Exclusive interview with Belgium's royal global sdg-advocate

Queen Mathilde: '2030 is tomorrow. Change needs to happen today'

© Brecht Goris

It is not fashionable in cosmopolitan circles to look up to celebrities, unless the “celebrity” in question, apart from being famous, is also the author of several hefty books. But then again, who wouldn’t want to be the 18th guest invited to a meeting of 17 international luminaries, including pop icon Shakira, football superstar Lionel Messi and the Chinese founder of Alibaba Jack Ma? Not to mention Nelson Mandela’s widow Graça Machel, Hollywood film star Forest Whitaker, development economist Jeffrey Sachs and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace Muhammad Yunus? Unfortunately, the chance that you and I receive an invitation is slim, not just because we are not famous enough, but because there is already a Belgian member of the club in question: Mathilde, Queen of the Belgians.

The 17 international luminaries are also Global SDG Advocates: advocating the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015 and signed by 198 Heads of State or Government. What prompted the Queen to support the SDGs? How did she get involved? And what does she hope to achieve? All questions which were answered during an extensive interview with MO*.

Our interview took place at the palace in the centre of Brussels. As the assistant leads photographer Brecht and myself to the first floor, an impressive bronze statue of Leopold II is standing conspicuously to the right of the broad staircase: his back straight, self-confident, unfazed by the violence that was carried out on the Congolese people in his name. The contrast of this image with the purpose of our interview, the Sustainable Development Goals, could not have been starker, even though it turned out afterwards that the statue of Leopold II was only on loan. The museum of Tervuren was looking for somewhere to house the bronze king during renovation works, and where else can you find a hall spacious and high enough for a statue of this size?

Has the Queen ever been to Congo, as part of her humanitarian commitments? And does the fact that Belgium, and the Belgian royal house in particular, was actively involved in the colonial history of the country affect such a visit or the decision not to go? I ask the question afterwards and the answer clearly demonstrates the outlines of the Queen’s international role: ‘The Queen has never been to Congo. Every field visit is decided on in consultation with the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Development Cooperation, and both the political situation and the security aspects are carefully considered. For the time being, such a visit is not envisaged’.

Family history

The interview itself is not infused with diplomatic reserve, on the contrary. I had prepared for an interview in which we would first have a round of formal answers to general questions, before moving on to personal motives, doubts and contradictions. But as soon as the Queen summons us from the antechamber to go to the interview room, she starts talking about her recent state visit to India, and how impressed she was by the girls she spoke to in Delhi. This leads directly to the question: what compels her to help those on the fringes of society, and what would she like to signify for these people?

The answer to this question starts with the family history of Mathilde’s mother Anne Komorowska, who, she explains, was a Polish national who fled the communist regime. Her mother was a countess, but during those nomadic years, which also briefly took her to the Congo, she endured both hardship and hunger. This trauma left an indelible mark, and within the Udekem d’Acoz family, took the form of a total ban on wasting food or throwing it away.

At the age of 18, Mathilde shocked her parents with her holiday plans: she planned to spend the summer of 1991 in Cairo, and did so, travelling alone to work with a local NGO in the slums around the Egyptian capital.

‘That summer changed me, and shaped me as a human being’.

‘I wanted to go alone, because I realised that the opportunities to really meet people and be open to their experience would be severely curtailed if I went with a girlfriend’. She did all the typical jobs that are part and parcel of a young person’s summer undertaking: building a school, giving French lessons, looking after children, walking through the dusty streets for hours on end from one engagement to the next. ‘I can still remember the route. I can remember the neighbourhood, the dust, the smells. That summer changed me, and shaped me as a human being’.

‘It was emotionally very difficult to leave behind all that work, the patients, the people and children who constantly gave me strength with their resilience’.

