QZ & A

The head of the UNGA says women are expected to “solve everything”

Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garcés makes history.
Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garcés makes history.
Image: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
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María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés became the fourth woman to preside over the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in its seven-decade history. The Ecuadorian diplomat and poet also made history in September as the first woman from Latin America and the Caribbean to preside over the global body’s 73rd assembly. In her first speech, Espinosa promised to strengthen multilateralism, work for the disenfranchised and refugees, and champion gender equality.

Quartz spoke to Espinosa in her office at the UN headquarters in New York on Oct. 25.

A Quartz analysis recently showed that twice as many African leaders attended the China-Africa summit in Beijing than the UNGA, both of which took place in September. What do you think this says about the growing limitations facing the UN?

Espinosa I don’t want to downplay that analysis but we had about 130 heads of state and government come to New York. Hundreds of ministers of foreign affairs, trade, [and] health. And we had more than 400 side events happening in this house [and] hundreds of bilateral and regional group meetings.

I think that this year’s General Assembly proved to be a message by itself of how important and relevant multilateralism is and how important and relevant this house is, especially nowadays. What we heard in the General Assembly hall is almost unanimously a very strong voice praising multilateralism and the need for a collective action on collective and shared problems. I think what happens in a situation of threat, there’s also a boomerang effect saying we want to keep and nurture and protect what we have had for 73 years, which is the United Nations.

You made the theme of your presidency making the global body more relevant and bringing a people-centered approach to the UN’s work. How will you go about that?

One is to politically boost the revitalization of the General Assembly as the most representative, deliberative body of the United Nations. And I am already starting to put a lot of political weight to that process. The second very challenging issue is the implementation of the reform process: the peace and security pillar, the management pillar, and the development pillar. And the third is to continue the conversation and the engagement of member states on the security council reform process. This is not a minor issue, it’s a very complex and challenging issue. But I am making all the preparations to start a process as soon as possible.

One of the priorities of your presidency is implementing a new global compact on migration with leaders coming together in Marrakech, Morocco in December. How’s that coming along?

Migration is by its nature a global, multilateral issue. So basically the call is for multilateral and collective responses to migration. It’s impossible to have one single country establish its own norms and policies to address an issue that is transnational by nature. So I think the global compact is very timely, it is a moderate instrument, and we are really looking forward to a very strong, well-attended conference in Marrakech. I think Marrakech is going to be a very good momentum to share with the world [a] very bold statement regarding the need to have an umbrella that reflects this diversity of views and positions and a shared agreement on fundamental principles for a safe, orderly and regular migration.

The United States, a huge and influential member of the UN, has withdrawn from the migration agreement. How do you plan to work with the US? Do you have any hopes or expectations from Nikki Haley’s successor?

We don’t know who is going to replace Nikki but what I can say is my conversations, my engagement with the US mission has been very positive so far. I have a very good working relationship with Nikki Haley and I really hope her successor is going to maintain the same friendly relationship with the general assembly and with the president of the general assembly. The United States is our host country and we very much look to working and engaging with them because we share so many objectives and purposes.

Providing “decent work” opportunities is one of the key issues you are working on. Are you factoring in how new technologies will shape the future of work?

For us, it is absolutely central that we all are conscious that by 2030, we need to create 600 million new jobs and on that huge number, the majority are young people that really need and deserve decent jobs and opportunities. We are going to work on this in alliance with the International Labor Organization; they are launching a new report on the future of work.

We have to be careful about how new technologies and digitization affect inclusion and work opportunities as well. But, of course, the technological change and frontier technologies have broader impacts. They are key, for example, to addressing the issue of climate change, health, and can alter social relations and the way we are in society.

Your election has renewed calls for full gender parity at the United Nations. What does it feel to be working in this male-dominated space?

Sometimes it’s a paradox. When I think about this, on the one hand this is a space we deserve. It’s not like a gift. We really struggle to be where we are. Here, there is a very powerful group of friends of gender parity that I am working with. The secretary-general [Antonio Guterres] has proved to be the first feminist in the house because he has taken very bold decisions ensuring that there’s full parity in the appointment of high-level officials. We need to do more in the ground-level operations of the United Nations, in our peace-keeping operations, in the country teams of the UN.

When I say that it’s a paradox [it’s] because when you are in a decision-making position what happens is there are higher expectations on your capacity to deliver. You are supposed to solve everything because you are a woman. And that’s a lot of pressure. For me, it is a privilege, it’s an honor and I am putting all my effort and capacities, [and] my emotions to this. I have these mixed feelings but also great commitment to deliver.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.