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Forthright and feminist: Norway's first woman leader

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"Next time a woman becomes Party Leader or Prime Minister of Norway, she will not meet the same problems that I had." In an in-depth interview with Mayumi Yoshinari for Japanese political affairs magazine Chuo-Koron, Gro Harlem Brundtland discusses everything from the secret of successful leadership to achieving a nuclear weapon-free world.


Gro Harlem Brundtland


She is lucid with strong beliefs.

She speaks concisely and to the point, logically yet warm-heartedly.

Her sense of responsibility and strong will can be felt from each word she utters.

Gro Harlem Brundtland’s father, Gudmund Harlem, was a medical doctor who specialised in rehabilitation medicine. When Brundtland was ten years old, her family moved to the United States so that he could take up a Rockefeller scholarship in New York. Several years later the family moved to Egypt when he accepted a position there as a United Nations expert on rehabilitation. He later returned to Norway, becoming a prominent member of the Labour Party and rising to the position of Minister of Defence.

At the age of seven, Brundtland became a member of the Labour Party as part of its children’s section. Political debate was always present at home and her parents fostered her belief that women could achieve just as much as men. Brundtland went on to receive her medical degree from the University of Oslo in 1963 and a Master of Public Health from Harvard University in 1965.

In the 1970s, Brundtland was actively engaged in efforts to legalise abortion in Norway. In 1974 she entered government at the age of 35 as Minister of the Environment, and only six years later became Norway’s youngest and first female Prime Minister at the age of 41.

As leader of the Labour Party, she served three terms as Prime Minister (1981, 1986–89 and 1990–96), and appointed eight female cabinet members out of 18 in her second cabinet. (Norway’s Gender Equality Act – originally enacted in 1978 – was amended in 1988 to require that all public bodies with more than four individuals have at least 40 per cent of its members from each gender.)

Upon a request by the United Nations in 1983, Brundtland established and chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development. Also known as the ‘Brundtland Commission’, it developed the epoch-defining concept of ‘sustainable development’. In 1998, she became the first female Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Deeply rooted in fundamental human rights, her beliefs have not wavered despite the criticisms that they have sometimes provoked. Brundtland has been referred to as the ‘Iron Lady of the Left’, a counterpart to Britain’s ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party during the same period.

What I really wanted to understand was her inherently trustworthy character and what underpins her thinking as a world leader.

This interview took place in Dublin, Ireland in May 2013.

Gro Harlem Brundtland with Desmond Tutu and Ela Bhatt, hearing from young activists working to stop child marriage

Gro Harlem Brundtland, Desmond Tutu and Ela Bhatt listen to young activists working to stop child marriage in Bihar, India. February 2012.

Ending child marriage

Chuo-Koron: As a member of The Elders, you have been working hard on women’s issues, such as trying to eradicate child marriage by 2030 through Girls Not Brides. What are the root causes of the problem – and by eliminating it, what are you trying to achieve?

Gro Harlem Brundtland: I think the main root cause in this case – well, there are two.

In my mind, the most important one is discrimination against women and girls. Why would so many young girls be given away, sold, or forced to marry at an age of eight, ten, or twelve, unless it’s a practice that has its roots in the tradition that girls have less value than boys? And the best thing parents can do is get rid of them, and have another family pay for their keep. It’s so much a discrimination against girls, as opposed to boys.

Now, the second root cause is poverty, because as families move out of poverty and into the middle class, even in the countries where this practice is prevalent, they don’t sell their girls in that way anymore: they let the girls go to school, they let them be prepared for adult life.

So, you have a combination of poverty and discrimination against girls.

And you have a hope that it will be eradicated by 2030?

Well, if we all do what we can, in accordance with the thinking behind the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), this can be done. But the countries themselves have to fight it, have to understand its importance. It’s not something that the international community can impose; it has to be understood by those at the grassroots level themselves, which is why we have been moving into communities in northern Ethiopia and also in India, speaking directly with young people.

So, there must not only be a change their way of thinking, but also economic development to support that.


Democracy in Egypt

Chuo-Koron: In 2012, you visited Egypt as a member of The Elders. In the Brookings Institution’s public opinion polls in Egypt in 2012, when asked in an open question to identify two countries that posed the biggest threat to the region, 97 per cent of those polled listed Israel, 80 per cent listed the US, and 20 per cent listed Iran. If democracy is installed in that region, those polls will be reflected in its policies. What did you actually see happening there? Did you see democracy as we all hoped happening?

