In 2011, Leymah Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, together with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkol Karman, for leading a non-violent movement that brought together women to help end Liberia’s 14-year civil war. Since then she has expanded her peacebuilding work to cover all of Africa and beyond, building networks that empower women to shape their societies. We spoke to her about the war in Yemen, Europe’s role in the migration crisis and what an effective diplomatic strategy could look like.
MONOCLE: You’ve called for an end to the Saudi blockade of Yemen. Why tackle the issue now?
LEYMAH GBOWEE: Since the Yemeni crisis started there have been a lot of calls for a peaceful end. But we realised that the blockade is costing lives on a daily basis. It’s almost like, “We’ve incarcerated you but now we’re also going to tie you up while you’re incarcerated.” And that is definitely a death sentence for the people who live in Yemen.
M: Do you see a possible political solution to the war in Yemen and are there lessons to be learned from what you achieved in Liberia?
LG: I think the lessons that can be learned, not just from Liberia but from other places where people have succeeded in bringing a peaceful end to a military problem, is dialogue. You can never go wrong with talking. And it’s the involvement of civil society [that is crucial], primarily women.
M: The flow of refugees to Europe has worried European politicians enough to talk about increasing aid for Africa. Do you trust the talk?
LG: The question you need to ask is why are so many people leaving? What has changed in the politics of west Africa? The second thing you need to ask is, are there people in Europe who are encouraging this? Sex traffickers? I know in Africa, young people are very desperate. But we should not view this crisis like we view every other thing: that the problem is primarily Africa and Europe’s hands are clean.
M: What action should be taken?
LG: It’s not just taking millions of dollars and sending them to Africa – you’ll be throwing money to leaders who are already corrupt. This conversation should not just be between governments. How do we begin to talk to community leaders? Let’s not deceive ourselves: there was a military plan for Libya but there was not a nation-building plan. If you invest $500bn in war and $200m in peace, what results will you get? For years the Libyan people did not understand what freedom was. If you give them freedom and you don’t prepare them, you haven’t given them anything.
Is language soft power? Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy thinks so, recently declaring Spanish “a global asset” and tasking national body Marca España (Brand Spain) with a promotional strategy. Next year is set to be declared “Year of the Spanish Language”, with a language ambassador and an Erasmus-like student-exchange programme. Yet the plan has provoked a tetchy response from Latin American linguists, who claim it undermines a decades-old pan-Hispanic strategy that has focused on shared cultural diplomacy. With more than 570 million Spanish speakers, the conversation won’t be lacking in viewpoints.
Finland is pushing one of its best soft-power assets: its schools. Finnish pupils are consistently ranked top in results comparisons, which has piqued the interest of countries such as China, the UAE and Qatar, which have begun importing the Finnish schooling system. The latest to take notice is the Maldives, which will open two schools using the Finnish model.
Exporting education is a major diplomatic effort for Finland. Its embassies have joined forces with chambers of commerce and investment companies to promote its schools.