Skip to main content

Gro Harlem Brundtland and Malala receive Catalonia Prize

Share this:

“Today’s education inequalities really are tomorrow’s inequalities with regard to human rights, social justice, growth, income and employment.” Sharing the stage with Malala Yousafzai, with whom she received the 2013 Catalonia Prize on Friday, Gro Harlem Brundtland celebrates "the potential and importance of youth" in her acceptance speech.

Check against delivery:

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great honour to be invited here to Catalonia and to the great city of Barcelona, to share the stage today with such an exceptional and courageous girl and young woman: Malala Yousafzai, a name now recognised and admired across the world.

Her sheer determination to stand up for what she knows to be right has had an enormous impact on our minds and hearts. I pay my tribute, convinced that her impact will be a lasting one, a driver of the change we need, in a world stained by poverty, inequality, suppression and discrimination.

Gro Harlem Brundtland receiving the Catalonia Prize alongside Malala Yousafzai

Artur Mas, President of the Generalitat de Catalunya, awards the Catalonia Prize to Gro Harlem Brundtland and Malala Yousafzai.
Photo: Generalitat de Catalunya | Ruben Moreno

The selection of Malala, by this institution’s prestigious jury, also demonstrates a deliberate focus given to the potential and importance of youth. A crucial contribution to human progress has been made, by someone very early in life. It gives us hope and inspiration as we are heading for a better future.

Being invited together, one young, one old, across generations and cultures, here in Catalonia, also reminds us of a local history, a land of passage, where different peoples and cultures have converged. In that history, a few years before I was born, we also find Catalonia, the land and symbol of the fight for freedom and social justice. Her impressive resistance to fascism in the 1930s is widely admired.

My own life starts on a very special day in war-torn Europe: one of great celebrations in Berlin, where the German dictator marked his 50th birthday. My country was attacked and occupied in April 1940, my parents busy in our resistance. After 3 years our family fled to Sweden, as refugees. As I left office as Prime Minister, 57 years later, Europe was rejoicing after decades of division and suppression, the atmosphere was one of hope, not despair.

I am very much aware that, irrespective of war, conflict, struggle and danger, I was a very lucky girl. I was born in a democratic country, already influenced by the results of a long fight for freedom and justice for all, every child in school, and early in my own life, a national health service with equal access for all.

I was also lucky to be brought up in a family of strong convictions, deeply held values of solidarity, justice and equality. As I entered my teens, I was already very much aware that the principles I believed in were universal. My own family roots, my upbringing and background, my beliefs and political convictions, all led me to look for how I could best be prepared to contribute and to make a difference. They clearly did not just apply to my own country. They had to be global and apply to all peoples and all societies.

Looking through a holistic lens

Once in the so-called 'question time' in Parliament, I remember ending up, after an intense exchange of opinion with an opposition leader, by exclaiming: “Yes, all is indeed linked to everything else”. At the time, nearly 20 years ago this was immediately criticised, even ridiculed by some, for being simply evasive and unclear. Interestingly, today it is often being quoted with great respect, even with admiration!

Ladies and gentlemen, as a doctor and public health specialist, I learnt to always look for the close and near as well as the far away, the small as well as the large - through a multifaceted, holistic lens. This relates to our minds as well as to our bodies, to the links between us as humans, to the communities and the societies we create, to our surroundings and the environment in which we live.

Today, it also relates to Planet Earth itself - as humanity faces fundamental challenges in our relationship with nature. We need to sense and reflect, analyse and act, fully cognisant of how interdependent we all have become, in our own societies, and across the globe.

I realised early on how the key issues of development: economy and finance, environment, health and education could all only be dealt with on the basis of shared values and concerns, on human rights for both women and men, and on dignity for all. This is also the only real basis for peace and security. Health itself tells perhaps the strongest story of globalisation and the need for shared values and action to promote safety across the world.

As I was asked to enter the Government, at the age of 35, as Minister of the Environment, it came as a complete surprise. I had no such political plans or ambitions. I mention this to illustrate that in our lives we will be confronted with new challenges and choices. At such key crossroads in life, what really counts is to find out: Can I do it? Do I have something to contribute?

Instead of being fearful of a new responsibility, I was quickly relieved to find that the knowledge and principles I had already gained were perfectly relevant. Maybe these broad perspectives in my own thinking and attitudes contributed to the fact that, already half a year after my sudden introduction to the political arena, I found myself elected to become deputy leader of my party, and only six years later as Prime Minister and Party Leader?