Gro Harlem Brundtland: Egypt is a complicated story so far. The changes that happened were, of course, very important. There was a clear call from the people for change. But as you say, democracy is trying to enter; it is a slow process. We believe the election was fair. However, the people of Egypt are not used to opposing parties. Many of them knew the Muslim Brotherhood. They voted for those they know as an organisation, and they know their politicians.

There was really not a fully developed opposition party system. And now, the way the constitution has been delayed, and there is still violence. There is no control; the government does not have control, fully, of the police…it’s a work in progress; it’s going slowly.

I don’t think, however, that it’s as simple as this. Those polls you mentioned, that in a year or two, or three, from now, will illustrate what the people of Egypt feel – because there is an opening up of more freedom of the press, more shared knowledge – maybe those polls will modify a little. But I still think that Islam and the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, that’s what the Egyptian people at the moment, are feeling. But that’s democracy, you know? It’s going to take a long time.

Gro Harlem Brundtland and Jimmy Carter meeting with members of Egyptian civil society

Gro Harlem Brundtland meets with Egyptian civil society representatives in Cairo, October 2012.

In your thoughts, what would be the most important factors for a nation to become a sovereign nation?

Well, you know, you’re not a sovereign nation unless you have some basic institutions. But the interesting thing is, in history, you have had sovereign nations that are dictatorships. Many of those are protected by military force. And the people respect or fear the structure. But that’s not a sovereign nation in the terms of human rights and the way we want it to be. So as long as you don’t have an independent judiciary, and you don’t have free voting systems where everyone can participate, you certainly don’t have the basis of a democratic sovereign state.

Sustainable development, three decades on

Chuo-Koron: From 1983 to 1987, you were the Chair of World Commission on Environment and Development – also known as the Brundtland Commission – and you were trying to reconcile both economic growth and environmental protection by proposing an epoch-defining concept called ‘sustainable development’, which then was summarised in the UN report Our Common Future.

In 2012, Rio+20 was held in Brazil to shape how we can reduce poverty, enhance social equity, build a green economy, and ensure environmental protection. In the past twenty years, what did you see happening in the world? In the fast-growing countries, like the BRICS nations, did you see sustainable development happening?

Gro Harlem Brundtland: I think the analysis we made then, which is now twenty-five years ago, still stands. You can read that report now and the messages, the analysis and the recommendations could have been the same today, which, in itself, is unusual in history. However, the follow-up of the world’s nations on those recommendations has not been what they should have been. And I think many political leaders are now more aware today than fifteen or twenty years ago that there is no alternative path ahead.

However, economic constraints, financial crisis – one thing after the other in the ’90s and then in this last decade – have both been a real problem, but also an excuse to shy away from, to forget, to postpone. So that when the world was together in Kyoto five years after Rio, and many countries signed up to the Kyoto Protocol, we were on a path of a follow-up to Rio ’92. But the US withdrew, and China and others were defining themselves solely as developing, poor countries. And of course, that meant that from then on, there has been a big hurdle that we don’t get ahead on these critical climate issues, because everyone is aware that the emerging economies are being a bigger and bigger part of the total drama.

But I do believe, in the next three years, that the world will be able to start putting the puzzle pieces together – different obligations for different types of countries. But unless China and the US are both part of the solution, the rest of the world will feel it’s impossible.

Is there a hope that China and the US will be…?

I have hope. I think it will happen.

The first and the only female Prime Minister of Norway

You started out as a medical doctor, and then you served three terms as the first and only female Prime Minister of Norway to date; you are called ‘the Mother of Norway’. Why do you think you were so successful as a Prime Minister? Do you think your training in science gave you a different perspective?

The fact that I had a medical profession and a public health working area for years meant that when I was asked to enter the cabinet – the government of Norway – I always felt that I had to try to do as good a job as I can, given what I’ve been asked to do. But I always also felt independent in the sense that if things were becoming too difficult, if I couldn’t say what I felt, if I couldn’t pursue my own values and my own convictions, then I could always return to my medical profession.

Now, not every politician has that situation – they may have been ambitious about getting into political life, they are competing with others, and in fact, they don’t see another career path. I think this kind of integrity and independence helped me be somebody that people trusted, because they saw that I was speaking my mind, and they trusted it. I’m trying to analyse my own situation, yes…

So you were not forced to behave against your will?

No. And I had that determination in me. I was completely a democratic person; I wanted to have decision-making where many people were listened to, where all parts of my own party were heard before we made a conclusion. So, it was not that I could not compromise to find common ground; this is an essential part of getting results. But if somebody or something would push me to do something I knew was not right, then I would have left. But it never happened! [Laughs]

What are the most necessary characteristics to be a leader?

