Meet a 2015er: Kristie Holmes

Dr. Kristie Holmes is a member of the Board of Directors for UN Women-US
Dr. Kristie Holmes is a member of the Board of Directors for UN Women-US

This is the tenth installment of our “Meet A 2015-er” series that profiles the women and men who are helping to shape the Sustainable Development Goals and Climate Change negotiations as they take shape this year.

Today we hear a different take on the negotiations process. Dr. Kristie Holmes is an Adjunct Associate Professor at University of Southern California. She also serves on the Board of the United Nations Women U.S. National Committee and is an Advisor for NGOs working with the UN on the post-2015 agenda. 

So tell us a little bit about what you do and your role in the negotiations?

I’m on the Board for UN Women – US National Committee, but I’m based in Los Angeles. I’m viewed as a little strange as a result. They don’t take us as seriously, but it might be good to have some representation out here.

I’m a professor at USC and my background is in social work, but I have also been working with Zero Mothers Die and the Milennia 2025 Foundation for about five years.

It’s nice to talk to someone who is outside the UN bubble! How do you see these negotiations then, not being in New York or DC every day?

I bring in a different way of thinking. Immigration issues are much more of a hot topic these days for us out in California.

It’s definitely been a different perspective too, to implementing [the SDGs] in the US and across the world. The UN has certainly been more welcoming than academia when it comes to actual action implementation following data collection.  No matter how obnoxious the meetings are, people really are trying to make a difference. I still hold on to the idealism. People are trying to do this work no matter what but [there needs to be] more flexibility in thinking.

Dr. Kristie Holmes speaks on a panel at the 58th Commission on the Status of Women
Dr. Kristie Holmes speaks on a panel at the 58th Commission on the Status of Women

Tell us a bit more about the work of Zero Mothers Die.

We’re the pink phone women. We launched last during the General Assembly and are supported in part by UNAIDS and several of the First Ladies of African countries.

We give phones to rural women in various African countries. The phones are kind of blackberry style and ‘smartish.’ There’s not a touch screen, but it is a color screen. They come pre-loaded with maternal, midwife, and pre-natal health information.  If the baby is breach, what do you do? Information on how to stem the bleeding. We have already nearly halved infant mortality, but we still have a long way to go. Zero Mothers Die is the ultimate goal.

We also have a lot of name brand support, donated time from Airtel, monthly SMS alerts, but now we need money…more than $2 million USD to do what we want to do.

What are some of the on-the-ground challenges you think implementation of the SDGs will have to tackle? We heard a lot of high-level speak during the meetings, but are there some specific issues that need to be addressed that you’ve seen through Zero Mothers Die?

As usual, it’s always the money! Right now, our group just wants to get these women the phones on the ground. Just get the funding for the actual hardware and let them do what they want [with them].

It also surprises me how little westerners think of failed technology.  Technology makes things a lot easier but only if [women] can access it.

One example is that sometimes these phones are worth more than the female, which is why we made them pink because they are a lot less attractive to men if they’re pink. What was happening was that other NGOs would drop off phones in a village and the men would take them before the women could get to them, negating any purpose.

What do you mean when you say “do what they want” with the phones? Are the women not using the information pre-loaded on the phone?

I can give you a general example. There was a group in the EU that brought in all these phones [to communities] in rural parts of Africa. The villagers politely said thank you, but with limited access electricity what’s the point? They put them in a shed and the phones sat there for nearly two years, because what they had stated as their need was radio.  The NGO as rescuer thought there was a “better way”.

At some point, a young boy came by and thought he could use the hardware for something, so he re-wired them and changed them into radios. The villagers actually use the phones now, but in a totally different capacity.

At all these meetings [with UN-affiliated NGOs] you hear “you don’t need to keep sending us those stupid donated (mismatched) phones!”  They are essentially electronic trash for most even though well-intentioned.  Donated phones from the West are gathered at different manufacturing dates, capability, not to mention various carriers that can only be used with say, a major carrier in the US.

Basically we, meaning donor countries, have this great technology, but we’re not listening to what they really need.

 Dr. Kristie Holmes attends the post-2015 negotiations. UN Headquarters, NY
Dr. Kristie Holmes attends the post-2015 negotiations. UN Headquarters, NY

We’ve heard a lot about the developing country perspective, obviously for good reason, but what are some of the challenges to being on the American/donor side of UN Women?

We keep thinking of ourselves as the Great Western (and often) White, Provider. The intentions are so genuine most of the time but $1 million to spend on unused tech is a waste. All they accessed was the radio. They were really specific on what they needed and we just didn’t listen.

We also rely a lot on red-dot mapping, but then they only really show averages. We are totally missing these three or four rural pockets because there is not enough impact to see on a map, but that doesn’t mean help is not needed there.

Do you think that’s a problem within the UN as well and not just NGOs?

It’s a different issue within the UN. With UN Women, the launch for He for She was great! But I remember when Phumzile [Mlambo-Ngucka, Executive Director of UN Women] was talking about our goals, she said she wanted to sign up 1 billion men.

We couldn’t give away a billion cars to men to support [women’s rights]! The website is pretty but they are five steps to get them to sign up. Let’s not set ourselves up for failure.

I ran for Congress once…we teach all these things without a real clue about how things really work. The higher up you get the less you see what goes on on the ground. You have so many people who just want to please these directors and give them an inaccurate picture, so there’s no accountability built in to any of this from the bottom up.

I’m glad for [ambition] but I don’t want to see unrealistic goals, there has to be [something] really concrete.

Women’s rights are always controversial in certain countries. What was it like trying to get consensus on the NGO side in the SDG negotiations? It seems like it would have been almost as challenging as getting countries to agree.

Herding cats!

The messaging has been difficult to coordinate because it is difficult to set some goals that are reasonable but also inspiring.

Coming from the U.S., I heard a lot of “they’re always telling us what to do and they’ve never even had a woman as in second-in-command.” We’re not even taking care of our own very well so it makes it hard to go into a meeting and tell others how to achieve these goals.

I was talking with a delegate from Finland once and she mentioned to me how she was ashamed that the percentage of women in their Parliament was only around 40% or something like that. We’re not even near that here in the U.S.

The view is so different but that also they’re not going to agree with something  just because they have something to prove like we might.

What do you think is the biggest issue with the SDG outcome document?

It’s the pro and con of working with so many different countries. Little phrases:  “as nationally appropriate”, “voluntary” and “country-led”. That almost deletes it for those who don’t want to do it.

What’s your hope for post-2015?

Top Down responsibility – how do we make it easier to say we’re failing?

I think there should be more freedom for side effects that are positive or negative rather than fudging numbers. We want full accountability in implementation, but also flexibility.

For instance, a country like Rwanda can’t say they have no more orphans just because they got rid of all the orphanages and may have placed children back in dangerous situations.

Money is very powerful and that is kind of the over-arching issue. Countries and NGOs will do what they have to do to stay funded, but we have to be careful what that means in terms of implementation.

I also wish there [was] more youth focus. Those who will be accountable to measure what we actually want to measure and achieve are teens now …because they have a real stake in the future.