Radical remits: unusual government posts from around the world

As divisive characters take centre stage in global politics, what if prioritising people, planet and peace featured in the job descriptions of more politicians?

Minister for yoga, India
Shripad Yesso Naik

Shripad Yasso Naik, India’s minister for yoga. Photo: Biswarup Ganguly

Yoga has its origins in ancient India and the country has underscored its importance by appointing a minister to oversee the practice. Shripad Yesso Naik took up the position in 2014 with a mission to preserve the traditional medicines and practices of Ayurveda, yoga, naturopathy, homeopathy and the herbal medicines of Unani and Siddha.

“We will do whatever it takes to make India a healthy India in the days ahead,” Naik
is quoted as telling an Indian TV station, praising the preventive qualities of yoga and Ayurveda – one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems. He was appointed by the prime minister Narendra Modi, a vegetarian who credits daily yoga sessions for his physical and mental agility.

Back in 2015, Modi convinced the UN to designate an International Day of Yoga, but some have criticised the ruling Bharatiya Janata party’s focus on the practice. They say the promotion of yoga, which has its roots in the ancient religious practices that became Hinduism, is an expression of Hindutva, an ideology which sees India as an exclusively Hindu nation.

Minister of state for happiness, United Arab Emirates
Ohood bint Khalfan Al Roumi

Ohood bint Khalfan Al Roumi wears a ‘happy’ necklace. Photo: Ryan Carter/Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi

Eyebrows were raised when Ohood bint Khalfan Al Roumi wore a necklace spelling the word ‘happy’ to her swearing-in ceremony. One of eight women in a cabinet of 29, she was appointed minister of state for happiness in the United Arab Emirates in February 2016. National policy documents include a stated desire for the UAE to be among the world’s happiest nations.

Al Roumi will oversee programmes and policies to promote happiness in UAE society, as well as encouraging the media to report positive stories. “Happiness is contagious,” she says, pointing out its importance in bringing hope to those in the Middle East. “When people are optimistic, they are more productive and creative.”

According to human rights organisations, the UAE government violates a number of fundamental human rights, so the country has a long way to go to prove it is serious about its citizens’ wellbeing.

Happiness is contagious. When people are optimistic, they are more productive and creative

Minister of eco-socialism and water, Venezuela
Guillermo Barreto

Guillermo Barreto, Venezuela’s minister of eco-socialism and water. Photo: www.minea.gob.ve

Eco-socialism may sound an idealistic vision, but Venezuela has a minister in charge of it: biologist Guillermo Barreto.

Within a month of taking office in March 2015, Barreto’s national plan to improve public access to safe water was approved. Some reports suggest it has improved availability for people in areas of ‘social exclusion,’ from 55 to 96 per cent.

Barreto also appears to have made headway in improving waste management, safeguarding the rights of indigenous land owners and protecting national parks and wildlife.

“We have to get to the point where all of our public governance is eco-socialist, regardless of whether we are talking about extracting oil or constructing bridges and homes,” he is quoted as saying.

Ordinary Venezuelans are currently struggling amid an economic crisis in the country. The nation faces an enormous debt coupled with a shrinking economy. Shortages of food and medicine are pushing many citizens to the brink of a humanitarian crisis.

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Minister of indigenous and northern affairs, Canada
Carolyn Bennett

“Consider yourself the minister of reconciliation,” answered Carolyn Bennett when reporters asked for the best piece of advice she had received upon her appointment.

Her task is to monitor and improve relations between indigenous Canadian communities and the government, including dealing with land reserved for indigenous people. “I found it totally daunting and totally exhilarating,” she told a Canadian radio station after being placed in post by prime minister Justin Trudeau in 2015.

“It’s very different to just yapping about what’s wrong. It’s empowering and exciting – not only in terms of indigenous people but also for the 96 per cent of Canadians who don’t have an indigenous background and how we’re going to fill that gap of really getting to know one another.”

It’s very different to just yapping about what’s wrong. It’s empowering and exciting

Minister of women’s affairs, Afghanistan
Husn Banu Ghazanfar

Husn Banu Ghazanfar is an advocate for women’s rights and their right to education. Photo: US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan

Known for her interest in culture and arts, Husn Banu Ghazanfar has headed up the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs since 2006. She is a household name in the country as an author, poet and speaker. An ethnic Uzbek, she is fluent in Dari [Persian], Pashto, Uzbek, Russian, and also speaks some Turkish and English.

Following years under the oppressive Taliban regime, women’s rights remains a contentious issue in Afghanistan. Though change is being welcomed cautiously by campaigners, speaking out, particularly in support of equality between the sexes, can put people’s lives at risk.

However, Ghazanfar has remained an advocate for women’s rights and their right to education. She has helped secure a significant increase in girls attending school – a rise of 37 per cent from 2001-2010 according to government figures.

Shadow minister for peace and disarmament, UK
Fabian Hamilton

Fabian Hamilton is the UK’s shadow minister for peace and disarmament, the first post of its kind in the UK parliament. Photo: Russ London

“We need to see a wider picture if we are ever to resolve the conflicts that blight the lives of so many people – especially the weakest and most vulnerable,” says Fabian Hamilton. He is the UK’s shadow minister for peace and disarmament, the first post of its kind in the UK parliament.

The MP for Leeds North East was appointed to the role in October 2016 by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said he wanted the UK to become a world leader in peacemaking and disarmament. “It was a real surprise to be offered the position,” says Hamilton, an MP for nearly 20 years. “Conflicts are affecting millions of people worldwide who have simply become victims.

They are victims of corrupt warlords, evil ideologies which care nothing for human life, or greedy armed gangs fed by anyone willing to supply them with powerful weapons. But too often our elected representatives only want to focus on the needs of the people they represent.”

All wars eventually end around a peace table with treaties and agreements

Hamilton says he feels a responsibility to remind Whitehall that “conflict is not inevitable”.

“All wars eventually end around a peace table with treaties and agreements, but conflict not only destroys property, it destroys or – at best – damages lives. If we value life, we should demonstrate our commitment by trying to prevent conflict before it starts and resolve our differences and disputes through discourse and communication.”

Hamilton was appointed a year after the UN Security Council held a debate on how best to stem the illicit flow of small arms around the world. With more deaths in Africa caused by small arms than by AIDS and Malaria combined, he wants to halt access to these “tools of death”. Hamilton also counts multilateral nuclear disarmament and the pursuit of peace treaties among his key priorities.

“I see signs that we have all had enough and I hope that as more women become national leaders, and as people begin to make their anger at the violence clear to leaders, we can start the process of ending conflict as the norm for the resolution of our disputes. I will do my best to play a very small part in that movement.”

Main image: US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan

This feature is from issue 88 of Positive News magazine

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