I think you have to be grounded in yourself. You have to trust your own instincts. You have to be able to convey what you believe in. And you just have to have convictions and a moral compass that other people can sense, because then they can rally around you and they know where you are, they understand what you’re saying, and if they agree, they can follow and be part of something together.

Nuclear power and patriotism

Chuo-Koron: Norway employs a rather weak form of military service. Norway’s military budget of 7 billion US dollars is the highest per capita in Europe. Do you think military service is one of the fundamental structures for a sovereign nation? Do you think it will change in this highly connected internet society?

Gro Harlem Brundtland: You know, one reason why I think Norway has been able to have a reasonably competent and high enough investment into the military service is because Norway’s military service supports what Norway tries to contribute internationally.

It is not a military service to protect the borders of Norway alone. Our military is gradually more and more trained to go into difficult areas, together with other nations, and help create a better solution for people who are struggling because their human rights are being oppressed.

Norway would not have had that level of defence budget if it were traditional defence only. Because we don’t feel threatened at the moment from anyone. Not from Russia. I mean, we see that we need trained forces to be able to help in other parts of the world.

But you are for a peaceful solution to the last stage…

Absolutely. It is only when the United Nations is calling for help, even in the military field, when Norway will enter.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed by all but five nations – Israel, India, Pakistan, South Sudan, and North Korea. What are your thoughts on nuclear deterrence? Is it a viable concept?

You know, the concept is there. It is believed in by sufficient forces across the world that it’s part of reality. However, this cannot be the future. So we need to move through, I believe, in the next twenty years, to get away completely from nuclear deterrence.

I was part of a global commission dealing with these issues, and we had people from East and West, North and South, led by the former Japanese Foreign Minister [Yoriko Kawaguchi] and Gareth Evans from Australia. Our conclusion was that within twenty, twenty-five years, we can move down to a ‘zero-solution’ with regards to nuclear deterrence. It has to happen in a gradual, measured way where everyone does his or her part, and it’s possible, and it’s also necessary.

Looking at the world’s situation, the US has tremendous military power. How do you persuade a superpower like that, one which has the largest military budget compared to the rest of the world, to come to the idea of reducing nuclear armament?

Well, I think the main explanation is that not only have American politicians – from Robert McNamara onwards – understood the danger of the whole picture, and that the US is part of the dangerous picture, but they know, and they want to, and they see they have to change. But they are dependent on changing with others.

An American defence minister or president will think, “Our forces are under good control, they will not do anything that’s wrong or is a risky fault or something, but maybe our counterpart in Russia will do so.” Suspicion. So that’s why, from both sides, they suspect the other party but both understand that they are dependent on each other.

So we move gradually, and we have enough surveillance, so we know what’s happening so that we can trust that what we have agreed is happening. So those are the two big ones, and then of course, you have smaller... and then you have countries that are just starting or that don’t even have one or two, or a few nuclear weapons.

The reason is that everyone who knows the issue understands the danger. They know we have to get down (with the nuclear weapons). You cannot use that power. You cannot even convey it over decades because others will do the same. And the world continues to be at high risk.

On the other hand, nations know that once you have a nuclear weapon, you have the power behind it when you do all kinds of negotiations.

Which is why new countries try to enter, or try to avoid being a non-nuclear power, some of them, which is unfortunate. And the world is doing what it can to avoid that. We don’t need any more in the fighting group, you know?

Bertrand Russell said: “War does not determine who is right – only who’s left.” [Laughs] And he also said: “Patriotism is the willingness to kill and to be killed for trivial reasons. The only thing which redeems mankind is cooperation.” Do you agree with him?

Absolutely. Fully and absolutely. It’s wonderfully said.

So, even the “patriotism” part?

Yes, even that. I think all of it is correct. [Laughs]

Democracy and sustainability

Chuo-Koron: Do you think the ultimate purpose of a democratic society is “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”? If so, are we willing to sacrifice our freedom to achieve that?

Gro Harlem Brundtland: So far, it has proven to be difficult, however, to have people share in a real way, and to realise across countries – across many countries – that we are interdependent of each other and we have to respect the other person’s dignity, rights, and needs as much as our own. People are, I think, gradually going to understand that this is the only way the world can become sustainable.

