Sahlework Zewde: Embodiment of Doggedness

Sahlework Zewde was born and grew up in Addis Ababa. She is the first born of four girls.  Her father was a senior officer in the Imperial army and believed in educating his children.  She did her elementary and high schooling at Lycee G/Mariam.  When she successfully finished her baccalaureate, she won a scholarship and went to France at the age of seventeen.  She studied natural sciences and graduated from the University of Montpellier, France.  She got married and gave birth to her two sons.

After nine years of stay in France, Sahlework came back and started working at the Ministry of Education in the Public Relations Department as a Public Relations Officer, and later on headed the Department. She joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which has opened doors to work at the international levels.

Sahlework has more than two decades of progressively responsible experience at the national, regional and international levels.  She was the Special Representative of the UN Secretary  experience at the national, regional and international levels.   Central African Republic (2009-2011). She served as the Permanent Representative of Ethiopia to the AU and ECA as well as Director General for African affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia (2006-2009). She was Ambassador to France, Permanent Representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and accredited to Tunisia and Morocco (2002-2006).  From 1993 to 2002, she served as Ambassador to Djibouti and Permanent Representative to the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), and to Senegal, with accreditation to Mali, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia and Guinea (1989-1993).

The United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon has appointed Sahlework as the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Nairobi (UNON) in March 2011.  She is the first person to be appointed to the newly created position as head of the Organization’s Nairobi Office, at the Under-Secretary-General level and she has been working as the Director General since then.

There are three UN offices away from Headquarters (OAHs): One in Geneva, and in Vienna and another in Nairobi .  UNON is the only UN Headquarters located in Africa and indeed in the global south.  Describing the difficulty of holding this position, Sahlework said, “UNON has been in existence since 1996. I am the first dedicated DG. As you know nature abhors vacuum and it was not easy to ascertain the role of the new position. I am privileged as a woman and as an African to be the first incumbent.  For an Ethiopian woman, this is the first post at the level of UN under the Secretary General. Currently there is an Ethiopian man holding a USG position.”

Talking about passion in life, Sahlework said, “Service is my passion, especially serving a country and serving a cause.  I have been a civil servant all my life and public service has been the core of my life.   I started working at the Ministry of Education and grew up to its fullness internationally, thanks also to the opportunity I have been given. UN is a complex organization but what drove me in the national service is what brought me to the UN to service.  Being at service is indeed my passion.”

Asked about her vision for her country, Sahlework responded “I would like to see my    country prospering, developed, and cohesive; to see Ethiopia continue playing an important role both at national, continental and global level.  I truly believe that a country     gains more importance and prominence if it is also a major actor in its immediate         surroundings, its sub region. Ethiopia has been very active within IGAD and the AU.    This kind of posture can pull the country up.  I would like Ethiopia to have enhanced     role in the region and in Africa and strengthen her influence.

Describing how her presence at the UN can be a vehicle for what she dreams, Sahlework reiterated, “Now I am at the UN.  The UN is huge.  The fact that the UN has one of its HQ in Africa is a unique experience.  This is an opportunity to draw the organization nearer to the people.  Geneva, Vienna and New York are far away in the northern hemisphere.  UN is needed not only for peace keeping, but also to address Africa’s development issues. Being an Ambassador has given me plenty of opportunities to improve the distorted images of Ethiopia and coordinate the diaspora to support their country.  I initiated not only country to country diplomatic relations but also people to people, twining cities, private sector relations, etc.  Traditionally relationships were limited only government to government but now it has developed and is multifaceted. It is about building new bridges between countries.  I am lucky to be a French speaker; that has facilitated my work, my integration and brought me closer to the francophone Africa such as countries in West and Central Africa. As you can see all the countries I was assigned to were French speakers.”

Wanting to know more about her achievements, Sahlework was asked to talk about what she felt happy about what she has accomplished.  She mentioned a couple of things.  “When I was the Ambassador of Ethiopia to Djibouti, a war broke between Ethiopia and Eritrea. All Ethiopia’s import and export activities were shifted overnight from Assab to the port of Djibouti.  You can imagine the huge logistical implication not to mention the lack of expertise and readiness since it came all of a sudden. Just to mention a figure: we had to deal with more than 300 trucks that were diverted to Djibouti in one day! Life had to continue. I think that with the support from the government, different Ethiopian entities operating in Djibouti, my staff, we managed to avoid a major disruption. I need to mention here the strong support that we have received from the Djiboutian government. Imagine finding a secured parking place in the city for hundreds of trucks.”

“The second achievement I would like to talk about is the way we managed to dissipate some concerns from neighboring as well as some African countries about the possibility of the Ethiopian-multi ethnic policy to be exported somewhere else.  Through time and consistent diplomacy, I think this was reversed and the country is enjoying a good relationship based on mutual respect and confidence.”

