In Their Own Words: Gina Barbieri & Mimi Keita

Gina Barbieri manages dispute resolution processes at IFC’s Compliance Adviser Ombudsman. A the 2018 Sustainability Exchange she speaks with Mimi Keita of IFC’s Sustainable Infrastructure Advisory team about engaging with communities.


Gina Barbieri: We recently met in Durban, South Africa, where we were both talking a lot about issues that are close to our hearts and I feel like we’re lucky because we straight away had a common base to work from. I would love to hear more about your backstory.

Mimi Keita: I’m a mother of three, I have two daughters and a son. I actually was born and grew up in Guinea, but then I came to college, went to George Mason University in Fairfax Virginia and got a degree in government and international politics, then worked a few years, then moved back home. I started working in mining first with a private company and then with IFC. I always wanted to do humanitarian work, , it was my dream as a child, and I actually managed to do that somehow’.

Gina: When I first met you, what resonated with me was your grassroots practical understanding of what it means for an international development organization operating in countries such as Guinea, such as South Africa. It is something I struggle with being based in an international financial organization when you’re looking at really trying to do the right thing and give voice to communities. When you say you’re actually driven by a humanitarian calling, the first question for me is, how do you answer that calling in the arms of a bank?

Mimi: I think there are different ways of helping people, My county is a mining country so the fact that we are active in that sector, and that we want to use mining for people, for economic development, that is the role that my team plays and that I play, so I feel that through that particular channel I am able to help people uplift themselves. People like us who have local knowledge, but also know how to work within these organizations, I think we can definitely make a difference because we know both worlds.

Gina: What I’m hearing you say is you’re offering the bridge between the realities on the ground and international organizations wanting to come in and develop and address some of those economic and social challenges.

Mimi: Exactly, absolutely. I feel like I am a little bit of a glue, if you want to call it that. How about you, Gina? I’m curious to know how you became an ombudsman, what brought you to IFC?

Gina: I am from South Africa, born and raised. I studied law and I joined the Community Law Center, which was the first paralegal advice center in apartheid South Africa. I started working for a human rights firm in the Western Cape in the mid 90s. Most of my clients were farm workers working on the big wine farms, one of my first clients was a farm worker who had been unlawfully arrested by the South African police, thrown in jail without being charged, and was released three months later, and returned to retrieve belongings he had left on the farm and he was shot by the farmer. So, white farmer, black employee, very racially charged. Lots of anger, lots of hurt. We sued the South African police services, we sued the farmer, and we won the case. For me, it was such an enormous victory, but my client was really left feeling like the story was unfinished. He was never given the opportunity to learn about why he had been shot. He started asking questions and wanted to have a conversation with the farmer so he could have a better understanding so when he returned to his community he could hold his head up high and have some dignity. I was absolutely taken aback, because in the law you don’t sue for a conversation, you don’t sue for an apology. It started my questioning around justice and the law and I wondered if there was a bigger toolbox out there to serve my clients. My mentor at the time was doing a lot of work in mediation and he suggested I needed to go and be trained as a mediator. And so that started my journey into the space of trying to bring parties in conflict together rather than resorting to power and a power dynamic, finding a way to use dialogue and conversation to address the situation giving rise to the conflict.

“My county is a mining country so the fact that we are active in that sector, and that we want to use mining for people, for economic development, that is the role that my team plays and that I play, so I feel that through that particular channel I am able to help people uplift themselves.” – Associate Operations Officer, Sustainable Infrastructure Advisory, IFC

Mimi: It’s very interesting to hear, looking at the psychological nature of the work, and not just relying on the law to make amends but really how you can get people to dialogue and to heal. So how about your personal life? Do you mediate in your personal life?

Gina: So I’m a mother too, I have two children, what’s fascinating for me is my son is 15 and going through the normal ups and downs of a teenager. I’ve started writing down some of the conversations I’m having with him because I am having to pull on every problem-solving, conflict-resolution fiber of my being in navigating a positive way of engagement. That’s what you do in conflict resolution, you look at ways of changing conversations and getting a common focus on the problem, not the person.

Mimi: That’s an interesting way of looking at parenting. That’s a good tip. I’m actually going to try that.

Gina: I have the extreme privilege of working with indigenous communities across the globe, that are often in a state of crisis. I will often find a way, if it’s possible, to bring my children into that space, whether it’s on Facetime or Skype, now with technology the ability to have a quick call with your kids where you are about to start a community meeting with 500 people under a mango tree in the middle of a soccer field, and you can Skype your kids then and say, ‘this is where I am and this is why it makes sense’. They’re old enough now to engage with that and I find it a little helpful for me to bring them into the story.

Mimi: I am so happy about all the learning from you. I usually tell them what I do but never thought about giving them the opportunity of seeing it, even if it’s through a screen. I think that’s also a good tip.

Gina: Another challenge for me is being a woman in these contexts. How does a woman who’s trying to find a voice in anything, in life, in development, operate in systems of patriarchy where they are told it’s not the women who speak on our behalf, and what do we do about that? The more of us able to have the conversation and raise awareness on moving from the paternal ‘we know best’ to understanding how to get the information from you as the local community. It’s really something I think we can all do better at and I’m excited to be on more platforms with you where we get to share some tools because the tools you’re using in that regard are really useful.