Great learning comes from engagement at the community level © Maison Soa archives

Building a sustainable world
Delving into the world of Milasoa Chérel-Robson, UN staff member for 15 years and pioneer for change
1 Nov 2023

Working for UNCTAD for more than 12 years is no mean feat, and yet Milasoa Chérel-Robson has not stopped there. Originally from Madagascar and with an economist background, she has the experience and knowledge to bridge the gap between numbers and social inequality.

Back in 2017, she was honored to be asked to be at the table of speakers in Geneva during a town hall meeting with Secretary-General Guterres when he first took office. It was there that she put forward the need to strengthen initiatives for resource pooling across the different pillars of the UN if we want more impact.

After spending 12 years at UNCTAD, she decided it was time to leave. She was Acting Head of the Regional Office for Africa, in charge of coordinating UNCTAD’s strategic inputs during the lead up to the signature of the Agreement establishing the historic African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in March 2018. During our interview, she expresses how she was grateful to the then UNCTAD Secretary-General, Dr Kituyi, for entrusting her with the role.

In early 2020, she was selected to join the UN in Haiti and experience what it meant to attempt to support the country to move forward on the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus. She describes it as a “challenging and life changing experience”. During her time there, the President of the country was assassinated, gang violence reached an all-time high and the country was impacted by an earthquake.

Following her departure from UNCTAD and UN Haiti due to family circumstances, she set up Maison Soa, a three-pronged approach “to co-create a world that reflects the best and the beautiful in each of us. It is a space to gather around our yearnings to act and gain knowledge for greater impact.” The initiative commits to economic, social and climate justice with a community focus across three pillars: Soa Citizens, Soa Sisters and Soa Inspiration.

Mila created Maison Soa as a personal and a family initiative to try to walk the talk of sustainability in both her professional and personal life. Maison Soa acts and shares knowledge and inspiration to build a sustainable world. The initiatives believe that both are needed to generate the necessary mindset shifts to accelerate the path towards the achievement of the SDGs. The core team is composed of her children and a wider circle of young people.

Maharavo and Tiana from Maison Soa © Maison Soa archives

Soa Citizens is where Mila contributes through her advocacy work as an economist and as a sustainable development professional. Her current work portfolio covers the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and the pan-African network of IRED, a Swiss NGO. Mila’s actions under Soa Citizens are rooted in a strong sense of commitment towards national counterparts in all her assignments as a UN staff member or as a consultant, as well as in a sense of accountability towards specific people she met during her fieldwork in Madagascar when she was doing her PhD at the University of Sussex.

Madagascar has one of the highest poverty rates in the world, with almost 80% of its population suffering from income poverty and being vulnerable to external shocks. The country’s southern regions suffer from extreme poverty and an increasing frequency of extreme weather events linked to climate change. That’s why Maison Soa’s pilot activities are concentrated through specific empowerment events this first year, and actions in collaboration with local associations as of its second year. 

Soa Sisters is where Mila carries out her work as a feminist committed to gender equality and acting locally in Madagascar. 

As part of the implementation of Maison Soa initiatives, the Soa Sisters Antsimo program in Madagascar is being fine-tuned, supporting the empowerment of educated women from the Southern part of the country to become change agents for sustainable development. It will start its first physical workshop in November.

As a strong defender of female empowerment, Mila promotes women in both her social and professional life, with seminars aimed at building key skills for women to manage their career. 

At UNCTAD, she co-led the first series of Gender Lectures and co-founded the women’s network where she runs seminars aimed at building key skills for women to manage their career. She aims to help first-hand (as a trainer of mentors) in the Inspired Women Lead mentoring program that benefits women from 85 countries.

At the international level, each year, Mila makes sure to personally mentor and sponsor up to three women directly. She also established a dedicated space within Maison Soa, @soaqueendom on Instagram, to support women to build inner strength to stay the course. Its motto is “Sustainability begins with self.” Soa Queendom held its first live event in Geneva on 21 September, with a group of 20 women gathered around the theme of “Health and Fitness: A Long-Haul Journey”. The long-term plan is to hold occasional physical meet ups with those located in Geneva, and eventually internationally.

Mila’s background gives her a great ability to look both at the bigger picture and at the human level. She says: “My ability to see the bigger picture mindset and understand the connections between the economic and social realities has been essential to my work in international development.” She also adds that taking a step back, going back to the basics and being trained for many years in different subjects gives you a head start over those that are learning on the job. “It means you can contribute to the team in a bigger way that you would otherwise. I think that slow progress towards the achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals prompts us to do more and to be clear and certain we have the right people in the right positions. It is not all about the polycrisis.”

Mila is concerned by the global reputation that Africa has as the continent where developing countries struggle the most. The reasons for this are that firstly, Africa has strong associations with hunger, poverty and conflict. There is another narrative that sees Africa as the land of opportunities. There are 1.4 billion people and 55 countries – with many stories of success and failures within this large population. It is also home to countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the largest producer of transition minerals such as cobalt, required for the development of green energy. It contains one of the largest forests of the world, putting it center stage in carbon sequestration at the global level.

She refers to the idea of “shared responsibility” when she remarks, “When you consider that many African countries got their independence in the 1960s, it is hard to imagine the lived experience of what it means to have been colonized and to be expected to just pick it up from there, as if nothing had happened. Unfortunately, even in the best of circumstances where economic growth has been constant, it has not been inclusive. A big part of the work for change lies with African citizens. However, if we want to change the perception of the continent, then the international community must also honor its pledges for support. In addition, shared responsibility means tackling reform of the international financial infrastructure. Accessing finance to fuel the much-needed sustainable development path that African countries want to engage in is hard as interest rates are much higher for them.”

Mila’s mission encompasses the international priorities on economic and gender-related objectives. She makes the point that the gender equality agenda is slow, not for lack of knowledge, but the lack of political and societal will to move forward with many legal and policy frameworks. She concludes: “When I see the number of feminist activists and economists in Africa, it reassures me that women are involved in the conversation. 

It is critical to align economic and gender goals if we want to accelerate progress on the SDGs. It is not the lack of legislation, it is perception and mindsets that need to change.”

* Mollie Fraser-Andrews is Editorial Coordinator for UN Today.
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