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Gender Equality

Ruth Kagia – Full interview: My journey is a story of hope

Ruth Kagia

20 Oct 2016

How does promoting education and gender equality result in a more sustainable planet? Ruth Kagia, Senior Advisor to the President of Kenya, has a remarkable story of growing up in relative poverty, finding a way to continue her education, and then assuming leadership roles in the World Bank and now with the office of the President of Kenya. She shared some of her remarkable vision born of love and respect for the human family and our planet, with Tim Nixon for Thomson Reuters Sustainability, at the second United Nations Environmental Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya.

“When women are empowered, both with knowledge, but also with resources, you basically are preventing environmental degradation at a very basic level.”


Tim Nixon for Thomson Reuters Sustainability: Walk us through a little bit of your journey, to how you got here today, and what happened in your career? Tell us about your story.

Ruth Kagia: Well, do you want the long version or the short version? It’s a long story; it’s a story, I believe, of hope. I keep saying that, when I look back on my life, what I see – I know the hurdles I had to jump, but the opportunities that were on the way all along, up to this point. When I was ready to get into primary school, my father was in political detention, so my mother couldn’t afford the tuition fees to send me to school. So she sent me to her sister, who was married to the headmaster of the local primary school, for me to go there and be a nanny to their children in the morning and then attend primary school in the afternoon.

So I lived with them for three years until he was transferred, and that enabled me to get into school and pay the tuition fees. Then, by the time they left, I was able to go back home and continue with school.

Then, once we got independence, the democratic space opened up for Africans, and suddenly you felt the land belonged to you. There was a new sense of liberation, even for young people like ourselves, where you felt as long as long as you have the ability, as long as you were smart enough, you could get to wherever you want.

So the rest, in a sense, was history from there. I went through high school, through university, and just before graduating from university, they came to recruit us, because they were so short on educated individuals. So I was recruited even before I graduated.

TN: Which university was it?

RK: There was only one university – the University of Nairobi. And it was very small. My class was only eight of us. It was very, very small.

TN: How many women were in the class?

RK: Three. So it was very small. I started working in research. I joined a Carnegie Foundation funded program that was being run by Harvard; it was building on Margaret Mead’s work on the children of six cultures, child-rearing practices, and how those influence socialization behavior and the behavior of societies. So I got into that very early and became very invested in it. It gave me real insight into how the social, economic, and political interplay to leadership, people, and societies. And then, after a few years, I joined public service; I taught in high school; I did a bit of research; I went into management.

One of the opportunities that was placed in my way was, for the 1985 women’s conference, which was held in Nairobi, I did a little bit of research. I said, “You know, we have had this university in Nairobi now for about 10 years, so where are the women who are graduating? I don’t see them anywhere in the government. I see men progressing in public service, but I don’t see women.” So I interviewed them, and I was able to track all 105 of them – there were only 105. And I was basically saying, have you ever applied for a job and not gotten it? “No.” How would you feel if you became a permanent secretary? And they would laugh and say, “Who would appoint you as a permanent secretary?” and so on and so forth.

The long and short of this story is that I found out that there was a self-selection process. Women who get to director level realize they are not going to go beyond there, with all the biases, and opt out and go into the private sector.

Some of them became very, very successful businesswomen. And they’re the ones who are the vanguards of the horticulture industry, which, up to this day, is very successful. Because they were well educated, they just opted out of the public system.

I published this paper for the women’s conference, and, one way or the other, it caught the attention of the then President Moi, who felt challenged that there was a glass ceiling that was preventing women from growing. So he wakes up one morning and decides to appoint a few women to break the glass ceiling. And guess what? I was one of them! So I got this presidential appointment to head one of the Paris [need help deciphering this one] . It was more the symbolism of saying women can go as high as they want. So I worked on that for about three years. A very sort of high-profile job politically, where women begin to realize that anything is possible. That those ceilings are more a figment of their imagination.

And then, a few years later, the World Bank needed somebody who would help to broker a discussion between government and the World Bank, which had fallen apart for various reasons – some governance issues. And they asked me if I would want to come in just as a mediator. So I went in for six months, and six months turned to 24 years! So that went very well. Again, sometimes it’s just being at the right place at the right time. The mediation process went well, and then they offered me a job. It was at a time when I was looking at where to send the kids to school, so it came at a time when we needed to look at education abroad. We went to Washington, and they were able to go to universities there. We were going for three years and forgot to come home.

At the World Bank, I was very blessed. I went at a time, during Jim Wolfensohn’s time – who felt that development stands on two legs: the social leg and the economic leg. The bank had emphasized too much the economic leg. So I came in from the social sectors, as part of the first team that really began to work at a par with the economists, and to strengthen the social sector programs – the importance of education, the importance of health, and so on. So I grew reasonably well. For about seven years, from 2001 to 2008, I was a global director for education. Then from 2008 to 2012, I was the country director for Southern Africa, covering seven countries in the Southern Cone. And then I retired!

