An Interview with Gro Harlem-Brundtland, Former Prime Minister of Norway

  • Gro Harlem-Brundtland, 2014 Tang Prize Laureate in Sustainable Development
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(Photo credit: Thierry Boccon-Gibod /The Elders)

The Politic: In your acceptance speech from 1998 you said, “I see WHO’s role as being the moral voice and the technical leader in improving health of the people of the world. Ready and able to give advice on the key issues that can unleash development and alleviate suffering.” Your term ended in 2003, 12 years ago. Looking back at the past 17 years, what do you think were the greatest accomplishments of the WHO? Has it been able to fulfil the mission you delineated in 1998?

Well, at this time, when I said this, I knew that we needed to reform the WHO to improve its efficiency. So I spent the first couple of years changing the system and improving the way we work, both internally and in regard to reforms on using our resources better, but also in convincing governments about the importance of health on the global political agenda, not just as a specialist field of health.

So then I think we can say we achieved this in these first years and that was one reason why we got the Tobacco convention signed after five years, which is unusual. It’s the first international health agreement. The fact that it was done in five years illustrates the status that we were able to achieve. It meant that the American health minister could go to President Bush and ask him to support him in signing the agreement, although there was a lot of opposition in the US. I think I had used an argument to the American ambassador that why would the Bush administration not want to sign an important health agreement when they recently had withdrawn the signature that Bill Clinton had gave to the Kyoto protocol in 1977? It just kind of added to the picture that the US was not collaborative with the rest of the world. Then of course we had the SARS situation in 2000s, the same year, when these tobacco discussions were being finalized, and the world got alerted to the importance of the global health institution.

The Politic: What would be some of the flaws of the WHO or problems of the institution itself that still have to be dealt with?

Is the level of attention to Global Health issues [the same] as [it was] in 2003? That is not obvious because we now have the Ebola crisis and the WHO has not been so much in the lead as it should have been in that crisis. I think the decentralization is one reason [for this] because you have regional health offices, and if the principal has let the regions lead their legions and the center becomes less effective, I don’t think this is the right way. It has kind of decentralized authority. The African region was dealing with the Ebola crisis for too long alone.

The Politic: From what I understand, you participated in mediating the talks between Israel and Palestine, which led to the signing of Oslo Accords. Could you talk about that experience and tell me what you think of the situation between Israel and Palestine today?

I gave my confirmation to the foreign ministry and to those who were dealing with the direct negotiations. Yes, this is something that we will do and support to see how far we can get supporting the Israelis and Palestinians who had been able to talk with the support of some key people from the Norwegian side who lived in the area and got friends on both sides. It happened due to personalities and also, of course. to general trustworthiness of a country like Norway as a peace loving country.

They were willing to sign up for something that would have been unheard of a few years ago. We realized that this was an important breakthrough. We were able to keep those talks secret, which is a crucial issue. In most such cases, the discipline to keep secrecy is not there — because of journalists, because of pride, because of people wanting to have their name exposed and getting the awards of having been part of something important.. If you cannot do such a thing in secrecy and have people helping you make that possible, then that kind of diplomacy cannot work. You have to be able to have dialogue without everyone else listening.

The Politic: What do you think about the situation now?

I am really impressed by it. As Elders, we have been following the Middle East and been to the Middle East many times. When we looked at the world [we asked]: where is the worst crisis? Where is the most intractable situation?  [The] Middle East was top of our list, or [the] Palestinian Israeli conflict. Since that time things have not been moving forward, they have been moving backwards. And you just had an election in Israel where the president said he does not believe in a two-state  solution, which everything has been based on for more than twenty years. So no, it’s not good.

The Politic: Could you speak a little about the organization The Elders, about how you got involved in it and what the operations and aims of the organization are today?

[We’ve been working on] an unsolved conflict in Europe, in Cyprus, where you have the aftermath of a war between Turkey and Greece going back to the 1970s. And after 40 years you still have barbed wire and separated communities with military attendants on both sides. So we thought it must be possible to find a solution in Cyprus. But I have to say it turned out to be very difficult. It was not just getting the attention of the leaders on both sides, and speaking with the Turks and the Greeks. The political dynamics of elections happening in both communities led to peace accords not becoming popular enough that those leaders were able to shake hands. We had to make the conclusion that for the time being it’s not possible to get those parties into a constructive dialogue.

From the beginning we decided a general issue globally is discrimination against women worldwide. And President Carter was very adamant about it; he has been fighting in his church, in America, to get equal treatment of women, and he hasn’t succeeded. In the end he had to leave his church. Because even with his background and his strong personality, he could not convince the congregation there to start treating the women and men equally as servants to the church in different positions.

