Christine Lagarde

When French president Nicolas Sarkozy asked Christine Lagarde to join his cabinet in 2007, as Minister for Economy, Industry and Employment, she was already the first ever female Chairman of Chicago-based global law firm Baker & McKenzie. She is a respected antitrust and labour lawyer and today, as first female Managing Director of the Intenational Monetary Fund, she’s considered the 9th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine (2011) and part of a very exclusive club of women that include Dilma Rousseff or Angela Merkel. She certainly looks the part, poised and elegant, calm and reassuring, reflexive and charming, her skin looking permanently tanned in contrast with her silver hair.

After Dominique Strauss-Kahn‘s very public downfall and resignation, as a result of a sex scandal  -to the deep embarrassment of France; Christine Lagarde was immediately mentioned as a possible successor, and she received the support of Britain, India, the US, Russia, China and Germany. The Telegraph once described her as “the woman with no enemies”. From her first day on the job she had very complicated issues on the table, and her no-nonsense style was evident from the start and some statements she made angered many, especially in Greece. It was in an interview with British newspaper The Guardian, where she basically described Greeks as rampant tax dodgers and ruled out any breathing space from the austerity measures the country faced.

She is a hard-working woman, with a strong and elegant presence, firm in her convictions and obviously someone who speaks her mind. She is an outsider to politics in France, because she did not attend the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, where most high-ranking French officials and politicians are groomed. She also never distinguished in math, being a Managing Director of the IMF who is more a lawyer than an economist. Being an outsider gives her a better perspective of things probably.

She was born Christine Madeleine Odette Lallouette, and her parents were both teachers. She studied in a girls’ school in Maryland, US; she got a degree in Law in Paris and a Master’s Degree in political science. She also worked as an intern at the United States Capitol, as congressional assistant to William Cohen. She has divorced twice, but no one really knows much about her two ex-husbands. They are not even mentioned in her official biography, which shows how fiercely she controls her public image. She has two sons, is a vegetarian and never drinks, although she did have a glass of champagne in an airport when she found out that had been appointed IMF boss.

Being French, there’s the issue of the elegance too. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who laughed at a similar question once, asking the interviewer if she’d ever ask that question to a man; Christine Lagarde has no problem talking about her wardrobe. In an interview with Vogue, she confessed that gets her clothes from three places mostly: Chanel, Ventilo and Austin Reed.

One of my favorite phrases by Christine Lagarde is that men, when left to themselves, make mess of things. Which is, well, as we all know, completely true. She is a strong believer in gender equality and has said that women are better than men when it comes to managing tasks and common sense. This is why she wants to hire many more women than men while she’s MD of the IMF.

She was always an overachiever. Many don’t know that as a teenager, Christine was a member of the French national synchronized swimming team, for example, or that she sang backing vocals in a ska band called “Les Messages Mixe” before getting married.

As Managing Director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde faces incredible challenges, like world economies on the brink of collapse, especially in Europe. She still has four years to go, but it will not be an easy ride for sure. Saving the Euro will be no easy task. The journey will be full of dangers and crises. And we need strong leaders in times of uncertainty.

Will Miss Lagarde be one of those leaders we so desperately need? Will this elegant and competent French woman be able to help fix the mess that we men created?

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Prophets in the land of Prophets

In a TED conference some time ago, Wadah Khanfar, who was director general of the Al Jazeera network (today President of the Sharq Forum), recalled a call on his personal phone. He did not know who was calling, or how he managed to get his number, but the voice was from a person in Tahrir Square in Egypt. The voice implored him not to switch off the cameras. “You are protecting us by showing what is happening here. If you switch off the cameras tonight, there will be a genocide.”

Al Jazeera’s cameras did not go off. They amplified the voice of all those protesters and broadcast it to the world. A revolution so unexpected that no one knew well how to interpret. The world was in a state of shock and taken completely by surprise. Al Jazeera’s newsroom in Doha (Qatar) was soon flooded with pictures, with videos and news, most from people in the streets, who had become front-line reporters. The network was there to provide context, amplification and even protection for protesters seizing power from their oppressive regimes.

The world was watching: traffic to Al Jazeera’s online broadcasts skyrocketed 2,500 percent, during the 18 days of the Egyptian Revolution, and roughly half of that traffic was from the United States. Ordinary people fighting to overthrow Hosni Mubarak discovered that ordinary people a world away actually cared. And then, as we were all watching this drama unfold, the spark also ignited in Libya, and then in other countries.

