Soraya Aziz Souleymane: a ‘business and human rights defender’ from the DRC

September 3, 2015

On 1 September 2015, the ISHR carried an interview with Soraya Aziz Souleymane, a business and human rights defender from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Soraya holds the role of Deputy Field Office Director in charge of The Carter Center’s Mining Governance Program in the DRC, part of a new generation of young activists and NGO workers dedicated to seeing their country reach its potential.

Soraya started managing grants to affected communities at a large mining company’s foundation. She described her frustrations with the limitations of working within the foundation; she had discovered that many of the decisions about where and how to disburse the funds had already been made as part of the initial negotiations with affected communities. She soon decided to move into the corporate structure itself.

[When I joined the corporation,] it was an exceptional time, because the company was just beginning work in a new area and there was a need for many people… so much so that I was able to create a whole community relations department from the ground up. 

Despite the positive experience of getting the first community relations department off the ground, Soraya said she still wasn’t satisfied. She described the realization of the limitations of working with projects, saying: My impact was limited just to this one small community. I couldn’t take those impacts and apply them to others. Also, all the policies had to be linked to production, to the generation of profit for stakeholders and investors. That’s how companies have always worked, and this was no different.

Feeling sidelined after production began at the mine, she joined The Carter Center’s office in 2014.

Soraya described her transition from private sector to civil society, highlighting both challenges and opportunities:

At the company, it was good – we had resources, support, the voice, we had almost immediate access to the ministries, no problem. A big challenge at The Carter Center is that we don’t have the same financial resources or the same level of influence. But other things are better, at least for me. My primary goal now at work is to change the situation of communities –  all communities – not simply to increase production or placate one group. 

Soraya also uses her new role to engage in direct advocacy with the DRC government.  As she said, the chance to influence the policies of the state is ultimately a great opportunity. She also emphasized the value of gaining perspective through exposure to different sectors, and dismissed the idea that working for a company was ‘treason’. Instead, she noted that this kind of movement back and forth, especially within a sector, can lead to a lot of evolution and changing perspectives. It can also lead to more cooperation. We’ve seen many times when civil society and companies have joined forced against the government to say, “No, that will not fly.” It’s a strategic alliance.

…….

And despite the challenges, Soraya has a passion to do this work, and an optimism about civil society. I think my background, the fact that I am Congolese and that I have worked in the sector means I have real interest in and capacity to influence what my country becomes – my children will grow up here. 

I am very optimistic because there are many young people who are innovators, who are open to new ideas, who are willing to sit down with a range of stakeholders. They are also willing to say to the international community, “No, we don’t need x, we need y.” 

And as for the government, the emphasis is also on frank discussion, even when there is a disagreement. As Soraya says, We must work with them for change – and we must be clear that this is not the same as working for them, as accepting the problem.

-See more at: Soraya Aziz Souleymane: Business and human rights defender from the DRC | ISHR

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