Interview with Niyi Ojuolape, UNFPA Country Representative, Ghana
Mr. Niyi Ojuolape has been the Representative of UNFPA Ghana since August 2017. In this interview, he talks about his aspirations for his work in Ghana at UNFPA as well as in his role as Champion of the UN Communications Group, how to ensure that every young person’s dream is realised, the potential he sees in the Ghanaian youth and the challenges to harness this potential. He speaks about family planning, reproductive rights, sexual education, the importance to empower young girls, as well as some other topics he is passionate about.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Niyi Ojuolape, and I am currently the UNFPA Representative to Ghana. Before this, I worked at the UNFPA Headquarters in New York. For six and a half years, I have served as the Special Assistant to the Executive Director of UNFPA. This position needs someone who is well informed as I was providing strategic advice to the Executive Director on the entire spectrum of UNFPA – programmes, executive management, human resources, operations. This, I must say, gave me a very good idea of the organisation, its global goals and priorities. I also got a lot of exposure to fieldwork as I travelled with the Executive Director.
When the former Executive Director passed, I was called to support the current one in three different roles; the chief of staff, personal assistant to the Executive Director and also as Country Representative for Ghana.
Before joining UNFPA in 2011, I worked in Nigeria for the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA), and I was the Special Assistant to the then Minister of Health.
I was brought up in South Western Nigeria by very strict parents. I attended nursery, primary and secondary school and university in Nigeria. I have a Master of Science in Finance from the University of Calabar and a Banking and Finance Degree from Ondo State University in Nigeria. Over time, I drifted towards public administration, and I have an expertise in public relations, communications, publicity, and advocacy – I am an Associate Member of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations.
You have been in Ghana for about half a year now. What are your aspirations?
My vision is to propel UNFPA and the entire UN system as a thought leader in the area of youth programming, working in line with the three transformative goals of UNFPA, which are: 1. to ensure that there are no unmet needs for family planning; 2. to end preventable maternal deaths – no mother should die when giving birth; and 3. to end Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) and all harmful traditional practices.
You believe in a world where every young person’s dream is realised. What is needed to make this vision a reality?
I see this from the perspective of the 10-year old girl, who is a young person getting into adolescence. We want to ensure that her potential is fulfilled. The essence is that we take care of her before she gets into adolescence to ensure that she has the appropriate tools that enable her to achieve her full potential and to feel empowered. The key is education. Education not just in terms of academic qualification, or getting a school certificate. We are talking about holistic education, that includes sexuality education, so the girl child is equipped to prevent unwanted pregnancy, and avoid Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV), including rape. The formative stages are very important in the life of an individual. We know that if you educate a girl, you educate a nation.
What do you see as the potential of the youth in Ghana?
I see a very bright future for the Ghanaian youth and the country. Ghana is a middle-income country, and there are a lot of things available here that are not available in other places. We have policies and laws that address issues related to life skills education, sexual reproductive health and rights, SGBV, family planning among others. Though Government has started to implement a number of those policies already, more needs to be done and resources need to be applied appropriately. Institutionally and systemically the country is set to take off.
The youth in Ghana is very active and organised, something you can see in a country that is developing. Civil society is a watch dog of the society that looks after what Government is doing, and holds them accountable to ensure everyone can enjoy their human rights. We now need to build on those structures. The electoral system makes things possible. When the Government is accountable to the people, it is made to do well.
This brings us to the discourse about demographic dividend. Addressing the structures related to health, education, good governance and economy is the basis on which we can harness the demographic dividend. In Ghana, we are not there yet, but things are improving. If Government is implementing its plans as announced, then it can be done.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in harnessing the youth’s potential?
I am very optimistic. But there are indeed challenges, such as the population structure. Population should be at an optimum. When talking about harnessing the demographic dividend, the first issue that needs to be tackled, is family planning. People should understand, if you want to have sex, it doesn’t mean you have to have children. You have a choice.
If the issue of population structure is not taken care of, we continue to have the population pyramid that we have right now. And then, no matter how prosperous the country is, the lower part of the population pyramid, that is not producing anything, will take most of the resources. But what you want is a population structure where the larger percentage is a working population, and the dependent part is smaller.
Family planning can help achieve that. Government is trying, but we are not anywhere near that. The issue should be addressed in a multi-sectoral manner. In December, the President launched the Road Map for Harnessing the Demographic Dividend. Now it is crucial to get every Minister on board, so they can take the required action in a consistent manner. Going forward, we cannot continue to depend on donor funding. Government needs to put its money where its mouth is, so we can have a sustainable development.
What other topics are you passionate about?
The UNFPA mandate cuts across all aspects of life. It is about education, which is key to UNICEF too, there is an element of general development, which is a UNDP mandate, etc. We are all working towards the SDGs which are cross-cutting, so I am focussing on the SDGs in their totality.
Apart from that, I am a spiritual person, and this takes a very large amount of my spare time. I am a Christian, and I have become a Minister of the Gospel. I am also very passionate about sports, music, and interested in current affairs, democracy and different forms of Government in other countries, like China.
Also, family is very important. In Africa, we focus a lot on the extended family, beyond my nuclear family – my wife and children. Everyone is linked to me in one way or the other. I might not be able to be in touch as much as I used to, but I still try to make that time. This is the bedrock of the African system. It is a social support system, as there is no formal social security system as in the Western world. So, we fall back on family support, you have a responsibility.
You just became the Champion of the UN Communications Group (UNCG)…
Communication comes to me naturally. If something happens, I am already thinking how do you communicate this. I have been trained in communications, for example at the John Hopkins Centre for Communication Programmes in Baltimore.
I am looking forward to engaging actively with the United Nations Communication Group (UNCG). We have a lot of responsibility: We need to communicate the SDGs. We need to segment our audience, and not just talk to the ones who already know. We need to reach out to Government and to society.
There is also a need to communicate about the United Nations system itself. I am not sure people have the right information. We need to brand ourselves, and communicate better what we do, and the value we add to society. We should create synergies between all UN agencies. I want to activate that spirit of “One UN” to harness the potential we have among ourselves. Two plus two makes four. But if we are working together, two plus two can actually make seven.
What first opened my eyes about the importance of communication was when I worked in Nigeria with a boss who believed a lot in communication, when we took over the HIV response in 2002. When we started, evidence showed that only 30-40% of Nigerians had appropriate information about HIV. The knowledge was very low, so we had the responsibility to change that. By the time we finished, we reached about 95%. We activated all forms of media to reach out to the people. It was a very rewarding experience that has stayed with me ever since.
The UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth Ms. Jayathma Wickramanayake visited Ghana last week for the first time. Why was this mission important?
It was her first multi-country mission in Africa. The aim was to enable her to understand the conditions on the ground, and meet the people. She started in Senegal, then she went to The Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. She left Ghana with the ambition to continue support for vulnerable young girls and women.
In Ghana, she met with partners and bilateral donors, with Government, the Ministers of Youth and Gender, and with the UNCT. She visited one of our projects on the ground, at Agbogbloshie Market in Accra, where we work with the Agbogbloshie Head Porters Association on providing training and education to the porter girls and women and their children. She could advise on our work, and at the same time she will now take a message back to the Secretary-General in New York.
Even if UNFPA prides itself as the UN agency for youth, youth is a cross-cutting issue for the whole UN system, so this mission was an important signal.
The interview was conducted by Juliane Reissig, Communication Specialist at the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office on behalf of the UN Communications Group (UNCG).