The unlikely path to the top of the Economic Commission for Africa started under the most unlikely circumstances for Carlos Lopes (PhD). Born in Canchungo, Guinea-Bissau, in a small village where no university existed, the self described Pan-Africanist would earn a PhD in History from the prestigious Sorbonne University on a generous government fellowship. The proud son of Bissau-Guinea, as BBC’s Zeinab Badawi often describes him, became orphaned as both of his parents died when he was 19.
For almost 30 years, the career diplomat has served the United Nations in many roles. He has been the Executive Director of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, Director for Political Affairs of the UN in New York and the head of the United Nations Development Programme in Zimbabwe and Brazil. In addition, he has advised noted institutions like the Kofi Annan Foundation and UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning.
The 56-year old leaves the ECA at the prime-of-his career. He will soon travel to a number of African countries to advice heads of states on a slew of issues, including on the African Union. In an intimate and honest hour-long conversation, before a sold-out farewell reception of colleagues, diplomats and government officials, inside his spacious office at the ECA compound, the departing Executive Secretary gave Fortune a rare glimpse of his biography and mused about a wide array of issues.
Fortune Dr. Lopes, this is your last week at ECA. What is next?
My main objective is to continue to work on the African agenda. I plan to be involved in Pan-African institutions like the African Union, by helping leaders. Lots of them have requested my presence in the coming months. I am still a member of a number of boards like the Kofi Annan Foundation.
Q: What is the African agenda?
The African agenda is an initiative started last year where we have been putting bold proposals at the table on very big structural issues such as, what are the aspirations of Africans. The agenda of 2063 is about trade regimes in the continent, as the continent of free trade areas. What should be the priorities on infrastructure, on industrialisation and also on issues that are complex like domestic resource and mobilisation.
Q: What are the highlights of your close to three decades service at the United Nations?
I would say the highlight was my roles as resident coordinator of the UN in countries like Zimbabwe and Brazil. Being political director for Kofi Annan when he was Secretary General was also quite a privilege. And of course, one of the big highlight of my career is the time I spent here at ECA.
Q: Why was your work at ECA a highlight?
Because it married many streams of my interests and most importantly, it centred everything I was doing around Africa, which is a subject of research for me and a personal passion. So it was no longer just a job. It was something that was deeper than just a job.
Q: What was the most valued and practical advice you received when you joined the Commission?
Hard to mention one but I had a conversation with Madam Zuma, who had just been appointed at the African Union. She had not started her new position yet and I started slightly before her. We had a conversation and we agreed we were going to use the jubilee of the 50 years of the OAU / AU as a moment to redefine what the African agenda should be. It sort of directed what I wanted to do at ECA.
Q: Your anchors when you joined the commission was turning the commission as a knowledge base of the continent and promoting industrialisation. What was accomplished in the last four years?
Easily, on the knowledge side, it was the transformation of ECA into the reference think-tank of the continent with the dedicated capacity for research and producing new alternative ideas about Africa’s development. Among those ideas, the most important was the link to industrialisation of the continent where we did deep research and we can now consider ourselves as an institution that knows the most about industrialisation in Africa.
On the reform side, result based management was one. On the physical side, we completely renewed the compound. We inaugurated a new building, refurbished others and made sure there was a project for the African Hall, which is a heritage site.
Finally, on the communication / dissemination side, we did a bit of a revolution here. We have more than 2.5 million visitors coming to our different (web) sites every month (Mostly from within Africa). This is quite phenomenal and it shows the influence of ECA is growing and is steadfast.
Q: You once reflected how Ethiopia would be one-of-the biggest economies of Africa by 2050. Despite the challenges the country faces today, do you still hold that perspective?
Normally, people tend see reality as it presents to them statically and immediately. I am looking at the future not just the immediate present. In fact, I like to analyse the dynamic dimensions. If you look at the dynamic dimensions, the most important one is probably demographics. If you look into the demographics of the continent, Ethiopia and DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) are going to have quite significant increase to their population. We are taking about a population that will grow and not be dependent on commodities. Both of these countries are going to have an increase in their urbanisation that is quite phenomenal.