Mathilde subsequently learned that extreme poverty and vulnerability are not confined to the countries below the Mediterranean Sea. Her house visits as a speech therapist took her from the Blaesstraat in the Marolle district to people in isolation in Evere. She recounts with visible delight how the erstwhile Prince Philippe accompanied her incognito as a “supervising physician” during a house visit to a man with throat cancer. ‘It was emotionally very difficult to leave behind all that work, the patients, the people and children who constantly gave me strength with their resilience, despite the difficult situations in which they were forced to live.’

Already during her years as a speech therapist, Mathilde started studying psychology, as she wanted to understand more about the people she worked with. She continued these studies, having become a princess, and completed them when her eldest daughter, Elisabeth, was one year old. Her thesis was about identity development among offenders. She completed her speech therapy studies with a thesis on the way in which parents (can) deal with autistic children.

‘I have never actually worked as a psychologist, but I do use the insights gained in my work for Unicef or projects that support education and mental health care.’ The conversation suddenly switches back to the Indian girls and women. ‘The recent encounter in Delhi also brought back memories of an encounter that took place ten years ago in Mumbai. I spoke to a woman who had travelled hundreds of kilometres, and who told me about the impact microcredit had had on her life. And on her son, who was able to study as a result. I will never forget the look in that lady’s eyes.’

The priority is to invest in education: the Queen repeats it time and again, and especially education for girls, because ‘this has a direct impact on the whole family and on local society’.

© Brecht Goris

Women’s rights

‘Have you ever met Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf?’, she asks. Johnson-Sirleaf was president of the West African state of Liberia from 2005 until 2017. The fact that the answer is ‘yes’, and that we already published an interview with her in 2011, clearly delights the Queen. ‘What a strong woman. What dedication. What an example for a country which needed to be rebuilt from the rubble. If I can support people like her in the fight for more rights for women and more education for girls, then I consider myself very fortunate’.

She immediately adds that the strength she admires so much in Johnson-Sirleaf is not only to be found in Africa, and definitely not only among women in positions of power. As so often is the case during the interview, the Queen returns to the Brussels’ Fourth World to reiterate how strong women - and men - can also be in our country. Despite poverty and desperate circumstances. Like in Haïti. Mathilde went there in 2012. ‘Haitians literally go from one disaster to the next. And yet they don’t give up. Among other things, I visited a hospital there where cholera patients were being treated. They basically had no facilities, and the most vulnerable children were kept in quarantine, yet they just carried on.’

During the interview, the obvious gulf between the lifestyle and material prosperity of the royal family and the harsh reality of the people on whose behalf Mathilde dedicates herself - from the girls in West Africa to the generational poor in the Marolles district - comes up.

‘Of course I live in these buildings,’ the Queen replies, avoiding the word palace, but pointing out the spacious room in which we are currently talking. We are sitting in gold-painted armchairs, and to the right behind the Queen hangs a mirror several metres high and perfectly sculpted, and in which - perhaps not entirely by chance - a portrait of Leopold I is reflected. Gold is a recurrent feature in the room, from the fittings of the door and the dresser opposite the heavy mantel ornaments and details on our coffee cups, to the Queen’s earrings. The light that falls from the Place des Palais through the high windows is filtered by drapes and curtains, filling the room with lush, warm light, which is accentuated by the crystal chandeliers and cleverly-positioned table lamps. “These buildings” are not really furnished to be rooms of splendour, but they inevitably radiate the natural luxury of generations of aristocratic life.

Rich and poor

The gulf between rich and poor: the Queen is very aware of this issue, but when she is on a field visit, she wants to listen in the first instance, she explains. ‘People give me life lessons about hope and resilience’. She also wants to ‘give what she can with heart and soul: time, attention and dignity’. When I write this down, it occurs to me that it sounds a little corny. But she looks you right in the eye, and that makes you think: she means it sincerely.

‘Can you imagine that, as a mother, you see that your child’s life is over at the age of five?’ Irretrievably over?’

hen Queen Mathilde illustrates her commitment to sustainable development with the people she has met, the focus is almost always on women and girls, or mothers and children. On the side table behind her is a photograph of her own children, who are sitting astride a thick branch like the Four Sons of Aymon. Healthy children. Privileged children. She doesn’t mention as much, but undoubtedly realises it.

