20 October 2016

Natalie Africa, Senior Advisor to the Director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Africa

How my activist journey shaped my career in international relations.

I moved to Geneva in 1989 for a one-year internship at the World Council of Churches. I soon fell in love with the city’s multilateral buzz and diversity and, deciding I wanted to study international relations, I applied to the Graduate Institute. My primary professor was Antony Hopkins, whose brilliant courses on British financial imperialism and colonialism in Africa stimulated furious class debates while also piquing my interest in finance. I subsequently wrote my dissertation on the role of the mining industry in post-independence Namibia under Professor Hopkins’ supervision.

I had the great fortune to meet Nelson Mandela when he visited Geneva shortly after his release from prison. I was born and raised in exile in Zambia and Zimbabwe; returning home to a free,  democratic South Africa had been my family’s life-long dream. After graduation in 1992, I headed back to South Africa where I worked in the NGO sector, ultimately coordinating a national NGO  mobilisation for the Fourth UN World Conference on Women. This activist journey took me to deprived rural areas in South Africa, regional conferences around Africa and to Beijing. It also helped me to balance what was in those days a somewhat lopsided and masculine approach to international relations! In 1995 I was recruited by South Africa’s Department of Foreign Affairs and posted to Paris as Counsellor for Multilateral Affairs, representing South Africa at UNESCO, the OECD and other entities. I gained an intimate understanding of the difficult, delicate process of nation building in South Africa.

Reflecting my growing interest in finance and business, I worked for Absa-Barclays Bank and then the International Finance Corporation as Regional Gender Coordinator for Africa, combining my interests in finance, development and gender. My career has since taken me to the UNDP, HSBC and the United Nations Foundation and enabled me to work in Africa, Europe and in North America. Currently I serve as Senior Advisor to the Director, Africa, at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

I’m truly impressed by the remarkable progress of the Graduate Institute, both physical and academic, as well as the commitment to growing the diversity of faculty that Director Burrin has demonstrated. The Institute remains a beacon of multidisciplinary study in a world that needs, more than ever, an open-minded and integrated approach to international relations.

Natalie Africa is President of the Alumni Association Committee and works actively to promote the alumni network in Africa. See for example the LinkedIn group for the Institute's alumni and students based or interested in Africa that she helped to launch.

This article appears in Globe 18, the Graduate Institute Review.