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Gender Equality

Inger Andersen: “We must continue to work towards a fairer and more sustainable world”

Inger Andersen

14 Jun 2017

“At IUCN all our projects have a gender component, because gender equality is critical to sustainable development.”

With a career spanning over 15 years in various leadership roles within international development, Inger Andersen, Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), talks to us about how crucial gender equality is for a sustainable planet and why she thinks ‘the world is a dangerous place if you don’t speak out, but [hopeful it] is going in the right direction.’ [10 minute read]

Thomson Reuters Sustainability: IUCN is the global source for expertise on individual species extinction and ecosystem welfare.  How would you summarize the current trend?

Inger Andersen:  We are losing species at 1000 times the natural extinction rate, on average. We are literally hurtling down a slippery slope. To halt the decline, we must look at conservation in the broader context of human welfare. Species extinction and ecosystem collapse can at times be the first steps towards societal breakdown. We must realize that combatting species extinction is critical to our broader welfare, and even to our self-preservation.

TRS: Is part of the challenge with biodiversity and extinction defining what leadership looks like at the corporate and individual level?

IA:  Yes. To halt the wave of extinctions we need effective corporate leadership on sustainability, informed by reliable data on biodiversity loss and its costs. This is a multi-step process. First of all we need to know what is happening to our species and our ecosystems. The IUCN Red List tells us about the degree of threat to species around the globe, and the drivers of species extinction. With 86000 assessments of species, the Red List is a barometer of life on earth. That is the diagnostic, and we can’t begin the discussion without it.

TRS: What is the next step?

IA:  The next step is using scientific data to guide us onto a more sustainable path. IUCN produces guidelines for businesses to manage their impacts on species and ecosystems, allowing them to achieve net-positive impact on the environment.

The “Natural Capital Protocol” is a new framework that is helping to measure and manage our use of natural resources, to ensure we achieve economic growth while conserving the natural resources on which that growth depends. IUCN is helping engage businesses with the Protocol, which is currently used by over 400 businesses.

We are also working at the industry level, for example with the coffee and aluminum sectors, to establish sector-specific guidelines on how to run a business whilst reducing biodiversity loss. These standards are crucial to driving and managing progress on conserving biodiversity and ensuring sustained growth in these industries.

TRS: So data and science must be crucial in this process?

IA: Absolutely. IUCN’s science and data inform a community of policymakers and experts. We have approximately 16000 scientists in our network working alongside 90 nation-states and over 1300 NGOs helping to manage the world’s species and ecosystems.

The analysis and decision-making coming out of IUCN are crucial for subsequent policy-making at the nation state and the United Nations levels. This analysis allows us to assess the risk associated with the degradation of nature, and progress made in conserving it, and inform investment in what we call “nature’s infrastructure”.

TRS: Can you expand on the importance of this “infrastructure”?

IA: In the end, it’s “nature’s infrastructure” which makes life on earth possible for all its inhabitants, including people. Scientific data demonstrates that conserving “natural infrastructure” such as forest and ocean ecosystems has benefits far beyond the species level. For example, IUCN identifies and encourages protection of critical marine areas. A recent World Bank report, “Fish less, earn more”, expands on the connection between sustainable ecosystem management and resulting economic prosperity, with marine protected areas giving higher fish yields than areas without protection.

IUCN also identifies ways in which damage to ecosystems impacts human well-being. For example, a recent Red List assessment has shown that many marine fish off the west coast of Africa, including the Madeiran sardine, face extinction. This is threatening food security in the region, where fish like sardines are the mainstay of people’s lives and nutrition.

We are even seeing increasing evidence that exposure to nature’s infrastructure improves mental and physical health.

In Australia, for example, doctors are prescribing time in nature as part of a healing process for some illnesses. Generally, nature-based solutions are key to living healthfully, in particular as we urbanize as a planet.

TRS: How technical is IUCN’s work?

IA: Very.  If you want to know the latest on the seahorse, for example, IUCN’s Species Survival Commission can provide that. We have scientific assessments of over 80,000 species, which we continuously update and add new species to.

