The environment Nobel goes to... Anna Tibaijuka

Saturday December 12 2009

Dr Tibaijuka has published five books and numerous articles and papers. Photo/FILE

The Nobel may be the most recognised, coveted and prestigious prize in the world today, but there are other equally prestigious international prizes awarded each year.

Top of the list is the Göteborg Award for sustainable development, widely considered equivalent to the Nobel prize for the environment, awarded by the Swedish city of Göteborg and partner companies.

This year’s Göteborg Award, the 10th, was on November 24 awarded to Tanzania’s Dr Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and executive director of the Nairobi-based UN-Habitat, a UN agency for the built environment — and two other people, Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia; and Sören Hermansen, the world renowned environment hero who has contributed to making the island of Samso in Denmark carbon-free — for having found new solutions to the challenges of urban development.

They join an illustrious list of previous winners who include former US vice president Al Gore and Norway’s first woman prime minister and former director-general of the World Health Organisation Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Dr Tibaijuka’s win had even more significance coming barely two weeks ahead of the UN Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen.

Cities in all continents are contributing to and struggling with challenges of climate change and rapid urbanisation among other issues that come with development.


In the run-up to and after the award ceremony, Dr Tibaijuka was in Gottenburg, Sweden, giving lectures to packed audiences in universities and other institutions of high learning.

She was also in Stockholm, where she eventually launched her book Building Prosperity: Housing and Economic Development.

The book contributes to the international debate on the role of housing in economic development.

More or less, the book echoes why she emerged one of the winners of the 2009 Goteborg Award — her lifelong work towards making urban habitat a better place to live.

“Cities represent 75 per cent of all energy consumption and generate 80 per cent of the carbon emissions that cause climate change. Yet our urban centres continue spewing out more of the pollutants that cause climate change and thus contribute to the increasing numbers of freak storms, floods, droughts and other disasters we are experiencing,” said Dr Tibaijuka.

Today, some one billion people live in slums and other sub-standard housing around the world, and they are most vulnerable of all when it comes to disasters caused by climate change, she said.

At the award ceremony on November 24 at the Goteborg Convention Centre, it was an elaborate parade of citations, speeches and music and Dr Tibaijuka did not disappoint, at least as far as the Swedish nationals were concerned, since she spoke in their language.

The award comes with a cash prize amounting to one million Swedish crowns ($147,000), and she said that these monies will be channelled to the UN-Habitat’s to support young people living in slums and other sub-standard housing.

This provoked mirth among the Tanzanian government delegation, who vehemently shook their heads in mock disappointment.

“How dare she? We cannot travel all the way to this cold country and not be rewarded even with a ‘cup of tea’,” one of them joked loudly.

Future plans

“Looking ahead, a cornerstone of our strategy is to engage young people at every level. I believe, the youth should become pathfinders for others in this rapidly urbanising world,” declared Dr Tibaijuka in her acceptance speech.

But Dr Tibaijuka’s gesture was not all unpredictable.

She not only studied in Sweden, but lived in the Swedish capital Stockholm, where as a young bride she joined her late husband, then the Tanzanian ambassador.

Dr Tibaijuka, a mother of four, holds a Doctorate of Science in Agricultural Economics from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala.

Earlier in November, Dr Tibaijuka had been awarded an honorary doctorate  by the Warsaw School of Economics, at a ceremony marking the first time that the university has bestowed such an award on a woman in its more than 100 years of existence.

She was highly commended for her achievements in increasing global awareness of poverty and social injustice, especially among the world’s one billion slum dwellers and others living in substandard housing.  

Her commitment to improving the lives of disadvantaged youth was especially emphasised.

Dr Tibaijuka, born to smallholder banana and coffee farmers in Muleba, in Kagera Region, became the first African woman elected by the UN General Assembly as Under Secretary-General of a United Nations programme.

She is currently serving a second, four-year term as Under Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN-Habitat.

She was appointed the executive-director of UN-Habitat in September 2000.

Prior to joining the agency, Dr Tibaijuka was the Special Co-ordinator for Least Developed Countries, Landlocked and Small Island Developing Countries at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

She has served as a member of the Commission for Africa established by former British prime minister Tony Blair, which resulted in the cancellation of multilateral debt for several African countries by the 2005 G8 Summit at Glen Eagles, Scotland. 

In July 2005, the UN Secretary-General appointed Dr Tibaijuka as his Special Envoy on Human Settlements Issues in Zimbabwe following massive evictions of the poor in urban areas.

She is currently a member of the World Health Organisation Commission on the Social Determinants of Health, and is also a member of the Advisory Board of the Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor, co-chaired by the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto.

Since 2002, Dr Tibaijuka has been instrumental in promoting water, sanitation and slum upgrading globally and in assisting the African Union to establish the African Ministerial Conference on Housing and Urban Development.