AFRICA IN OUR LIVES: Marie-Josée Houénou 

Marie-Josée Paula Houénou was a 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow who has now returned to Madison through a YALI Continuing Connections Travel Award to work with Valerie Stull of the Global Health Institute. Houénou is a legal consultant and expert in environmental law and climate change strategies, and is currently assisting with the development of Côte d’Ivoire’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) plan.

Can you tell us a bit about your professional background?

With a Master’s Degree in International Environmental Law from University of Limoges in France and a Master’s Degree in Business Administration, my work focuses primarily on the implementation of projects related to the environment at both the city and rural level. I have been working as counselor, jurist, project assistant and coordinator for almost eight years, and have been involved in the implementation of numerous projects in the field of sustainable development, climate change, and environmental protection.

Focusing on climate change, green entrepreneurship, and sensitization, I coordinated the Youth Initiative to fight climate change – Mediaterre, a project implemented and supported by ASAPSU, IFDD, and Green Fund Quebec which reached over 330,000 persons. I have also worked on sustainable development projects with UNESCO as an intern and the Ivorian Ministry of Environment as a consultant, have volunteered as a Program Assistant for the International Negotiation, Environment, and Sustainable development project in the Francophone Institute for Sustainable Development (IFDD), in Quebec, Canada, and have supported both gender initiatives and francophone negotiators during international negotiations such as the Conference of Parties (COP), related to the UN Convention on Climate Change and Biodiversity.

As a Mandela Washington Fellow in Summer 2018, I joined the World Resources Institute working with the international climate initiative. Then, in November 2018, I coordinated the first conference of youths on climate change accredited by YOUNGO, the youth constituency of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), reaching 250 youths and women in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Another conference of youth on climate change will be organized by the end of October in Abidjan. Currently, I have been working on a framework for the implementation of a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) plan in Côte d’Ivoire by helping draft climate change law.

What has been the most defining moment of your career thus far?

Every opportunity I’ve taken has been very important for me, but working and studying abroad has been a particularly challenging and defining experience. Two experiences or moments in particular stand out. First, my position as program assistant in Canada working on international negotiations, which helped me understand the process of climate change negotiations and their impact on francophone countries in particular. Second, starting my role as a legal expert for the implementation of the NDC in Côte d’Ivoire.

This is a big responsibility and will have a enormous impact on the climate change response of this beloved country of mine. It seeks to look at a lot of strategies in different areas and tries to find a way to balance many different issues associated with climate change. I hope that my efforts will help Côte d’Ivoire become a “greener” place.

How did receiving the Mandela Washington Fellowship shape your goals for the future?

I applied for the Mandela Washington Fellowship because I wanted to learn how other countries are seeking to respond to climate change. I was looking for innovative approaches that I could bring to my own work, and for this reason wanted to meet a variety of different people from across the globe who work on environmental issues.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship gave me a better understanding of how global environmental issues affect us all and why we should collaborate, learning each other to improve the sustainability of our life. Overall, MWF is about working together to affect the world positively, one step at a time.

Upon completion of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, I planned to contribute to design, advise and implement innovative environmental projects and policies within both international and national institutions. I am driven by the conviction that environmental issues could provide sustainable opportunities to fight poverty and achieve development across Africa.

Can you tell us a bit about your collaborations with Valerie Stull?

I had already organized a few activities about women, environment and climate change back home. Then, while attending the Mandela Washington Fellowship I met Professor Johnathan Patz, who connected me to the Global Health Institute and the 4W Initiative here at UW-Madison.

On September 24, I co-led a gender and climate change workshop in Madison with Valerie, as well as Lori DiPrete Brow and Sumudu Attapatu thanks to a grant from African Studies Department. This workshop aimed to explore the current gap in gender considerations in climate change work, international climate change policy, and mitigation efforts. It brought together youth in both Madison and Côte d’Ivoire in advance of the upcoming 25th Conference Of Parties on Climate Change (COP 25) and the 2019 LCOY Côte d’Ivoire (LCOY-local conference of youths on climate change). Through this workshop, we were seeking to explore and develop solutions for an effective inclusion of women and youths in the climate change response strategies through discussion, lectures, skills training, and team building.

It was great to discover people working in different issues related to environment and to share my expertise. I hope that these connections will lead to more collaboration between UW-Madison and Côte d’Ivoire in the future.

Can you talk a bit about why international cooperation and collaboration is so important?

Only one finger alone can’t hold another hand; in other words, cooperation and collaboration are important. We all need to work as partners and learn from others in a sustainable way. The truth is that we all have issues that we can’t face alone, and climate change, gender issues, and youth empowerment are definitely some of them.