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ASI Game Changers: Meet Affef in France

Our “ASI Game Changers” series introduces the people who make our work possible and allows us to learn about what drives them in their quest to create lasting impact in some of the world’s most challenging, complex environments. In this edition we are speaking to our colleague Affef Ben-Mansour.

  • Name: Affef Ben Mansour
  • Role: Legal Advisor, Mali Investment Negotiations Support Project
  • Location: Paris, France

What’s your big “why”? What’s the positive change/impact you and others in your field are trying to achieve and what are some of the challenges you face whilst doing so?

I do a lot of work on investment law and supporting states on negotiating investment partnerships and treaties. I did just this for the Government of Mali through my work with ASI. I am a lawyer and an attorney with specialisation in public international law and investment/commercial arbitration.

I know law can feel abstract and inaccessible to many, but to me, it means having an impact on many individuals. States disputes impact individuals, even if this impact is sometimes not immediately apparent. Likewise, state cooperation and coordination on legal issues facilitate transnational transactions, individuals’ interactions and also individuals’ daily lives. I believe coordination and cooperation between states will bring best practices and benefits to everyone.

I also love making law accessible, and that’s why I also enjoy teaching international law to students in France.

Dealing with public international law also means I get to meet different people with different cultures from around the world. I love getting to know them, how they think, how they view issues, what moves and shakes them and for me, that’s so enriching! From a young age I was interested in different languages. I started learning English because I admired the Queen of England, and German because I was fascinated with their position as Europe’s economic powerhouse. My dual identity as French-Tunisian certainly also inspired my interest in other cultures and countries.

If you could write your own job title that best describes what you do here, what would it be?

In a way, I am a translator – I translate law, and make it more accessible. I like looking at it as “showing the light’”. The law can be daunting, but once you can navigate and understand it, you can have some pretty amazing outcomes. I also thoroughly enjoy the “fighting for people’s rights” aspect of it, so I would consider myself an advocate too – it energises me along the way.

What do you like about working in a global development company?

I really like meeting and working with people from different cultures. In the project I was just recently involved in with ASI and the Government of Mali, I was working with Malians, Senegalese, Northern-Europeans, Indians, Kenyans, and with me being a French-Tunisian, it really was like a melting pot.

Working together with people from different cultures gives me first-hand information from each part of the world at the same time, thus seeing how people respond to global issues. This puts things into perspective, knowing that your breaking news is not the biggest news for everyone. It sounds simple, but it’s a direct and quick adjustment you get from other perspectives in the world. It also means I must constantly adapt, which is challenging but enlightening too. You might have to learn a thing or two about diplomacy, but it also broadens your horizons and sharpens your language in order to avoid miscommunication.

What’s the most exciting thing happening in your project/at work right now?

I really enjoyed the workshops we organised with government officials from different ministries and representatives from the private sector, which also included business associations. Our goal in these workshops was to perform a diagnostic on Mali’s investments, their treaties, and their domestic law related to investments. We then proposed recommendations on best practices to adopt when elaborating a state’s investment strategy. We also provide a road map for negotiating or renegotiating investment treaties.

I feel like a mediator between people and making them aware of broader issues and how they affect all links in the chain. We had a real eureka moment when participants realised how decisions within one department or area have a real impact on another, and also what part each department plays in this domino effect. This realisation could really push forward the resolution of important issues in the country.

We also spoke about ways to enhance gender representation in business and in the government and how gender-related questions can be important elements of future investment negotiations – this is a topic that’s close to my heart.

What movements or discussions inspire you generally right now?

Although it is not something, in my opinion, that is often discussed, the death penalty, to me, is very important. We shouldn’t forget about it, it still exists. It’s 2022 and the death penalty still exists – let that sink in. Even in France, we only officially ended it in 1981, but in my other home, Tunisia, the Criminal Code still includes the death penalty. Earlier this year, you could read about 81 people who were executed – let’s actually not use this word, they were killed – in Saudi Arabia.

Another area I am highly interested in is our way of communicating online: It’s often reaction-based, without much reflection, but with a big audience and real consequences. One comment on a social media platform in one part of the world can create a hurricane of hate in another part of the world. This type of communication hurts a lot of people and there’s a lot of room for hatred and discrimination. It’s important that we internalise an etiquette that keeps in mind that real lives and people are put at risk. The latest example is the Ukraine war. While States are sanctioning Russia and trying to find a way to stop this outrageous aggression and breach of fundamental rules of public international law, individuals outside Russia are facing hate and discrimination, only because of their nationality and this is intolerable. Many Russians try to appear neutral (while inside they are against the war) not because they want to but because they have to protect their families inside Russia, which after all is not a safe democracy that values opposition. That’s why I think we need to bring back good debating culture and fact-checking when commenting or supporting posts on social media.

What volunteering or passion projects do you do outside of work?

There are a lot (laughs). I am a member and on the board of Arbitral Women, an organisation created over 25 years ago with the aim to enhance diversity in the male-dominated arbitration world. Arbitrators and lawyers are mainly male, experts are mainly male, and we want more female lawyers, female arbitrators and female experts to be recognised and given more visibility in the practitioners’ world.

I am also in charge of the Moot Funding Committee. We particularly target female students from developing countries and help them find or create opportunities to progress in their legal careers. We help them overcome financial obstacles when registering to international moot court competitions (such as the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition or the The Willem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot). These events allow the students to come in contact with other students coming from other countries as well as meet well-known arbitrators and attorneys. These events are also job matching fairs, it’s where lawyers and arbitrators find their future associates – and if you are not there, you can’t be the next associate, so it’s a crucial area to support emerging talent from the Global South.

Since 15 August 2021, I’ve also been helping refugees, Afghans in particular, to get asylum in Europe. A lot of the Afghans I advise have worked as judges or lawyers in their country, and despite the differences in language and culture, the law unites us and it’s been a wonderful and humbling experience.

What’s a quality a game changer should have?

Patience. You must accept that you cannot change things overnight. You must not give up. I don’t mean stubborn by the way – if you’re stubborn you’re going to have to want things your way, but as a game changer you must adapt and constantly reassess change and the role you play in it. In law, we also need this patience. You must be patient to work through the law, and also teach patience to your clients to stay in the game or adapt to the game until you reach your goal.

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