International Women's Day Portrait: Leila Farah Mokaddem

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On the occasion of International Women’s Day, March 8, we shine a spotlight on eight women plus one – the Director of Gender, Women and Civil Society – who are making a difference at the African Development Bank. This is the sixth in the series.


Interview with Leila Farah Mokaddem, Country Manager, Morocco

First, please introduce yourself by sharing an anecdote or an experience, personal or professional, that has made you who you are today. I am an expert in development policies and my academic career and work experience mean that I specialize in the fields of finance and support for the private sector.

Before I joined the Bank, I was Director of Export Policies and Strategies at the Tunisian Ministry of the Economy from 1984 to 1996, before going on to work at the International Monetary Fund. I also served as an adviser to the Minister of Finance of Haiti, before being appointed by the President of Haiti to the post of consultant to the Presidential Commission responsible for developing a new investment code.

In 2002, I joined the Bank as Head of the Financial Institutions Division. Back then, I was in charge of the financing of the banking sector, of micro-finance and of support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). I was able to set up the "Portfolio Guarantee" product for SMEs run by women. I also led the creation of the African Guarantee Fund for SMEs, which is now a completely independent fund whose objective is to respond to property rights and land issues.

I can remember two situations as if it were yesterday that strengthened my personal conviction to help would-be women entrepreneurs to gain access to funding on reasonable terms. The first one is a woman entrepreneur – who I will never forget – who pawned her marital bed to gain access to credit! And think about this ... the second example is a woman who had to fight a demand for a 200 percent guarantee due to her banker insisting that she didn't have the ability to develop her small business. Another example of flagrant injustice. 

The various meetings I've had throughout my career have truly helped me understand the importance of women's contribution to the development of our countries. And in learning their stories, their realities and their career paths, I have learnt just how much will and determination are the perfect ingredients for success.

Now, as a Tunisian woman, I also like to present myself as an heir of Bourguiba, who, in enacting at independence the Code of Personal Status, played a part in the emancipation of Tunisian women. This Code remains a model for many countries to follow, even if much remains to be done. I quickly learnt, however, that the situation was different in other countries. Rights to property, inheritance and education were far from being the reality in several African countries, even when the law provided for these.

The development of the continent cannot be achieved without women. This is obvious.

Very early on, my encounters with African women from rural areas gave me this strong determination to take projects forward to deepen the importance of their role in the development of Africa. How was Africa possibly going to develop if it ignored the economic role that half its population, women, could play? How could Africa develop with 70 percent of its active rural population, women, struggling to overcome poverty due to their lack of access to property rights and their exclusion from financial circuits?

I shall end on a highly symbolic figure: if, tomorrow, we were to give women equal access to posts of responsibility, US $12 trillion would be added to world GDP by 2025, according to a McKinsey study carried out on behalf of the Women's Forum.

In your view, would you say being a woman has been an obstacle or an advantage in the evolution of your career?

Being a woman has been an obstacle, a challenge and an advantage, all at the same time. It all starts with the family and social environment. I was given the same opportunity as my brothers to pursue an education. Even so, bearing in mind the conservative environment in which I was brought up, being a young woman and unmarried was an obstacle when the time came to pursue my higher education abroad, even though I had been awarded a scholarship by my country. 

Another significant aspect in every woman's career is maternity leave, still perceived as a major drawback to recruiting women. I take two important lessons from this. These aren't the only ones, but I do think they're the most important. The first is that we women should fight hard to influence public policy in our favour and force collective awareness by every stakeholder in society. The second is to promote legislation ensuring that women have equal opportunities in the labour market and unlock their economic potential in our countries.

Take paternity leave, for example. One of the obstacles that struck me most was when I was working for a regional organization that only recognized men as having the status of head of household. For the simple fact of being a woman, I was denied the allowance available for my children's education, or health insurance for my family or the housing allowance.

In fact, I had no right to anything! I didn't think that such equalities could still exist.

Being a woman has worked to my advantage on many levels in my professional career. Firstly, we usually possess a degree of emotional intelligence that helps us manage relatively sensitive issues. In my case, as Resident Representative, conducting high-level dialogue and negotiations with governments and the private sector. By this, I mean the appreciation of different male colleagues who supported me in these processes.

I've always had this impression, at certain moments in my career, that I always had to prove my professional abilities, arguably more than a man would have had to. Being a woman has meant that I could work in synergy with male colleagues and we've been able to have some influence on the continent's development agenda and make an active contribution to achieving Africa’s development goals. By way of example, I was able to contribute to having the first gender-sensitive budget support approved in Senegal, in 2012-2013.

In conclusion, the confidence that comes from close collaboration between men and women raises one's awareness that parity is positive. There is certainly competition of some sort, but I still insist on active complementarity between men and women to the benefit of the progress and development of the continent. That is why I will never back away from defending parity, in its strict sense, rather than equality.

I will always remember this conclusion of the CEO of the Alibaba, an e-commerce conglomerate, when he said, "If we want a caring, open, effective and efficient enterprise that has the best relationships with the unions, hire women!"

What does March 8th mean for you? In your view, should every day be International Women’s Day?

Every day should be Women’s Day!

It is a way of confirming that the awareness-raising is happening, which is a great step forward. That is, awareness of the economic role that women play and awareness of their contribution to development and their political role.

International Women's Day is also a reminder to the international community and to countries that they must spare no effort to ensure that women have the decisive role that is rightfully theirs. And also to protect them from the obscurantism that uses certain traditions and practices, such as the truly shocking female genital mutilation, which is still going on today.

Much still remains to be done. I shall never stop saying this.

Let's talk now about the vision of an organization such as ours in this area.

Our President has made this issue an institutional priority and a cross-cutting strategic goal in the High 5 priorities launched in September 2015. Through its development projects, budget support, sectoral studies and technical assistance projects, the Bank really is making gender a priority on the agendas of African Governments.

I also welcome the latest appointments to directorships of the Bank. Four of the five positions were entrusted to women.

What advice or words of wisdom would you give young women who would like to learn from your career and follow in your footsteps?

I would not presume to give advice, but to share my experience.

Generally, women may hesitate to apply for a role if they don't think that they tick every single box for it. What I would say to these women is: Go for it! Take risks even if you are not sure. You will be amazed at the outcomes when the will and determination are there!

Create a climate of trust with your male colleagues and join them to your cause. These men are sons, brothers and husbands.

Never give up the fight, be strong. It was Winston Churchill who said, "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."

Stay committed and passionate. Together, let us be the drivers of change.

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