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Promoting diversity and inclusion in my work

Addis Ababa, 21 March 2021 

Margaret Akullo 

Representative a.i., UNODC Programme Office in Ethiopia 

In this interview, we spoke to Margaret Akullo, Representative a.i. of the UNODC Programme Office in Ethiopia. Please read about her motivations and how she commemorated the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. 

What made you realise the impact of discrimination on people's rights and lives? 

Margaret Akullo: In February 1976, our family moved from Uganda to Ghana to join my late father who had started work with the United Nations. It was also the same year that black high school students protested for their right to education on 16 June in Soweto, South Africa. My memory of that day was sitting with my parents and siblings watching the news coverage of the protests and being incredibly sad at seeing children who looked like me, either injured or being shot at by riot police. We talked about the protests, with me asking, ''Why are they hurting children?'' I vaguely remember my father saying in response, ''I don't know why they are hurting the children but the children want their voices to be heard.'' Years later, I understood the significance of my late father's statement - the racial issues and the importance of the rights of the marginalized and vulnerable children. 

What is your source of inspiration to promote diversity and inclusion in your work? 

Margaret Akullo: Also, during the mid-1970s, I attended Achimota Secondary School, a co-educational boarding school in Ghana. The motto of the school is in Latin and reads 'Ut Omnes Unum Sint' meaning 'That all may be one'. For me and many others, this captured the concept of equality beautifully and it was only in my adulthood that I realised that equality was the very foundation of my education. In 2020, on the International Day of the Girl (11 October) I put a message on my twitter account to my 15-year-old self, quoting words from the school's crest - ''You can play a tune of sorts on the black keys only; and you can play a tune of sorts on the white keys only; but for perfect harmony, you must use both the black and the white keys.'' It was yet another message on equality, so in response to the question, the source of inspiration to promote diversity and inclusion in my work really begun from my school days over 40 years ago. In the workplace, it is very important to practice the ethos of inclusion and in my words, we stand to gain a lot from the 'richness of difference' that diversity brings.

When did you realize that combating racism and promoting the dignity of all were so important in your work? 

Margaret Akullo: If one looks at the trajectory of my education and professional life, my career path and journey towards addressing inequalities and injustices certainly unfolded over time. I come from a position of a lived experience, where diversity and gender intersections and its challenges were central to my professional experience. I worked briefly as a researcher on racial crimes with the London Metropolitan Police and also wrote a thesis for my Master's degree that examined why there was a high number of minorities always getting arrested. However, a defining moment in my career was working as an Analyst on the high-profile case involving the murder of a black teenager who had been stabbed to death in a racist attack in south-east London (UK). After the murder, conclusions from a public inquiry ordered by the UK government (the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry) found that the London's Metropolitan Police was 'institutionally racist'. When I joined the United Nations over 10 years ago, in some instances, I felt like I was reliving a similar experience from my previous career where I had not been vocal on injustices in general. It was this realisation that made me start addressing issues of inequalities. Representation matters and so I use my voice and position as a Gender Strategy Focal Point to promote equality, diversity, inclusion and dignity for all. 

What would be your call for action be on reimagining equality to promote diversity and inclusion? 

Margaret Akullo: Simple - start getting comfortable with the uncomfortable conversations on diversity and educate yourself on racism. It's everyone's responsibility. In Ethiopia, I manage a diverse and gender balanced team who come from Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda), Europe (France, UK), Asia (Thailand), and the USA, so we have had many 'teachable moments' on race issues. As a Criminologist, I was taught that 'criminal behaviour is learned through interactions with others.' By the same token, let us remember that no one is born a racist. 

How did you commemorate the International Day on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination?

Margaret Akullo: On the International Day on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on 21 March 2021, we chose to celebrate inclusivity, promoting not only diversity but ensuring that everyone is valued for their own set of skills that are not determined by race. In Ethiopia, this day coincides with the second week of the UNODC training of trainers, which has a focus on the protection of vulnerable groups in the criminal justice system. Our team is proud to commemorate this day by directly raising awareness and sharing tools and knowledge to practitioners to prevent discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system, which can be unintentional. March 2021 is also International Womens' Month. On International Women's Day which falls on 8 March 2021, I took part in the #ChoosetoChallenge campaign and together with colleagues from the UNODC Ethiopia office, we chose to challenge exclusion and bias and promoted inclusion and impartiality. As an office, we are proud to celebrate diversity and inclusive movements for #GenerationEquality. We honour women and men who continue to pave the way for an equal future, who continue to drive transformative change for all. This work is aligned with the goals outlined in the UNODC Strategic Vision for Africa 2030 and UNODC Strategy 2021-2025.