Inclusive Leadership at the U.N.: Breaking Barriers to Change the Culture | Opinion

I took up my appointment as deputy joint special representative with the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) in Darfur, Sudan and received my first briefing on December 15, 2015.

In the briefing, it was reported that two weeks prior, villages in northern Darfur, specifically Anka, had been decimated for the third time by armed groups, women raped and communities displaced. I inquired about what the mission did and was told that continuing security concerns had prevented peacekeepers from traveling to the affected area. To me, this did not make sense and had to change. Peacekeepers are deployed to timely intervene and provide the necessary assistance as soon as possible.

As the deputy joint special representative in charge of protecting civilians in Darfur, I understood my new responsibilities involve so much more than just a title. The compound where UNAMID was based, in El Fasher, was heavily fortified, which created a physical barrier between us and the people we had come to serve. The photo of a family living in a makeshift shelter I hang in my office became a constant reminder to me, and anyone who entered the room, of the reason why we were in Darfur.

From all my years with United Nations Programmes, I knew how important it was to reach out, engage and listen to vulnerable populations. I also fully understand and appreciate the creation of a dedicated space to connect with the most vulnerable among conflict victims: women and children. On this tenet, after settling in, I began to regularly leave the safety of our El Fasher compound for field visits to remote villages and communities.

It was only by breaking barriers that my team and I were able to learn about others, which in turn allowed us to place the human at the center of all our operations.

Our Stance and Mission

The United Nations, over the past few years, has engaged in a thorough rethinking of its own culture. Even 75 years after the drafting of the U.N. Charter—We the Peoples—we have not yet achieved gender parity or geographic diversity. The Gender Parity Strategy, launched by Secretary-General António Guterres in 2017, and the current discussions on race sparked by last year's Black Lives Matter movements in the United States are welcome steps toward a more inclusive, universal U.N.

To change the culture, it is not only up to the secretary-general—nor can it be—to step out of the expected boundaries. Member states, U.N. personnel and the people need to demand this cultural shift. This would require an inclusive and committed leadership.

Small steps can bring forth meaningful change and shake the foundations of what many see as an institution that was built in a different era. Rethinking seating arrangements at meetings, practicing gender-sensitive language, asking people how they would like to be acknowledged and embracing cultural wear are some examples by which we can all practice inclusivity, humility and leading by example.

The United Nations logo
The United Nations logo is seen at the United Nations headquarters on May 20, 2021, in New York City. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

I believe that diverse, representative leadership is critically important as it relates to women's representation in the United Nations and particularly in peacekeeping operations. However, despite ongoing efforts, U.N. Peacekeeping is yet to reach gender parity—36 percent of women are present at headquarters, while in the field, only a handful of its 12 missions nears the 40 percent mark, at best.

To increase the number of women peacekeepers in the U.N., whether they are civilian—like me—or wear a uniform, we need to advance more female candidates, and we also need to consciously create an intersectional environment where they can flourish. This involves taking transformative actions: give women responsibilities commensurate with their skills and countering gender-based discrimination in the workplace, ensuring women's safety and security by considering gender when designing facilities and accommodations and providing medical services. The inclusion of women—of all people—requires diversity in thinking and action.

Voices from communities that we help protect—as in Darfur—are crucial for our decision-making. Inclusive leadership therefore means acknowledging whose voices have not been heard, in order to create space for those who have not yet claimed it for themselves.

From Blending in to Walking the Talk

In my early days working at the U.N., as a woman hailing from Guinea, I refrained from wearing African attire so that I "blended in." Later, I understood that parts of me were culturally marked, and these were aspects of myself that I wanted to bring into my work. I realized that this was part of representing the U.N.'s values and beliefs, instead of not fitting in, I was celebrating my strengths and "walking the talk" of diversity.

When the Ebola crisis reached an end in Sierra Leone in 2015, we gathered to celebrate after the endless months of fighting the epidemic. I was then the U.N. Ebola crisis manager for the country. As I started delivering remarks as one of the U.N. officials, I sensed that the appropriate space had not been given to acknowledge the pain of the response staff and to mourn the many victims. I then stopped speaking and hummed three long, somber notes. My colleagues later told me that those simple, unexpected notes, allowed them to feel the pain that they had not been given the space or time to feel. Tears streamed down the eyes of those in the room, because while rejoicing in our common outcome, we were all survivors.

Sometimes, leadership means that we just have to provide space for what is in the room.

When we challenge barriers, whether they be physical, emotional, or institutional, it influences those around us, hopefully for the better. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I was recently deployed as the head of U.N. Peacekeeping's second biggest peace operation, I hope that this method of leadership inspires my colleagues and gives them their own "why."

Bintou Keita is the special representative of the secretary-general in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and head of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.