So we took this from the religious perspective. We found out child marriage is a major problem. Now it is more on people’s’ minds then it was because we started raising that issue in 2009 and 2010. Gradually, we created an alliance against child marriage after having worked with small NGOs who were dealing with it, and met with leaders in Africa, Ethiopia, in India and so on about it. Now,  in the context of the U.N. post-2015, child marriage is part of what’s mentioned. It never would have been if we hadn’t started speaking out.

The Politic: What’s the future of the Elders?

I think it is a group that can help bring people together who are apart —  because sometimes national interests and historical considerations and things that have happened lead to stalemate and the issue is dropped. But if new people come in who are independent and who have not been engaged in things that have happened before, you can help revitalize dialogue. In that context I think we can help.

The Politic: Some time ago, Hillary Clinton released a video congratulating you on your 70th birthday. How does it feel to be such a strong symbol of the fight for women’s rights, world peace and environment protection for so many women and men?

Well, I don’t know how it feels, it just happens to be what I have done. The pieces are logically merged together in my mind. First, as a young person, I realized that there is discrimination against women. So, I had the determination that I had to work to improve the condition for girls and women, in my country and internationally as I started to realize that it is not only true in my country, [but] even more so in other places.

[As prime minister I worked on] human rights for women and then environmental concerns, which means sustainable development, climate issues and of course trying to get nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament.  It meant that my agenda became very broad.

The Politic: Many people of our age become disillusioned and skeptical about politics. Do you remember a moment or an episode when you clearly felt like you made an impact?

You can take moments like when I announced a new Norwegian government with close to equal number of men and women. It is a radical move that people have never seen before. You realize that you are making an impact by this. First of all, you do the right thing for the country but you also know that you symbolize something that is future oriented and shows a way forward.

This is just one example of decisions where you are aware that it can mean something to many people in the long term. I understand how young people can get disillusioned about politics because of the domination of money on the American continent. The democratic assessment of politics gets lost in this jungle of money and pressure groups, and buying politicians by giving them funding.

For us, as Europeans and certainly for me as a Norwegian, this is completely unheard of. I never asked for funding for anything for myself. Ever. I didn’t have to. We don’t have political advertisement. You cannot pay for time on television. So, the whole thing becomes so different and then you can work to convince people about issues. You cannot pay your time and pay your way. It’s the argument or the passion which you decide to express yourself which counts, not money.

The Politic: You have had one of the most impressive political careers possible. What made you decide to enter the realm of politics? There is a difference between realizing that there are problems and a different one to act on it. What was the initial impulse that made you act?

Here, you see, I have a very special story. When I was thirty five, I was in the public health arena, but I was doing research on child development issues. One day I was called to the Prime Minister’s office and asked to enter the government, in the middle of my doctoral dissertation work. I never made a plan to enter into politics. I was picked because they wanted a woman minister. A woman had died that summer from cancer and that August the Prime Minister was looking for a successor. So I was picked. But within a few months I was fully aware of how much more influence I [had] as minister of environment than I had before as a public health expert. From then on I stayed in the political arena and it was never an alternative to seek to leave it because I was fed up or something. I knew that here is where you can have the most influence and do the most good, whether nationally or internationally. As an environment minister, you travel to international meetings about international environmental problems, pollution, water shortages, all of it. I became deputy leader of the liberal party very quickly after I became minister. I was taken to the party leadership, which again was a commitment. You could not say yes to do that and then leave after a few years. Then I became leader and Prime Minister.

The Politic: What would be your advice for students who are passionate about public health, women’s rights and other issues and who want to engage in policy-making and are thinking about a career in politics?

I was at Stanford last year for two months, and many students there asked me the question that you ask now. What advice would you give me for my career? Find out what makes you tick, where is it that you really enjoy working. I am not the right person to ask, if you are a cold-blooded kind of strategist, what career step should you make to make a lot of money. Now, that’s not what you asked, of course. But what I am saying is there are so many ways to pursue those issues and the choice itself is not the essential thing. It is that you go somewhere where you think you can make a difference and where you can work with others to make things happen, to inspire others and to combine forces to make good things happen. Then you can end up anywhere. I wouldn’t have been picked by this Prime Minister if he hadn’t somehow heard that this Gro Brundtland, she’s very good. Somebody told him about me, otherwise he would not have picked me from the street. The important thing is to feel that you can contribute because that makes you feel a meaningful life with others.