In addition, to her achievements, Sahlework described how she enabled others to do great work. “I have always tried to expose people who work under me. Exposure and providing opportunities are the two elements that helped me to reach thus far.  Hence, I believe that we can enable others to do great work when we give them chances to utilize their potential and expose them to different opportunities.

When the government appointed me to Djibouti, I was very reluctant to accept it. I thought being a woman in a Muslim country might not be conducive to getting the two countries closer. I thank the then Foreign Minister who insisted for me to take the position. I am grateful for his encouragement. Looking back, my best years in my diplomatic life were in Djibouti where I can see the impact of my work. I try to do the same for others.  In mission trips and delegates meetings, I take others with me and give them the opportunity to interact with others, answer questions and allow them to experience diplomacy both by observing as well as acting. I allow them to fail and rise. Delegation is my way of enabling people.”

What enables a woman to thrive is motivation. Motivation can push a woman to the limit. It is also the will or personal conviction that one has. An individual’s vision is very important in his or her success. I will also mention exposure and opportunities.  In my case, I have made it a personal commitment to help other women in their journey.  Given my position and my own personal experience, I am fully aware of the obstacles that women come across; I know firsthand that it is not an easy route, just being a woman even makes achieving anything twice as hard.  Therefore, I do not take it for granted that others would have it easy. It is part of my duties and responsibility and clearly outlined in my compact with the Secretary General.  Therefore, having accepted this job; I have a responsibility to promote the Secretary-General’s commitment on gender equality and women’s empowerment.”

It is possible to break the numerous barriers that exist for women, some of which are self-inflicted as a result of our socialization process.  However, the terrain remains harsh and we need to remain conscious of that so that we can be committed in helping each other. We cannot take what we have for granted. I have learned through my own experience that a woman has to always prove she is able for the job. As women, we cannot be divided.

Sahlework ranked as the first dedicated DG of UNON, the first woman appointed to this position, and the Secretary-General’s Representative in Nairobi which is the only UNHQ in the Global South.  “I am often called upon to advance various causes including areas such as girl child education, gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment in various fields, poverty reduction, improving inequalities, violence against women and insecurity all of which affect women indiscriminately.  I therefore take it as a responsibility to assist where and whenever possible.  For example, in February this year, in a joint initiative between UN Women and Kenyatta University, I was the guest of honor and called upon to launch the African Centre for Transformative and Inclusive Leadership aimed at accelerating leadership which is more equitable and sustainable on the continent.  In another opportunity I was called to participate in a women’s refugee forum targeting women refugees from Somalia.”

As the DG of UNON effective management is key since UNON is a common service provider to the many UN entities, two UN Global programs UNEP and UN Habitat, headquartered in Nairobi as well as to many UN funds and agencies in Kenya.  “As I said before there was no dedicated DG before me so I can say with the leadership I have tried to provide and the collective work we have gained the confidence and the satisfaction of our clients.”

Demonstrating commitment to coaching, in November 2013, in collaboration with UN Women, Sahelwork established a Women Leadership Network to monitor and encourage conscious efforts in gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment within the UN in Nairobi. Coaching and mentorship are key pillars in this network.  “We sometimes take it for granted that we constantly need to mentor and support one another, therefore we need to be reminded at every opportunity. We hope that this initiative will expand beyond the UN in Nairobi to other duty stations as well.”

Discussing about her vision, Sahlework stated,Gender equality and the empowerment of women are gaining ground worldwide.  This is evident in that there are more women in leadership positions. I would even say the world has an increasing need of women leaders.  For example we have more women heads of state or governments today than ever, and the highest proportion of women serving as government ministers and parliamentarians.  Women are also exercising greater influence in business. We need to see more role models.  More girls are going to school, and are growing up healthier and better equipped. Fewer women are dying in childbirth.  However, the terrain remains rough and we still have a long way to go. No matter where we are in the world, a baby girl born today will still face inequality and discrimination simply because of her gender. We must remember that the struggle continues, as no country in the world has succeeded in achieving equality between women and men so my vision is to see a world where gender equality is a norm.”

AWiB interviewed Zenebwork Tadesse, one of the first round AWiB Women of Excellence, and she witnessed that Sahlework’s character as loyal, committed with good work ethics, focused, a person who takes her life and relationships seriously.  She is very devoted to her country and gained respect at the government as well as international level due to her professionalism and personal integrity.  As she was an Ambassador to France, it was in her diplomatic efforts that brought government-private investors relations that corporate business organizations like Castell and BMI have invested in Ethiopia.

AWiB salutes Sahlework for her international level appointment and modelling diligence!

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