Bold Thinking Is The Key

Current Affairs

Bold Thinking Is The Key

All bets are on at United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) as the organisation gets new wind in its sails. Omar Ben Yedder talked with its head, Executive Secretary Dr Carlos Lopes, on the sidelines of the Mo Ibrahim Governance weekend in Dakar, Senegal, in November.

The ECA is one of those institutions that does a lot but is little known. Those who praise the institution commend it for the quality and depth of its research, while its critics will say that often these reports and findings end up gathering dust and are not used in a practical way to affect change and put together policy.

It is the ‘thinking arm’ of the troika that is made up of Africa’s political arm, the African Union, and the driver of Africa’s development and economic policy, the African Development Bank. The arrival of Dr Carlos Lopes promises to be an exciting time for the institution as he attempts to make it more innovative, relevant and free thinking in its effort to determine a specific agenda for stimulating Africa’s renaissance.

Lopes has an unassuming personality and is very accessible for someone in his position. But his softly spoken approach should not be mistaken for a lack of determination or vision. He has a clear idea of where he wants to take the organisation and the role it needs to play to actively contribute to overcoming the multiple challenges that the continent faces.

Throughout the discussions he held with New African, he reaffirmed over and over again the need to be “bold”. A protégé of Kofi Annan, when Annan was the UN’s secretary general, he served across various positions at the UN including, including leading policy at UNDP and being a representative of the UN in Brazil.

So where is the ECA today and what role does it play? Dr Lopes wants the ECA to be at the forefront of providing the data and in-depth research that can lead to better decision-making and policy direction. That means providing accurate statistics, something that has been notably lacking in Africa for many years.

He sees this as strengthening the statistical mechanisms that are currently available on the continent, and working closely with national governments. This will allow for the capture of better economic statistics by using modern methodologies [he believes current methodologies are outdated and out of tune with reality].

“How can you devise policy based on unrealistic data and projections? We were just discussing inter-regional trade and that it remains ‘low’. But how can you ask a government to really open its borders when it has not got accurate numbers of what exactly is going on. This ‘statistical gap’ has a clear [negative] economic impact. The ECA has to be the prime institution in terms of addressing this gap.”

And he believes technology can be the driver to achieve this. “I would like the ECA to be the innovator in introducing mobile technology for data collection.” And the participatory approach, whereby governments interact directly with its citizens, was a recurrent theme of the conversation.

“You have more and more talk about countries wanting to become middle income by X year and so on, but the basis for that is not there so you need strategic planning, you have a few that have tried very hard like Rwanda, like Ethiopia, but mostly you do not have it and you do not have it partly because of the data problem, the infrastructure,” Lopes explained. “The thinking [about these 5-10-15 year plans] needs to be completely reformulated, it needs to be much more adaptive to the circumstances, needs to be participatory, because now you have the capacity [through technology] to involve your citizens in the planning process, enabling them to fully interact with policy makers.”

The ECA is seen as the analytical arm of the troika, but its role as a think-tank has often gone unnoticed by policy makers. And Lopes is intent on changing this: “You see we claim to be a policy think-tank, and we are one, but we should be the prime think-tank of the continent. And in order to play that role you really need to have a completely different way to deal with intergovernmental processes.

“To have a positive influence,” Lopes added, “we first need the buy-in from the decision makers. Once we have achieved this, we can then make proposals that are bolder to our custodians [African governments]. And that will make us more effective, especially as we have, as an independent institution, that safe distance which is important for us to focus on research areas that we consider are a priority for the continent.

“But we need to think differently and focus on areas which others are not looking at, more innovative research, or for example looking at issues that nobody really wants to tackle because they are a bit controversial or too sensitive, such as the issue of migration, just to give you one example. There are many questions that need addressing, and we need to address them differently, such as why inter-regional trade has been stuck in the same conceptual debates over the last 20-years. There are many sensitive issues that need to be addressed, and it is the obligation of a think-tank to address these, and to be frank and bold in its discussion and findings.