I was speaking to a businessman last night, and he was explaining how he has become convinced that business today cannot have profit, undermining the rights of people or the planet. Now if more people start thinking in those terms, we understand that we have a shared responsibility for the future, and that means that we have to lift people out of poverty. We have to give everyone the freedom to have a dignified life.

Breaking the cycle of poverty and poor health

Chuo-Koron: As the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), you worked tirelessly to break the vicious cycle of poverty which breeds disease, which then breeds poverty. Could you explain why health issues are the critical infrastructure of world peace?

People who are ill will not be productive; they will not contribute to the economy. And a situation where people are poor and unhealthy breeds new generations of the same problems. So basically, health for all is as important as education for all, but I always add the two.

It’s not enough to have a healthy population if they are uneducated. Health and education are basic needs for every person and for every society. It cannot flourish, it cannot be productive and have sustainable economic growth if the people are not educated and if they don’t have basic health services and have their health needs taken care of.

So where do we start? When we’re trying to help the poorest region of the world, how do we approach it and where do we start? Do we start with health issues and education issues concurrently, or do we start first by taking care of the health issues?

I think health and education are both so critical that you need to do both. The way you help a very poor, or even a fragile state – of which we have many today – is trying to help people have health and education. Unless you are able to convey that message and to be supported, there’s no way a population can rise out of poverty. So they are basic, both of them. And it’s a basic human right, as well. I mean, you can talk about principles, but if you look at it from a human rights perspective or from an economic perspective, the result is the same: we need to invest in people.

What were the most difficult challenges you faced as the Director-General of WHO?

In the situation where a new and unknown disease was spreading from the Far East, that was maybe the greatest challenge, because it was acute. It had to be dealt with there and then, and I knew that there was no other global institution than the World Health Organization that could take charge and try to do what was necessary. Even if it was unpopular, unheard of, completely innovative, because nobody had issued recommendations against flying and so on before, that was the greatest direct challenge because of the acuteness of it.

But of course, to have people work together to have a much higher level of attention to global health issues, to deal with HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, which were the biggest killers, and to rally both the voluntary sector and the nations together to a much higher level of attention and resources was a great challenge. And we managed; we changed the face of global health in those years. Many more resources were being invested in the most disadvantaged areas.

Yes, I remember the SARS incidences created a huge campaign.

Yes, yes.

Universal values – without religion?

Chuo-Koron: We all know that religion can be helpful and harmful to people, and there are a number of atrocities committed in the name of God. Do you still see any merit in religion? What kind of influence has religion had in your life, if any?

Gro Harlem Brundtland: First of all, we, as Elders – early on in our six years, now – decided that discrimination against women is still a major concern globally. And within that analysis, we identified the use and misuse of religion and tradition to oppress women.

President Carter, who himself, is deeply religious,  very much has a strong conviction that we have to speak to the power of religion being used to discriminate. He even left his own church, because they consistently insisted in not having female priests, or women engaged in teaching boys, for instance. He tried for years, but he couldn’t convince them, and he left. So this illustrates the strength of his conviction, and he convinced all of us. We have to speak out on the misuse of religion to discriminate. And that’s happening in many places across the world.

Now that doesn’t mean that religion doesn’t play a constructive role both in Jimmy Carter’s life and in so many other people’s lives. But it is misused also for power and oppression purposes, and this, we need to be able to speak out against.

Can we do all this without religion?

I do not know… Can you have high and moral, ethical values? Can you teach your children to be people with high values, and can we do that for generations without the threat or the invitation of a God figure?

I always thought: “Yes”. And I still basically… It’s still my conclusion. You can convey what is right to your fellow human beings without having a God figure telling you why or how. But of course, in many people’s lives, that God figure is part of their upbringing. And I’m sure it has also, in many places, helped communities stay together under certain social and value norms, which are helpful.

How about you personally?

Well, this is not something that I normally talk to everybody about. But I am not the kind of strong religious believer as is the case of my fellow Elders, Archbishop Tutu or Jimmy Carter. I am a Norwegian, you know. Northern Europe has less now, today… Norway used to have a very strong religion, and people were going across the world to help as missionaries. It was part of our history. But of course, in modern and newer generations, this is not the only guiding star for people. My values are more based on human rights and human values than on religious beliefs.

Advice to young leaders

Chuo-Koron: What kind of advice would you give to aspiring young people?

Gro Harlem Brundtland: Well, first of all, think about how you want to make a difference. What do you want to contribute? Because we all are born to make some kind of contribution. Through that, we grow ourselves, and we grow into people around us, and we help people, and our societies, and the world, depending on where you want to go.

