Malini Mehra — Standing for Human Decency and Sustainable Development

NOTE: This interview excerpt is transcript only

Photo Credit: Road to Paris

Photo Credit: Road to Paris

“We have to turn the corner if we are to have a future.”

Malini Mehra is an award-winning civil society leader, entrepreneur, campaigner, writer, and broadcaster who has over 30 years experience inspiring dialogue around human rights and sustainability at the highest level of diverse international organizations. She is the first woman and first Indian to serve in her current role as Chief Executive of GLOBE International, a non-party political organization that supports parliamentarians to develop legislative responses to the challenges posed by sustainable development. Malini is a deeply compassionate advocate for the whole of life who leads an ambitious movement toward positive change from a heartfelt sense of personal responsibility. In this interview, she shares how she lives restorative leadership by listening deeply and authorizing her own voice to speak up for decency and sustainability for all, no matter how seemingly big or small the challenge.

On Leading Transcript

Seana Lowe Steffen, host: What compels you to do the work that you do?

Malini Mehra, guest: A searing sense of the injustice that there is in the world and the feeling that if people who can and who are competent don’t do this work, it won’t be done. People like me have a responsibility to do what I’m doing and what we do, because we look around us and ask ourselves the question, “Why aren’t more people doing this kind of work? Why don’t more people intervene in large or small instances of injustice?” It’s because not everyone feels that they can or wants to. I know for me personally that I have always intervened, and if people like me don’t, who will? Which is a nuisance at times for other people. You know, if I’m on a bus and there is a parent who is abusing their child or there is a young person who is not getting up and giving their seat to an elder person, these are very small examples of every day interventions to make the world a more decent place. I feel that it’s so important to send a signal. I think it’s right to speak up and show people that it’s alright to say something.

Seana: If you could change one thing in the world with a snap of your fingers, what would you change and why?

Malini: I think that the things that are absolutely abhorrent to me are violence and cruelty and lack of compassion. You see that played out in so many different types of instances, whether it’s financial malfeasance, which brings such pain and suffering to people who lose their jobs, their homes, their whole livelihoods as a result, or whether it’s women and children who are abused in domestic relationships, or children who are abused on the streets in situations of war and conflict. I think our propensity to hurt other people and make excuses, seeking sanction in culture, in age, in religion, whatever the source of that sanction may be, is one of the most horrific aspects of humanity. If there is one thing I could eliminate for us, it is our propensity towards violence.

Seana: What’s your vision for the world and how does your work connect?

Malini: My vision is for a world in which there is room for human decency, where there is social justice, where people are seen as people and not as nationalities or castes or classes, where the vulnerable in particular are protected, and that all of us grow up with a sense of responsibility for protecting the vulnerable in our societies. 

Seana: What have you witnessed or experienced during your work that gives you hope for sustainability?

Malini: I think the thing that gives me hope is when I see how many young people are organizing themselves actively around climate change issues in particular, because this is a struggle that will be their struggle. It’s about their futures, and it’s really heartening that younger and younger ages, you know young people are beginning to realize that their future is being compromised by decisions that are taken today. I hope that their passion will continue as they grow older, because they will be a very, very important political constituency to make the change that we need to see happen. Not just as activists on the streets, but as pioneers of new technologies, as consumers demanding on a scale that we’ve not seen so far more sustainable forms of living, whether it's more energy efficient buildings, whether it’s more sustainable automobiles. But it’s not enough because the youth of today are still a promise waiting to happen and you cannot abdicate your own responsibilities as older people to continue to fight to have decisions made which are in the long-term interest of the public. So, there I continue to take hope in the fact that there are still people out there who are shining examples of leaders who are calling for the kind of just and sustainable societies that we hope for.

Seana: Could you talk a little bit about the recent Unilever decision, your role as a board member, and the impact on sustainability of board actions like that?

Malini: There are definitely leadership companies like Unilever which are leadership companies not by default, but by design. Because the people who work in the company, both at the rank and file as well as the management level, recognize that because of its size and influence, Unilever is in a position to make change in a way that few others within the industry are. So, there has been a conscious decision taken at the highest levels to use Unilever’s size for good, and not just in one arena, but across many dimensions. The one that’s been most noteworthy has been Unilever’s decision in 2009 not to publish quarterly reports responding to pressures from financial markets for quarterly reports. My role as a member of Unilever’s sustainable development advisory council has been to work with the company, with management, in helping them identify risks as well as opportunities for the company. Clearly, we felt that this area of the quarterly return issue, the way in which the pressure from financial markets was driving companies to make decisions which were not in their long-term interest, was jeopardizing the long-term growth and success of the company. So people such as myself have been helpful in endorsing the changes that have taken place within Unilever. And definitely this particular change has been widely welcomed. It’s a real signal to financial markets that leading businesses will refuse to be bullied around by them, basically, or dance to their tune because the bosses of these companies feel that they legitimately have to think in the longer term, the twenty to thirty year term, and not just the next quarter, as is demanded by financial markets. The connection with sustainability is because it obviously helps decision makers within companies make decisions which are mid- to long-term in nature.

Seana: What do those working for global sustainability and collective wellbeing need to be successful?

Malini: I think the most important attribute that people need to be successful is the capability of listening to what other people are saying and not to be dogmatic. I think that we unnecessarily close ourselves off if we are too ideological, too dogmatic, because both are limited worldviews as far as I’m concerned. I would much, much rather be wrong in my understanding of the major issues on sustainability, whether it’s deforestation, species loss, the scale of violence against women. I would also much rather be wrong if my methods could be improved by people arguing for a different approach than the ones that I’m taking right now. And why? Because it’s much better to be wrong in finding solutions to the thing that you care about than to be right in terms of the politics that you are pursuing. What I see around me are people for whom it’s more important to be right than to be effective. The key thing that I try is to be open to new ideas and to be open to new analyses because by keeping an open mind and by listening to other people, I think that you can very often find solutions that were there and you didn’t realize. Just listening to others would make all the difference it world, I think.


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Stand for Decency and Sustainability

Founded in 1989, GLOBE International brings together prominent serving politicians and lawmakers, across party lines, to exert their authority and powers of law-making, legislative and budgetary oversight to advance practical action on sustainable development. GLOBE legislators are united by their belief that by working together they can also make more of a difference to unblocking political blocks at the multilateral level.

Sustainable development is perceived by
many to be an impossible concept —
impossible to define and impossible to put
into practice. Where it has entered into
municipal discourses and institutional
consciousness it is primarily associated with
environmental management. As this report
seeks to demonstrate, the concept is far
more than that.