Professor Katherine Marshall
Louis B. Sohn Human Rights Award
Interviewers: Edward Elmendorf, UNA-NCA Past President and Micayla Costa, UNA-NCA Member
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. She leads the Center's work on religion and global development, and serves as a professor of the practice of development, conflict, and religion in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. She helped to create and now serves as the Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue. Marshall worked at the World Bank from 1971 to 2006. She has nearly four decades of experience on development issues in Africa, Latin America, East Asia, and the Middle East, particularly problems facing the world’s poorest countries. She led the World Bank’s faith and ethics initiative between 2000 and 2006.
Marshall serves on the boards of several NGOs. She spent several years as a core group member of the Council of 100, a World Economic Forum initiative to advance understanding between the Islamic world and the West. Marshall is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and was previously a trustee of Princeton University.
Interviewer: What inspired you to become a human rights advocate and eventually a leader in the field?
KM: I have a history of service in my family. With my father, I lived in Nigeria and later did research there. How did work with the World Bank take me to human rights? From early in my career in the Bank, I had an interest in justice versus injustice, and democracy versus autocracy, which inevitably came up in World Bank’s work. In the early days we rarely spoke about human rights explicitly, including corruption, which was always a preoccupation even though Bank lawyers were uneasy about the topic. During the Southeast Asia financial crisis of the 1990's talk of corruption and politics became much more explicit. We discussed links between gender issues and human rights, and, later, human rights was very much part of the exploration of religion and development. The issues were implicitly involved as the Bank began to consider women for leadership positions. The early women leaders at the Bank knew each other well and decided to work together to confront gender inequity within the Bank as well as in country contexts.
Interviewer: Why is the work of the United Nations important in human rights?
KM: The UN is a secular organization and human rights is in many respects considered its religion. Negatively, that can imply a rigid theology that is not open to question. Positively, human rights framing and the SDG's are important contributions from the UN. Questions that spark active discussion about the UN and human rights include: victor justice after WWII, and religious communities’ debates about women’s rights to their own bodies. The UN’s independent human rights experts and special rapporteurs play important roles in various situations. They report not just on human rights per se in countries such as Sierra Leone or Cambodia, but also, on poverty in the United States. However, there is also some cynicism about the UN’s stance on human rights that can mask lack of real support. An example are tensions around child rights (the US hasn’t even ratified the UN’s child rights convention). The Cold War separated civil and political from economic, social and cultural rights, yet the two areas are tightly interlinked.
Interviewer: Are there things in your history that made you a human rights advocate? What recommendations would you have for young professionals, whether domestically or internationally?
KM: Seeing injustices, and governments taking wrong paths during my work at the World Bank, drove home the significance and priority of issues around rights. A college I know gives the UN Universal Declaration to every graduate - this is an important reminder because young people need to think about ethical issues in meaningful ways. Where do they compromise and where do they keep to basic principles? What is their theory of change as they advocate for human rights and social change? They should reflect on the human rights positions implicit in the World Bank and other institutions. Take female genital cutting (FGC) or child marriage as examples; supporting change requires nuanced thought to recognize local laws and values: How should the UN act to combat it, and how do local authorities and institutions react to outside pressure? I would recommend that young people be encouraged to think deeply about what human rights involve, savoring and living by the underlying principles involved but at the same time working to understand why there are different perspectives.