University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

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 not sustainable.

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 forward.

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.

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