Well aware he was representing the voice of millions of Arabs, Khanfar in his TED conference asked the world to support the young generation that was taking the Middle East into a new era. “The future that we were dreaming for in the Middle East has eventually arrived” he said. He urged the West not to interfere and impose its will and interests on the region in an effort to establish governments that would be friendly to the West’s economic and political interests. He asked that the West accept and support the choice of the Arab people.

Al Jazeera, is headquartered in Doha, Qatar. Over the years it has expanded to what it is today, a network with several outlets, including the Internet in multiple languages. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, provided a loan of QAR 500 million ($137 million) to sustain Al Jazeera through its first five years. The Emir had been contemplating a satellite channel even before he deposed his father. A free press complemented his vision of the emirate as a center of commercial development and progress.

The network was launched in 1996, and even though it was financed in part by the Emir, the network was never about pleasing anybody, it soon was was shocking audiences and governments alike. It presented, for example, the Israeli speaking Hebrew on Arab television for the first time, and some talk shows were a constant source of controversy regarding issues of morality and religion.

But Al Jazeera over the years seems to have finally earned the respect it deserved. It has endured and come a long way. With roughly 45 million viewers around the world today, the network once accused of having sympathy with extremist causes in the past is now invited to TED conferences.

But in what is perhaps the best compliment to date, and clear proof of how far Al Jazeera has come, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on 4 March 2011, saying: “Al Jazeera has been the leader, they are literally changing people’s minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective (…) in fact viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials.”

Wadah Khanfar has left and has been replaced by a member of the Qatar royal family. Will Al Jazeera lose its prestige, objectivity and credibility?

It is hard to be a prophet in your own land, but Al Jazeera’s credibility has been hard earned. It wasn’t out to be just another news channel, it never took the easy route, it struggled to remain loyal to the principles of true unbiased reporting. It has not been an easy ride, and mostly one it made alone, while being attacked from all sides. It was the lone voice that cried in the desert. After all, Al Jazeera does mean “the island” in Arabic.

(To read my original article, published in March 2011: Prophets in the Land of Prophets)

Women On Top

From bunga-bunga parties to genocide, from recruitment of children soldiers to senseless wars, from the massacre of civilians to waterboarding, from appropiation of territory to oppression, humiliation and selective killing, and from religion to invasions…if there’s one thing that men have demonstrated throughout History is that they are uncapable of responsibly ruling the world.

The authors of a recently published report conclude that having women in positions of power has a positive effect, both in the aspirations of girls and in the expectations of parents for their daughters. This study was carried out in India and shows that a quota for women is good because it eliminates gender differences, sets an example and is inspiring for younger generation.

Women have been present in positions of power since the beginning of History, but this has been an exception, not the rule. I align myself with media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner who once said that men should be barred from office for 100 years everywhere. In this article I reflect about the women currently ruling many countries around the world.

However, it is not realistic to expect women to assume positions of power -both in politics and in business- unless the very nature of work is redefined. Business and politics everywhere have to be reinvented so that women don’t find themselves having to chose between creating a family and competing for the highest jobs. Nordic countries offer a good template to follow, as I discuss in this article. Scandinavian women enjoy generous maternity leaves and their jobs and positions are generally guaranteed. Iceland has one of the highest levels of women in the labour force and also a high fertility rate, compared to other countries. Surprisingly, the United States is one of the few countries with no paid maternity leave national program.

For a look at the situation of women in the workforce today, take a look at this article. Unlike other articles from my magazine, I did not actually write this one. I read a full 14-page Special Report in The Economist and simply selected the facts and figures I thought were more relevant, so I was more a curator than an actual writer. For a quick glimpse at some interesting figures of women around the world, also check this map I elaborated, based on figures from this report.

The case of Lesotho is very interesting. It is a tiny country surrounded completely by South Africa, with a population of just 2 million. It ranks eighth in the world, by the World Economic Forum, when it comes to bridging the gap between the sexes. This can be partly explained by the vaccuum left by men when they left en masse to work in mines in South Africa, but education has also played an important role. Sadly, though, Lesotho has also one of the highest rape rates in the world.

Oprah Winfrey, another American media tycoon and philanthropist, has understood well the potential of Africa. This article talks about her Leadership Academy for Girls. The academy prepares girls from impoverished backgrounds to be the future leaders of Southafrica and the continent. Today, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first and currently the only elected female head of state in Africa, a continent with 1 billion people and 14.72% of the world’s population. Sirleaf was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakel Karman of Yemen.

After centuries of bad management and government, isn’t it about time women took over?