But decide what your path is, and what your interest is, and engage with other people. When people have political ambitions, I always tell them: “You have to be yourself. You cannot be some kind of artificial actor. If what you try to convey to others doesn’t come from your inner self and your own convictions, then it doesn’t work.” So believe in your own values, develop them, think about them, analyse them, express them to others, and move on that basis.


What are the challenges in the future of education? What kind of things would you like your grandchildren to learn?

Here in Dublin, yesterday, we had a meeting with young people from Northern Ireland. The one thing that was on everybody’s mind, whatever community in that country they were from, was: “We need to have integrated education. We need to learn at school about the need to work together, about common values, about human rights, about how to move a society forward in a constructive way. We cannot – we shouldn’t – have schools with different curricula and where we don’t learn about people from different religions until we are university students. It’s much too late.”

Young people from Northern Ireland at The Elders' Ireland round table discussion

Gro Harlem Brundtland

The Elders' roundtable with young people from Northern Ireland, May 2013

So this illustrated how education really needs to be linked to the broader society. You need to learn about other people in your own country, work with them, be with them in the school classroom, and learn about the world early, because you cannot pick up when you are beyond 18 what you should have learned already in your heart as a five-year-old.

How have you coped with criticism, disappointment, or resistance towards your work?

You know, that’s a struggle all the time. Because when you stick your head out and you are willing to be a leader in some respect or another, then you are also going to meet opposition and you are going to meet criticism. Now, if it is in a constructive way, it’s only part of a daily attention to people’s opinions, which is fine.

But when it becomes tough, and when it is linked to political fights of real terms, you know, when you are a politician, it’s by definition so that whatever you are going to do, you are going to be criticised, because there are other people wanting to take over your position. So sometimes you have to decide in your own mind: “What do I want to be criticised for?” There’s no zero game. You cannot have a situation where you are not criticised – it’s absolutely a democratic society. Impossible.

Then, you have to think: “What do I want to convey? What is going to be my key message?” and “What am I happy to be criticised for?” Because I’m not conveying the messages of the opposition party. They can convey their own. You have to be courageous enough to analyse that situation and to decide your own values and your own messages so that you believe in them yourself. And people will listen – or they will not listen, because they will vote for the Conservative Party instead. Now, fine.

There was one area which was tough, which was people directly or indirectly trying to undermine me because I was a woman. That happened. Already, from 1977, when I had started becoming very popular, the opposition parties were trying to undermine my popularity by indicating: “Shouldn’t we really have a man, now?”

But I decided that I’m going to have to tolerate some of that; I cannot stop it, they are going to continue. But you just disregard it, because next time a woman becomes Party Leader or Prime Minister of Norway – maybe many years from now – she will not meet the same problems that I had. I have to tolerate, have to live with this uncomfortable atmosphere, because I am the first. It’s my duty to just tolerate it. Next time will be easier for another woman. It helped me.

Working with The Elders – and favourite authors

Chuo-Koron: Last question: as a member of The Elders, what are you most excited and concerned about these days?

Gro Harlem Brundtland: Well, you know, we have had six years now of working together, learning from each other, creating something that is unique: nine individuals who respect each other, who can make common ground on most issues. That is in itself is a wonderful experience because without that – without us being able to do this – and create something which is above and beyond any of us as individuals, we wouldn’t be Elders. We wouldn’t have an Elders Foundation that really could make a difference.

Now, we have just had a change of leadership because Archbishop Tutu, after six years, stepped down. He insisted – and it’s even in our constitution – that you have two three-year terms as Chair. Now of course, we had gelled into being led by Archbishop Tutu, so it’s a sad thing. We miss him, but we were so lucky that we all were able to convince Kofi Annan to be our next Chair. So this last week, because I know of the consequences for The Elders for the future, I’m so thrilled that we have been able to pick the correct, the best leader among us. So now it’s Kofi Annan, and I know that we can go from strength to strength together.

Do you have any favourite books?

That’s one of the difficult questions for me to answer. When you have read a lot in your life from when you were small, how do you pick one book or two books? It’s really hard. So I will give you three or four authors, not books. Because clearly, Ibsen, the Norwegian author; Sigrid Undset, who is a female Norwegian writer – she also held the Nobel Prize in Literature – she has written wonderful books, one of them, Kristin Lavransdatter; then, Dostoevsky; Mark Twain; Ernest Hemingway. So those are the writers, because they have all written wonderful books.

Dr Brundtland, thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity.

This interview is part of a Chuo-Koron series about "The Elders' wisdom."

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