‘Can you imagine that, as a mother, you see that your child’s life is over at the age of five?’ Irretrievably over?’

‘In Ethiopia, I met two mothers in a small room, each with their child’. One of the children was cheerfully playing a game, the other was apathetically quiet. He was five years old, the same age as my youngest child at the time, but was malnourished, and the damage was irreparable. I tried to stroke the child, but he didn’t react at all. Can you imagine that, as a mother, you see that your child’s life is over at the age of five?’ Irretrievably over?’

Mathilde wants to confront with reality. In Liberia, in Haïti, in Laos, in India, and recently in Ghana. This is not out of a desire for self-torment, but out of a desire to base her work on the experiences of real people - even though she is probably aware that every visit of a Queen and her retinue is a choreography of that reality. The meetings are thoroughly prepared, the locations carefully selected, and the projects screened.

‘I can talk about poverty and underdevelopment, but it is totally different if I can feel this reality. See things with my own eyes. Then you fully realise that poverty is just not a fleeting phenomenon, but it actually undermines the physical and cognitive development of children, and therefore their entire lives. Investing in food for children is therefore a sensible investment in a country’s economy. Realising this makes it a whole less non-committal’.

Meeting people makes the humanitarian aspect personal: ‘Someone stops being just a person in need, he or she becomes a person, with a history and a future, and above all: with human dignity’. As such, Mathilde expressly adds, ‘I always say to the children that they have to look at everyone they meet, or shake hands with, straight in the eyes. That way, you acknowledge the dignity of the other person.’ She is practising what she preaches at this very moment: she looks me straight in the eye - every time I look up from the notepad in which I’m writing as much as possible of what she is saying. Protocol means that the interview could not be recorded.

© Brecht Goris

No clichéd stories

Mathilde does not want to be just a first class voluntourist. She explains that she also invests a great deal of time in reading: books, reports, research, studies. And MO* of course. She regularly requests briefings from NGOs, ‘as they keep their finger on the pulse of the people who are most affected by poverty and exclusion’.

It was the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, who asked the Queen to become an advocate for the SDGs. Mathilde already knew Ban. She got to know him at UN conferences, and also met him during his visits to Brussels. He knew her, and her main areas of interest: children, education, development cooperation, and girls. ‘It was an honour to be asked to help promote these objectives internationally,’ says Mathilde, ‘because 2030 is tomorrow. Change needs to happen today’. At another point in the interview, she says the same thing, only interspersed with slighly more jargon from the multilateral institutions: ‘The time for declarations is over. Now is the time to implement agreements’.

I was hoping to hear a few anecdotes from the meetings of the Global SDG Advocates. About the Queen who spoke to Lionel Messi about the disappointing results of the Belgian teams in the Champions League. Or about the time she was talking to Shakira about her children’s musical tastes. But the 17 advocates have never met in person, although the Queen herself organised a meeting with a number of them on the occasion of the European Development Days last year.

The TV celebrities were not there, but the development celebrities were, including Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, Jeffrey Sachs, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed and Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. Together with Minister De Croo, European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development Neven Mimica, and a number of other leaders from the political world, civil society and the business world, they discussed ways to make Agenda 2030 more visible, and give it more impetus. But that meant there was no gossip.

Positive perspective

If you look at the SDGs, you will immediately see that Queen Mathilde’s emphasis is on SDGs 3, 4 and 5: ‘Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages. Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’.

‘Development is evolving from being a story about change, primarily in the South, to a universal story in which everyone is responsible for our shared future’.

These are goals that are a direct extension of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were promulgated in 2000 and used as a guideline for investments by the international community and national governments in the development of the South up until 2015. Nonetheless, ‘all 17 goals are important’, reiterates Mathilde. Because: ‘The SDGs are turning the debate from a North-South story, that was mainly aimed at change in the South, into an inclusive and universal story in which everyone is responsible for our shared future. As a result, the ‘developing countries’ will at last become fully-fledged players, but the business community will also be called to account for its responsibility’.