We also have a Commission – IUCN’s World Commission on Environmental Law – made up of lawyers to support and build capacity for environmental legal frameworks at the national, regional and global levels to help protect these ecosystems. We also have specialist Commissions working on protected areas and others focusing on priorities pertaining to conservation and ecosystem sustainability.

IUCN’s decisions and analyses of issues related to species, ecosystems and associated legal challenges regularly become global standards on how to deal with these issues. When the IUCN Assembly, which meets every four years, votes and renders a decision on an issue, it is the global scientific and expert community providing guidance and standards.

TRS: Tell me about your career journey?

IA: I’ve always felt that poverty reduction and environmental sustainability were critical and closely interlinked issues, and this is why they have been central to my career. I have a deep conviction in this regard, which I think comes in part from my experience growing up in Denmark with student uprisings happening across Europe and the belief that we have an obligation to challenge basic assumptions. After graduating from university, I saw what was happening in Ethiopia and Sudan with a terrible famine, and I landed my first job with a UK charity working in Sudan.

TRS: Was that transformative?

IA: Yes, it was.

I found the Sudanese are a people of extraordinary gentleness and generosity, but at the time I also saw extreme suffering. I found myself at the centre of a relief effort in the midst of drought, war and death. I saw babies dying, and I was outraged. When you see a five-year-old kid who should be singing, walking and saying his or her alphabet, and instead is no bigger than a two-year-old baby, you get morally outraged.

And this sense of outrage stuck with me.

And the fact that this is still happening in 2017 is all the more outrageous, since the world has the ability to solve these problems.

So, yes, I guess I would say that my experience in Sudan reinforced my determination to devote my career to poverty alleviation and sustainable development.

TRS: And then you moved to New York?

IA: Yes, I ended up applying for a job at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in New York, straight from the famine camps of Sudan, where I had stayed for 6 years working to combat drought and desertification. Roughly 11 years later, in 1999, I went to work for the World Bank, initially working on hydro-diplomacy issues among the 10 Nile riparian countries seeking to ensure sustainable and equitable development of the river resource for the benefit of all, and moving into management positions, but always with a focus on sustainability or Middle East issues.

TRS: Switching to gender, why is gender equality important for sustainable development?


In the developing world, women make up roughly 40% of the farmers. If these women had the same access to land, livestock, education and other productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by up to 30%, in turn reducing the number of hungry people in the world by up to 17%.

Women also tend to ensure that some of the crops planted are food crops for the family in addition to the cash crops, diversifying household risk if cash crops become less valuable and boosting nutrition at the family level. Women are key to family health and family wealth.

TRS: How does empowerment of women matter specifically?


Probably most important is the issue of agency. Women need to have authority over their own resources such as land and wealth, over the choices they make, including decisions on travel, education and jobs, as well as reproductive choices.

If more women had this agency over their own lives, then we would achieve significantly enhanced stewardship of the environment and of the earth.

At IUCN all our projects have a gender component, because gender equality is critical to sustainable development.

TRS: What would you say to future generations?


Right now there is a sense of doom and gloom in some corners. But my own view is that when young people are active and involved, and THEY ARE, real and positive change happens.

I’ve always tried to retain the optimism of my youth.  And I continue to see amazing young people doing amazing things. When you see and encourage this in young people, you can say to yourself, “okay, it’s going to be okay”.

TRS: What gives you hope?

IA: The youth definitely gives me hope, as I’ve just said. But also a fair amount of evidence. In my lifetime, we have drastically reduced poverty and infant and child mortality. We have seen women get the vote in many places where they didn’t have it before. We have learned that wildlife conservation works, if nature is given a chance.

We now have an agreement on climate change and an agreement on sustainable development goals that the whole world stands behind – although some appear to be wavering, the vast majority and the critical mass are moving in the right direction.

The world IS a dangerous place if you don’t speak out, but the world is going in the right direction. We have more transparency, more democracy, more youth engagement, better press. Making these advances is part of what we had to do, and we must continue to work towards a fairer and more sustainable world.

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