In 1983 came the call from the United Nations to lead an International Commission to address the major global challenges we were facing and regretfully still are: environmental and developmental patterns that rapidly are reaching and overstepping the planetary boundaries. The Secretary-General convinced me to take on a seemingly impossible task when he urged me, "Don’t forget: you are the only environment minister to have become Prime Minister!"

Our analysis, by the unprecedented commission I put together, insisting that a majority of its members must come from the developing world, I believe has stood the test of time. It was based on extensive consultation and networks with NGOs, governments, industry and the scientific community. In fact, nearly a quarter century after our report Our Common Future was launched in London, the key recommendations and messages still are those that we need to pursue.

The plan and platform for my taking over at the helm of the World Health Organization (WHO) was one of renewal, an improved evidence base, building of alliances for action at a global level, and most of all: to place health at the top of the global political agenda.

I knew we needed to reach the minds of Finance Ministers and Prime Ministers. They must become Health Ministers themselves, responsible as they are, for a comprehensive policy of serving the needs and rights of the people, inside and outside their countries.

My credo is this: build on and strengthen the evidence, share the evidence, and act upon the evidence. This is the only workable and realistic basis for relevant and effective action in a closely connected and interdependent world.

This is what happened in the anti-tobacco campaign and the success of the first ever global convention in the public health field. I had made my strong call in 1998, in my acceptance speech: “Tobacco should never be advertised, subsidised or glamorised.” It is what happened in 2002-2003 when SARS was identified, named, abated and struck down, after its early and dramatic spread, that very spring. It is what happened with our initiative to call together the 'Commission on Macroeconomics and Health', led by Jeffrey Sachs, which clearly demonstrated that health is an investment – yes, in our people – but also in the economy.

In all of these examples, we were strengthening the WHO, improving global health, and creating critical global public goods, while increasing national and international transparency and accountability. Faced with opportunities for renewal as well as risks, still choosing to move the agenda forward, even against considerable opposition, when promoting change and innovation, is a critical component of leadership. Determination, even courage, is of the essence. Great visions and speeches alone are not what really count the most. Vision without a plan, or a plan without action, is not much to admire.

The only concrete obligation I took on, already in 2003, was to join the Board of the United Nations Foundation (UNF). I had been deeply inspired by Ted Turner and his amazing and exceptionally generous gift to the United Nations back in 1997. In the WHO I had worked with UNF as it started its ambitious agenda to promote the efficiency of the UN institutions and in building alliances, also with major private sector players, to better harness our combined ability in getting results.

Bill and Melinda Gates and other key players in global health today were undoubtedly inspired by the wonderful example of Ted Turner. Without Gates, our innovative approach and the establishment of GAVI, an alliance to vaccinate children and success story in public health, would not have been possible. Nor would we have had the inspiration and strength to create The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Today's injustice is tomorrow's inequality

So what am I spending my time on today, nearly ten years after I concluded tenure at the WHO? Climate, conflict resolution, sustainable development, human rights, global alliances on health, women’s reproductive rights, and – as an example of persistent, often forgotten discrimination against girls and women – child marriage.

Here we see many things come together: Traditions that are unacceptable, unjust and unhealthy, are undermining the rights of young girls, who have their life damaged long before maturity and independence. They are pulled out of school, their education stalled, their future undermined. It is a disgrace that these children have been preselected for diminished opportunity, because of their gender, because they have been born into poor households, or because of where they happen to live.

The fight for justice is what Malala has taken on, especially the right of girls to education. This right is indeed a crucial one. Today’s education inequalities, both within and between countries, really are tomorrow’s inequalities with regard to human rights, social justice, growth, income and employment.

Finally, I would also like to share with you a word about 'The Elders', led by former UN Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Laureate Kofi Annan, that takes up increasing amounts of my time. We are a small group of leaders, twelve of us now, whom I have also admired and worked with previously in life, including your laureate from 2010, President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was our Chair until last spring.

We were called together in 2007 by Nelson Mandela. Mandela wanted us “to offer our collective influence and experience to support peace-building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity”. He gave us the calling: “This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes. Together they will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.”

It was a high calling indeed, one that humbles us all, one that combines the values and inspiration for true global leadership.

Thank you.

Share this article

Keep up to date with The Elders’ COVID-19 digest:

Sign up to receive regular updates about The Elders’ activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. We will never share your email address with third parties.

Keep up to date with The Elders latest News and Insight:

Sign up to receive monthly newsletters from The Elders. We will occasionally send you other special updates and news, but we'll never share your email address with third parties.


I would like to find: