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December 19, 2016

Human rights lawyer. African Union Goodwill Ambassador for Ending Child Marriage. These are just a couple of hats Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda wears besides chairing the ActionAid International Board. I had the chance to learn more about her work when she visited Washington, D.C., to speak about women’s economic equality at the IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings.

What inspires you about your work?

The extraordinary stories that people bring to finding solutions, to issues they face in their own lives, the daily invisible struggles, the significant struggles that people go through, including my own struggles being born in Zimbabwe … and just knowing that people are deeply committed, taking action, they are finding solutions and they’re questioning the system. That inspires me.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

The best advice that I’ve ever received is that in life we should strive to do what is right and not necessarily what is popular, that you need to be comfortable with your decision, and you need to be humble to know that you do not know everything but you always strive to do your best.

That advice has kept me going, to know that I have to be humble. I have to have a team around me, a team that complements, a team that advises, and a team that supports, and in doing so, I need to be confident as a decision maker to make the right decision. At times it’s not a popular decision, but it’s the right decision.

If you were able to, what one thing would you change that would make the biggest difference for the lives of the people you are working with?

To work towards us having in this world people in positions of responsibility to be responsible, because we have enough policies to advance human rights, to advance women’s rights … but we have a deficit of accountable leadership.

If we were to talk to you again in 5 years’ time, what will be different?

In five years’ time I’ll be a little bit older (laughs), and I would be talking about how, in 2016, the ActionAid federation took a Board decision for our new strategy to re-position the issues of rights and redistribution and to do that with people’s movements in a way that shifts power to people and also in a way that demands accountability.

I would like in five years’ time to be able to talk about concrete examples of where that would’ve happened, whether it’s in… Sri Lanka, whether it’s in Guatemala or in Haiti, or it’s our work in Zambia or Ghana or it’s our work in Greece or in the UK or here in the US – and say, We were there in practical solidarity with peoples and with their movements and with their social effort to define what they want in their own lives and the kind of development they’re looking for, and that their lives are a little bit better even if all the issues are not fully resolved. They are part of the decision-making, there have been some shifts in social policies [and] in economic policies in ways that recognize and respect human rights and human well-being and in ways in which people can access a little bit of justice.

How would it look differently if power were to be shifted to the people?

I think first it’s language. We need to shift language around some of the basic nomenclature that is used ordinarily. Like, it’s [a] “hard-to-reach” community. The moment you say “hard-to-reach” you’re creating a barrier. “Oh, it’s very difficult for me to go to this village, and therefore maybe we should not work there. So it means we are limiting our own possibilities to engage. So we need to shift that language in a way that recognizes that it’s not easy but at the same time we have to access and work with these communities.

We need to shift the partnerships that we have so that we are supporting more the people’s groups … to be able to, with intentionality, choose whom we work with and how we work with them, in a way that we do not appropriate their voice but we create space and a platform for them to speak for themselves, so we are an enabler of their voice and not necessarily collecting their issues and speaking on their behalf.

It’s also important that we keep authenticity of how the narrative is articulated … What we would need is for that community to be able to say, We want to be involved in local government decisions to do with land rights, with farmers’ rights, so that we are able to address the issues around climate adaptation, so that we are able to support an articulation that is specific and that also enables to provide practical solution and to provide the necessarily policy solutions to sustain that discussion.

Follow Nyaradzayi on Twitter: @vanyaradzayi