Hivos International

Humanist values as unique selling point: a farewell interview with Manuela Monteiro

By Roman Baatenburg de Jong
After ten years of inspiring leadership, Hivos executive director Manuela Monteiro is bidding the organisation a fond farewell. She leaves behind an organisation that is well prepared for the uncertain times ahead.

Roman Baatenburg de Jong: What’s your state of mind as you leave Hivos?

Manuela Monteiro: (laughing) I’m in an excellent mood. Hivos is in a very good position. For the next two years we can rely on co-financing funds from the Dutch foreign ministry for our programmes, and after 2015 I’m confident our new strategy will keep Hivos in the Foreign Trade and Development Minister’s good books. In the meantime, we’ll keep reaching out around the world to build new partnerships with international donors.

RBdJ: Hivos now gets 53 percent of its revenues from abroad. That will probably increase in the future. So is the Netherlands becoming less important for the organisation?

MM: In terms of quantity, yes, but certainly not in terms of quality. Qualitatively, our connection with the Netherlands is incredibly important. It provides the financial basis for Hivos to do the things we’re so good at: identifying new initiatives and seeking out social forces that can drive processes of change. Without this we would have to work exclusively on a project-by-project basis, and we would miss the flexibility and the room to explore and scan our environment. If we lost our ability to explore innovative avenues, we would end up being a kind of consultant who is just doing work commissioned by others.

Apart from the financial support we receive from the Netherlands, this is the country where we have our roots. Hivos’ humanist values ​​come from here and form our unique selling point. The way we translate these values into policy choices and programmes makes us attractive for parties interested in tackling thornier issues like investing in the empowerment of citizens, instead of classic projects like building wells or schools.  Fighting for people’s empowerment, resilience, self-determination and autonomy –and the need for individual freedom – all that comes directly from our humanist roots.

RBdJ: Hivos is embarking on a new course that includes making "the state and the street” more interconnected. Can you elaborate?

MM: Over the years, we have invested heavily in organisations that champion the cause of human rights. They made sure that women's rights, gay rights and the rights of ethnic minorities were anchored in constitutions and international treaties everywhere.

This was very important. At the same time, we see in many cases that actual practice consistently lags behind legislation. So it’s important, now that these rights are enshrined in law, that we focus more on ensuring compliance. It’s no longer about the legal battles fought by lawyers or organisations in Geneva, it's more and more about citizens claiming their rights on the street, about the power of social media to ensure that people’s rights are respected in practice.There are of course exceptions. In some countries , as in the Middle East and North Africa, legal battles are still being fought and quite rightly so.

RBdJ: In essence, Hivos aims to change the dominant culture by creating critical awareness in societies where the ability to express criticism is not a foregone conclusion. Can you give an example of where this approach has worked?

MM: The process of urbanisation has helped people cast off the yoke of village tradition. In the city you’re exposed to all kinds of other ideas, including increased media pluralism. Supporting alternative and independent media is part of one of Hivos’ flagship programmes. This is now bearing fruit in places like East Africa, where exposure to diverse sources of information and opinion affect entrenched beliefs and, by extension, the prevailing culture as well.

Another example is our approach to female genital mutilation (FGM) in Iraqi Kurdistan. The fact that this is working in a number of districts reflects a considerable change in the local culture. These FGM free zones are now gradually spreading to other areas of Iraq, which is a great success.

RBdJ: What’s the one change you brought about as executive director you’re most proud of?

MM: When I started, Hivos had a turnover of 65 million euros and employed 120 people. Our turnover is now 116 million euros and the number of employees has almost tripled. Size is not everything, but it does matter ; it allows you to guarantee the quality and professional standards of your work. And it gives you more political clout.

Something else I’m very proud of is that all this time we never stopped innovating or responding  to new issues. Hivos was the first development organisation to make ICT and the Internet a priority. We look upon and use technology as a tool to empower people. And this works, as we have seen in the Middle East and North Africa, and more recently during the 2013 Kenyan elections.

RBdJ: And what about the organisation’s ‘green’ credentials?

MM: I came to Hivos in the seventies, and back then everyone was a Marxist, of course. But I went from being  a Marxist to a humanist, and now I’ve become a ‘green’ humanist. Although Hivos is not an environmental organisation per se, within the development sector, and especially the larger organisations, we certainly have the most green credentials. I am very proud of that.

RBdJ: What’s the first thing you feel like doing after walking out the door for the last time as executive  director?

MM: Well, at first I think I’ll just hang about a bit. Wonderful! And you need to wind down every now and then to get new ideas. So, who knows what will catch my imagination….

Manuela Monteiro, Ben Witjes and  Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Minister, Lilianne Ploumen