So I retired. I wanted to come home and reconnect with my country. And I’d been home for three months when I bumped into the president, President Kenyatta, and he said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I have retired.” And he said, “No, you can’t retire!” So he asked me to join his office – which I did very proudly. And, in some ways, this has been the most exciting job.

There is something very rewarding about being able to see your country after that tour that I’ve just described and plough in some of the expertise, some of the experience – and very few people get that opportunity. You retire with all that experience. So I feel really privileged to be able to do that.

TN: Have there been any highlights in your role as senior advisor?

RK: Every day is a highlight, but I had the privilege of being the leading person for preparing for President Obama’s visit, and that was special in many ways – for Obama to come to Kenya. It was homecoming for him and for us. But we also have a very special relationship with America, and having lived in America for so long, I felt like, “Finally, everything is coming together!” So that was really a very special highlight.

I’ve also had the privilege of traveling with the president to several countries. And using a little bit of that international understanding, understanding of the international architecture, to harness attention to Kenya, investment to Kenya, and basically say, “Kenya is open for business.”

TN: Tell us a little bit about how empowering women is key to sustainable development?

RK: I think of that question, and it comes up often, in a very simple way. Every time I go to the place where I was born, I see a lot of my old classmates – some who dropped out after five years at high school, and so on. And last Christmas, my kids had come home, and we went home, and I introduced them to one lady and her husband, and another colleague who were classmates at different points.

TN: And where is home?

RK: It’s about 70 miles from here. And my daughter said, “Did you say they were classmates or your teachers?” Just looking at how lack of opportunity, lack of basic resources, has aged them –

….you begin to see just how much education really is the most basic sorting-out mechanism.

The only difference between me and them is that I was able to continue on with education and, with that, to get to become a bit more economically secure, which they are not. And you can see their children are struggling, and you can see a cycle of poverty beginning to grow in that home, compared, I dare say, with my kids where, everything else being equal, my kids should be able to be better off than I have been.

So, to me that is the simple answer. That when you empower a woman, the entire generation benefits. The opportunities they’re able to give their kids and their families are enormous.

And it’s not just to say a cliché, that perhaps has become overused.

I say it every day – you can almost sort out Kenyans on the basis of how much education they have, and what that has done to their families and intergenerational improvements, or lack of it. So that’s one, but more broadly –

…I always argue that resources in the hands of women go much, much further along than resources in the hands of men.

And again this is not an empty cliché. I see it every day. When I have some extra cash, I don’t think of buying a new car, or over-consumption. I think in terms of supporting some distant relative who needs my help, because I always believe that if you help them to cross a river, it’s better than to carry them throughout. I always end up spending it in my larger family, if not in my immediate family. Investing it. The family and the woman are so intertwined. So resources tend to come back to the family with the multiplication that goes with it.

But beyond that, whether you’re thinking about women in an event like this, and their role in sustainable development – as people who get firewood, as people who do agriculture, as people who draw water – when you put resources in their hands, it sort of becomes transformative. I’m seeing it in this country as we expand access to energy. And women don’t have to use firewood. They can pump water from the borehole because of electricity. And how that has transformed communities. But more importantly, how it’s beginning to conserve the environment. I could go on …

TN: Does anything else come to mind that you’re not telling us about? When I asked you the question about how empowering women promotes sustainable development.

First of all, it’s the basic understanding of just the link between women and climate change. Understanding of what you do when you are farming, doing terraces, planting trees – understanding that instead of cutting that tree, you can use biomass or something. Just that basic understanding – because they are the ones who are at the cliff face of either protecting the environment or destroying it. So, when they are empowered, both with knowledge, but also with resources, you basically are preventing environmental degradation at a very basic level. But it’s also in the transmission of values to their children. You asked me to walk over the grass, and it’s something I find very difficult – it’s something I learned a long time ago – you never walk on grass! And it sort of just grows and you transmit it, consciously and subconsciously, to the kids and so on. So the transmission of those values.

Part of the reason Professor Wangari Maathai was so effective in this country was because she could speak to women at par. She understood that you could not just tell them not to use firewood, without looking for an alternative. So for every tree they cut, she would encourage them to plant two. And it caught on very quickly. She understood what their needs were and she met those needs at their point of need. I doubt that a man would have been as effective with the Green Belt Movement.

So it’s also the fact that women really are at the cliff face of the environment. And what I find surprising when I review sustainable development literature is how much women are missing in terms of being seen as the core champions and the core drivers of sustainability – it seems to be an afterthought.

