategy that the wealthy people, like Bill and Melinda Gates, have launched recently. We see the wealthy useing their resources for humanity. I think that is great.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned earlier leadership, and you mentioned it briefly. What is a leader to you? How do you see moral leadership?

BINETA DIOP: I think for me it really has to be linked to the accountability to the people. I always say that leaders, how I define it, are people who care for the people. It's not up to the person to define himself to be a leader. I always say it is the people who really decide that you are a leader because of the values that you are promoting, caring about issues. You are guiding them, because maybe you have the expertise or the experience or you have those values in the society, and you care for the well-being of your people.

It emerges naturally. The people will come and say, "This is our leader." Of course, in the modern society we know that we have to go through a process to elect the leader at the top levelfor example, a president. But we have leaders at every level. We have it at the community level, at the village level.

It's not only a masculine issue. For me, leadership is also feminine. I always say that the men who have feminine values are part of the criteria for me to look for in leadership. It is that touch, that caring, giving, solidarity. Those are things that for me are very fundamental in leadership.

DEVIN STEWART: So those are feminine values in your opinion?

BINETA DIOP: Yes. Taking care of family. Those are those values that we have. It's where society has put women, to care about your family, your husband, your mother-in-law even, sometimes beyond your family. And it's caring. That's why you see more women in the hospitals. They are caring. There are these things that we have with us.

So when you see a man that has those kinds of feminine values, you see that it's part of the leadership value that you are looking for; people who care for people.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting.

BINETA DIOP: Andrew Carnegie, I'm sure that he had that.

DEVIN STEWART: He had a feminine side?

BINETA DIOP: Yes.

DEVIN STEWART: I think that's very profound. As you said, Andrew Carnegie was a caring figure. He cared.

BINETA DIOP: Tell me about him. He was, no?

DEVIN STEWART: He was. He cared deeply about world peace, which didn't happen, unfortunately. It was in 1914 when he started our place and the pursuit of world peace. Do you think world peace is possible?

BINETA DIOP: That's a big question. It is in the character of the human being to be a fighter. That's how I see it. But I think we can have a world of peacethat's my aimwithout violence.

You will tell me how you define peace, because we will still have conflict on issues, conflict on power sharing, conflict on many things, always conflict.

But I think it is the issue of violence that we need to fight, destroying human beings and humanity. I think that is it.

So it comes to the issue of arms. Of course, for me, the arms are there to protect a country, a population. But now we are using it in a so much different way that we need to look at it seriously. But the world is not touching it. So I think that it is part of the apparatus of war, and we need to dismantle some of those because that brings violence as well in our world.

So yes, a world of peace is possible. A world without conflict is impossible because this is part of humankind. But a world of peace is possible.

DEVIN STEWART: The last question is, who is accountable for the things we talked about today? How would you urge people to help and get involved? What advice would you give people?

BINETA DIOP: I think it starts from everybody. I would not say that it is one person who can bring peace in the world. I don't think that it is Obama alone who can make peace.

But peace starts at home. First it starts in the community, it starts to go to the village. So from local to global and from global to local. I think everybody has to work towards peace.

So we still have conflict, because it is part of the setting of humanity, but in the meantime we can settle it without having so much violence that we are seeing nowadays.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you very much.