A Worldwide Emergency
Alumna Sanda Ojiambo helps fight climate change as executive director of the Global Compact at the United Nations.
Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, Sanda Ojiambo (M.A. ’98), was
deeply aware of global inequalities, an understanding that
came into even sharper focus when she went away to college
and graduate school in North America, including earning her
master’s degree at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey
School of Public Affairs.
“Because of my life experiences, I always knew that I wanted
to work in a space where I could interrogate why there are
haves and have-nots in the world,” Ojiambo says.
Last June, she got the opportunity to do this on a sweeping
scale when she became the CEO and executive director of
the United Nation’s Global Compact. Founded in 2000 by
then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Compact is the
world’s largest voluntary corporate sustainability initiative. It
operates on the premise that there are 10 principles for how
businesses of all sizes can and should be run that prioritize
human rights, labor, fighting corruption, and the environment.
The Global Compact has over 12,000 business members and
3,000 non-business stakeholders across 160 countries.
Because she accepted her new position in the middle of a
pandemic, Ojiambo worked remotely from Nairobi for several
months before relocating to New York City last September.
Minnesota Alumni spoke with her via Zoom about the Global Compact’s commitment to the environment and the unfolding climate crisis, and to find out how the UN enlists companies to commit to building a better world.
Minnesota Alumni: In December, U.N.
Secretary-General António Guterres issued his
strongest statement yet on climate change, urging
all countries to declare “climate emergencies.”
How does this imperative inform your work?
Ojiambo: The runaway impact of the climate crisis
has been at the core of our agenda. It’s very clear that
business cannot continue on this trajectory because it’s
In 2019, we launched what we call our Business Ambition for 1.5°C, where we challenge business leaders
to take on this challenge by setting science-based
targets [for greenhouse gas emissions]—because there
is a science around how we can mitigate and manage
this climate crisis—and then aligning with a 1.5-degree
pathway in terms of emissions and growth. To date,
we have over 300 companies that have signed up for
this [initiative alone]. Collectively, this spans about 42
[industry] sectors and close to 50 countries.
We’re looking at not only companies mitigating what
already exists, but also how we shape new companies
and new businesses. What does it mean to start off a
company with this whole balanced approach towards
climate? How do we get these new businesses quickly
on a green growth path, as opposed to navigating
significant mitigation measures later?
Climate change impacts affluent and less affluent
countries differently. Do you believe that more
affluent countries have a responsibility and a
moral obligation to work to fight this inequity?
The harsh reality is that the developed world and more
developed economies have been responsible for the
establishment of the carbon footprint that we have.
But the impact is felt all around the world: rising sea
levels, melting Arctic, unprecedented famine, flood, fire
around the world.
I think at this point in time, it’s not really about blame.
I think it’s about collective responsibility. The action
happens and what we put in place to ensure that we do
not have a repetition of that action as we go forward.
And [again], working with companies and said economies on how they grow.
A vast part of the world is shifting from traditional,
low-income economies into manufacturing and other
sectors. And in those countries, you have a choice: Are
you going to pursue a green model of growth? And so
I think that we all must work together. It’s a crisis that
will continue to impact across sectors and across businesses, with opportunities for innovations and lessons
learned. But I also do think … we need to pay attention to how developing economies are
growing toward the right resources,
such that technologies and green
technologies can be adopted and
adapted as soon as possible.
We need to make sure that the
language and the parlance around
climate changes is transferable, is
acceptable, and we’re very clear
what that transition part looks like for
new and emerging economies going
President Biden has put climate
change at the forefront of his political mandate. What steps would you
like to see the U.S. take within his
administration’s first few months?
Rejoining the Paris Agreement is
one of the biggest opportunities
that we have to mobilize collective
action to address the climate crisis.
[The Trump Administration withdrew
from this treaty to limit and mitigate
greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, but President Joe Biden has
now rejoined the agreement.] It’s our
chance to work together, to really
address existing challenges, but also
look at the opportunities around a
better, more balanced growth in a lot
of the other parts of the world.
Is there anything from your time
at the U of M that helped steer
you toward where you are today?
I went to the Humphrey School
because I always felt that the biggest
change happens when you’re able
to make an impact on the policy
level and overall framework in which
development issues play out.
Because I had a strong commitment
to working in the field of development, it was a clear match for me, for
what I wanted to do.
This interview was edited and condensed.