So, we have work to do. I actually skimmed quickly through the program, and it’s too much about the theories and concepts, and not enough about the people who are interacting with the environment and how you change the behavior of the people who are interacting with the environment. And the moment you take that approach, then women become central to it, don’t you think so?

TN: So what women all around the world can actually do, in their daily lives – that can be so impactful. Is that what you’re thinking about?

Yes, and I was actually just thinking about this, and today just came through what UNEP have been saying about sustainable development. It was more about what women want. It’s about needs. It’s about constraints they face. It’s about women and health, women and environment, as opposed to seeing them as a central part of that idea.

You’re not going to achieve the sustainable development goals, more broadly, let alone the climate change and environmental detail, without seeing them as active participants, not victims. Not people who need to be “brought in” to the discussion, but seeing them as the starting point of that dialogue.

TN: What would you say to young people right now? What advice would you give young people?

I wish I was young today. There are so many opportunities that we didn’t have. Opportunities in technology that I wish I had when I was growing up. In terms of broadening the mind, in terms of self-actualization. I think it was Eric Erikson who said that “Youth is wasted on young people’s shoulders.” So what I would say to them is “Don’t waste that youth!” – because the millennials are really in unprecedented territory in terms of the opportunities they have. Globalization – you can be what you want, anywhere in the world. You don’t have to be limited by geography or history.

But I would say two things. One –

…there is no shortcut for hard work. It doesn’t matter what opportunities there are. Hard work still carries the day. And when you look back at the history of everybody who is successful, the jobs they get, you look at the incredible amount of time they put in to get where they want. Too many people are looking for shortcuts. There are no shortcuts for hard work.

Second, there are no shortcuts to integrity. And I’m talking about integrity in a very simple sense. Integrity in terms of doing an honest day’s job. Integrity in terms of being true to oneself. Integrity in terms of reaching out for your dreams irrespective of what other people may think. Not doing something because others want you to do it, but because you genuinely want to do it. I see those as very fundamental, particularly when one is working in cross-cultural, national environments.

And finally, perhaps, there is no greater joy than giving back, because the reason I am here is because somebody sacrificed for me. Somebody made a space for me. Somebody provided me guidance at critical decision points, and the least one can do is to give back in whatever way opportunities arise.

TN: It’s a dire world still – there are many, many problems – what gives you hope in spite of that?

RK: I think the cup is more than half full. If a young girl like Malala can rise above the deprivation of a young woman in Pakistan and become a Nobel Prize winner, it can’t be that dire a world.

It’s when I look at people who have overcome impossible odds that I realize most of us on a day-to-day basis aren’t having to deal with very much more than hearing bad news about some violence there, some fights somewhere, some famine somewhere. But it is, in many, many cases, at an arm’s length from us. That does not minimize the pain of those who are suffering. That does not minimize the suffering, for example, of the Syrian refugees and other refugees elsewhere. But for most of us, it is still at an arm’s length.

And I think the challenge for most of us it to broaden that space of where there is peace and security and development, and do whatever is in our means, in whatever positions we are in, to reduce the scope for insecurity, to reduce the scope for eternal strife.

And at the heart of that is core development: just making sure that you don’t make tremendous inequalities in a country such as this one. Education is key to that. Economic opportunities is another, because at the heart of all of this conflict is a feeling of being dispossessed and being marginalized. So making contributions to anticipate and preempt some of the suffering that we see across the world.

TN: So when you look at the arc of history, you see a lot of progress, and a lot of reason for optimism.

Well, I used to walk five miles to school, and I’ve just been driven from the gate to here! How much more progress can you have? I know it sounds facetious, but it’s not just progress, it is quantum leaps in terms of what is possible now, and I say this: I used to sleep hungry because there wasn’t enough food for all of us, and now you worry about overfeeding and so on. So even at a very basic level, we see tremendous change.

What we are able to do with technology, with improvements in health, even in terms of education, – and I must point this out ­– one of the exciting things I’m working on now is I’m a member of the Advisory Committee on XPRIZE, which is exploring the possibilities of creating an application, a software application, which can enable kids to read and write, to achieve basic levels in literacy and numeracy. Because that is where quality is suffering. A lot of kids get to grade five before they can even get the basic skills. So we are working on this as part of the XPRIZE, to be a 15 million dollar prize for the application that wins; it is being trialed in Tanzania.

Several teams across the world are trying to see how you can help kids to almost teach themselves to self-pace, to learn basic literacy and numeracy. And I’m excited about that, because you are harnessing the power of technology to apply to a very core issue. Because we are beginning to differentiate elite schools, whether they’re from Kenya or elsewhere, from poor schools, where kids can’t read and write.

Instead of education becoming the equalizer, it’s becoming the separator.

So if you can get a technology like that, that we are working on with XPRIZE, to work, you begin to close some of those gaps that are creating those inequalities that then become multiplied over a lifetime.

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