“The ECA needs to become astute enough, assertive enough and specific enough to make a difference.”

The feeling one gets is that Lopes wants to move the ECA from an institution known for its research to one known for innovative policy advice, with a forward looking agenda rather than a rear-view mirror discourse. Which is also more risky.

And given the structure of the African continent, the ECA cannot be expected to articulate a regional wide policy or advocate to a one size fits all solution.

“The ECA has been able to present a transformative agenda for the continent that takes into account the differences between the various countries of the continent and it has to be capable of identifying what are the drivers in different countries,” Lopes argued. He did not want to commit what would be priority areas for the institution, although he did mention that concerns include the issue of youth and Africa’s demographics, food security and the potential of agriculture for the continent.

“The first priority is to create a lot of jobs for the youth, so you cannot create those jobs without industrialisation and value chain processing and that means that you need to think about agriculture, not just in terms of the smallholder farming model but rather in terms of industrialising agriculture,” he insisted.

This is basically the kind of things that will have to mature, so we have an agenda that has key points because there are lots of things to do, key points that are going to be the real drivers of Africa’s transformation.”

So what does this all mean from a practical perspective. First of all, there needs to be a re-alignment in terms of the working relationship between the ECA and the AfDB and AU, for example in terms of the methodology when gathering and interpreting data, and where each fits in to this, so that each institution can leverage on each other’s strengths. It will also require a change in mindset within the ECA; what Lopes calls a “re-profiling” of staff. “There are a number of vacant posts that will allow for an immediate sort of re-profiling. And even within the ECA, when I sat down with various groups to discuss these ideas I detected within the ECA, especially amongst the younger members of staff, an appetite to deliver ideas differently.”

Lopes, on taking office, sat down and had a series of wide consultations, including meetings with women groups, or meeting with just the younger members within the institution to gauge the various viewpoints and what they wanted from their institution. He says that he was motivated to get an idea of how the various configurations of individuals would react to possible changes he might initiate. In all he appeared pleased with the consultations, which he said had “produced ideas in the direction of what I’m suggesting”.

And in terms of the ECA having a wider impact, strengthening government relations would be key, as currently policy makers do not consider it an institution of choice to discuss policy or to consult it on policy. “Governments are not necessarily against any advice being provided by the ECA but they would not readily identify the ECA with a particular specialisation.

“As a result they have difficulty coming to us and will go to other institutions whom they think are better suited to respond to their needs, which may not in fact be the reality. I want to correct this and change this perception. This also means making sure that we are rightly identified as experts and thought-leaders in a number of fields.”

Lopes comes from a politically active family in Guinea Bissau, and his father played an instrumental role in the struggle for independence. Much as he loves his country, he feels it is not yet time to answer calls to return home. In any case, he sees himself much more as “thinker” than a politician. And as he admits himself he has been away for a little too long which means he is no longer “a recognisable actor in the local politics of my country”.

He clearly feels that he would be more useful contributing ideas and engaging with academics, an area where he has been very active, to generate solutions to the impasse his country currently finds itself in.

On mention of Kofi Annan, one can sense that he holds the Ghanaian diplomat in high esteem. “It was a watershed moment in my career. I was his political director, and he gave me the political acumen that allows me today to be patient. Kofi has taught me something that was fascinating to observe. Because it becomes much more profound in relation to the statements that he used to make and the actual application of his thinking. It is about being patient and he always has this complete trust that things may turn around in ways that are not necessarily predictable.

“His intuitive capacity was incredible and many times I saw him taking positions that seemed highly improbable and impossible, even irrational. But he would tell me that he was just setting a marker because this is where he anticipated the situation would be in say three months.”

The marker has been set for the ECA. And if Lopes is allowed to deliver on these ambitious objectives, maybe African policy makers will be able to draw upon bold, innovative and tailored policy to fast-track continent-wide development.

“This is what I have learnt from Kofi [Annan]: Be patient and, sometimes, take positions that maybe people will not immediately give you any credit for, knowing that over time you will be proved right. And then, let people walk in the direction that you think they will walk in.”

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