‘We need to be consequential’, explains Mathilde. Follow up on what we say. She does not necessarily mean this as a call to the Belgian government to finally work on policy coherence for development - the Queen is not entitled to give her opinion in matters concerning the democratically elected government - but more as a personal appeal. And she can see that younger generations these days are very sensitive in this respect. ‘Young people are intuitively and consciously involved in the Agenda 2030,’ says the Queen in perfect UN jargon. ‘And they realise that their commitment does not always have to be large-scale, as long as it is genuine. The question is: does this day-to-day humanity and commitment have enough visibility?

I ask whether, in addition to this grassroots idealism, there is not also growing cynicism? Driven by the inability of governments to actually achieve something, like tackling climate change for example?

‘I have great admiration for the resilience of vulnerable people, their ability to get up again and again and find the strength to survive’.

Mathilde does not refute this, but answers with a positive perspective: ‘In recent years, a great deal really has turned in the right direction. Child mortality has been halved, maternal mortality has been significantly reduced, many more children are in school… The challenges remain formidable, but we must dare to see what has already been achieved and, on that basis, continue our efforts. She is strengthened in that hopeful perspective by going out into the field, by seeing with her own eyes how people - even those who literally have nothing - are committed to a better society. ‘I don’t want to be drawn in by negativity. I prefer to focus on what is positive and realistic. I have great admiration for the resilience of vulnerable people, their ability to get up again and again and find the strength to survive’.

© Brecht Goris

Living hell

To illustrate this indomitable vital spark, Mathilde tells the story of a 55 year-old man she recently met: ‘That man’s face was a testament to his painful history. His skewed nose was a reminder of a violent youth in which his father had broken almost every bone in his face. He was left in a coma on the street, and later grew up to be a street hoodlum, and worse. He was familiar to all the juvenile courts in the region. Until one of the judges at the juvenile courts looked him in the eye and said, “You are smart enough to earn a degree”. That one moment when someone had believed in him opened his eyes. “I actually existed in the eyes of someone else,” he told me. He did indeed go on to earn his degree, and went back to the juvenile court to thanks the judge and show the proof that he could do it. In the meantime he is married and runs a house with his wife where young people with troubled backgrounds are given shelter.

The queen enjoys telling stories like this, and is clearly passionate about them. ‘And then there was the tiny, old woman from Budapest. At the age of 16, she ended up in Auschwitz, where she lost all of her family. I don’t think I have ever seen such powerful eyes, in any case I was so impressed that I took my children to see her, in the heart of France. It was a 700km trip to let them hear her story, which also had a message of hope’.

‘ “I have been to hell”, she told us. “But even in hell, humanity exists and clings on.

‘ “I have been to hell”, she told us. “But even in hell, humanity exists and clings on. A dying woman gave her bread to me, and told me that I had to survive”. She also told us about her father who, before the war, never asked whether she had achieved good grades at school, but whether she had asked good questions. “That’s the most important thing as a child, as a young person, as a human being: learning to ask the right questions”, she impressed on my children.

The Queen explains that she borrowed the slogan of her commitment to the sustainable development goals from Ban Ki-moon: “No one should be left behind”. And that is why she believes education is so crucial, as is health. Mental health in particular, she emphasises. ‘Because children who survive conflicts and violence do not simply leave their trauma behind. They need to heal, or they suffer for their entire lives.

She is so motivated for the SDGs, because they unite the stakeholders behind shared objectives: government, civil society, businesses. ‘Together, they can make a difference’, Mathilde assures us. When asked whether she sometimes criticises the Belgian government regarding contradictions in its policy, or the cutbacks to social security or development cooperation, the Queen replies with a large smile and consummate diplomacy: ‘I prefer to invest my energy in encouragements rather than reprimands’.

This interview appeared originally in MO*magazine, Spring 2018

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