Are they the only countries with that? No, there will be others. But, if you combine that with other mega-trends, like for instance, like how much these countries will depend on energy from external providers. Both Ethiopia and DRC are going to have huge potential to empowering their transformation with their own energy and it will be renewable energy. If you were to take in to account, the fact they have been growing steadfast compared to other big countries, having not-so-impressive growth, like South Africa, Egypt and now Nigeria, then you start seeing why my predictions ring-right.
There is no contradiction between observing current disturbances and having a projection based on different mega-trend elements and coming to a conclusion that Ethiopia is going to be an important country in the future.
Q: You once mentioned Ethiopia as a good ground to prove your many researches in a practical way. Please explain.
I believe development really accelerates when three elements are present. First element is a very good coherent policy landscape, or you call it convergence of politics within governments so you don’t have each ministry going on its own way. The second element is that ambition matters. Many governments basically take-care- of their immediate needs. They don’t project what the country would be in 15 to 20-years. So they don’t have ambition to absorb the development that is going to take place in the future.
The third element that is extremely important is sophistication in the way you implement economic policies. If you are proposing industrialisation, it is not enough to say I want to industrialise my country. You have to be very sophisticated the way you do it because competition is very stiff out there. So when these three elements are present, you have the ingredients, the elements of what you call the developmental stage and I see that in Ethiopia. That is why, I say, all research we are doing in on these issues are best practiced with good examples in Ethiopia.
Q: Can you give me specific examples?
A good example is the industrialised park in Awasa. There are many countries who do industrialised parks but they are empty. Ethiopia has done industrialised park in Awasa after pre-renting all spaces. Bringing possible users of the spaces into the designs of the space is important. That is sophistication. Then you do it near a university that even did not exist 15-years ago. That is ambition.
And then you have elements that require you to consider logistics like transport, access to capital to build apartments for the workers that are going to come in to account. Helping change the curriculum of the university to adopt to the demands of the textile and garment industry (that will use the park), which is essentially the focus of the park is the convergence of the policy.
Q: When you became the Executive Director, you mentioned how you wanted to see Africa become more industrialised and make ECA an intellectual powerhouse. Was that accomplished?
I think so. We have now 300 people exclusively doing research and have about a thousand collaborators all over the world, not here in Addis as we have offices in a number of countries. This was not the case before. Everybody was doing a bit-of-everything and now we have a dedicated capacity for production of ideas and alternatives economical ideas that is unmatched in the continent. Yes, we have transformed ECA to a powerhouse intellectually.
Q: How do you think the current civil unrest in Ethiopia will affect its image as a good foreign investment destination?
I am sure it will have some effect on the economy because, with the state of emergency, certain number of restrictions that will not allow the flow to take place, in terms of transport and logistics to just mention as the most obvious. You can go all the way to Internet restrictions affecting ease of doing business and attracting investments. It will have effects. I think also, it’s important to measure how much effect it has on the image of the country. Because a lot of the investors prefer Ethiopia because of predictability. If they have something missing, they will then consider other options.
Q: Critics consider the African Union as an irrelevant institution where dictators strive. You have experienced the AU up-close, worked with Madam Zuma and know the institution up-close. What is your perspective?
There is no single member state of the AU that is not a member, one way or the other, that is not a member of an international organisation. If you say AU is a league of dictators, then the UN is a club of dictators and organisation of any group of state is also going to be called a club of dictators. I think it’s a bit of a caricature. These are member state organisations. Government are the members not the individuals
What people maybe be criticising is not so much the AU per-se but the leadership of Africa as full of dictators. Maybe that is what they mean. If it is the leadership of Africa that has too many dictators, we have to deal with the issue of governance.
At ECA, we did put our fingers on leadership and governance as we published a report on corruption last year. We published also a number of statistics that demonstrate how for instance, fiscal pressure in most countries is not what it should be. If you don’t have fiscal pressure you should have, in economic terms, it means people are not paying taxes. If they don’t pay taxes, it means there is corruption.
Basically it means economical actors that are important should be doing it, and if they don’t, they are literally stealing. We have been very helpful to the Mo Ibrahim index on governance. The technical team is led by my deputy, (Dr. Abdalla Hamdok), who is the head of the technical team, so we are doing our part, in terms of putting the fingers on governance issues.
Q: António Guterres was recently appointed as the new Secretary General at the UN. Is it wrong to assume you will continue to have an advisory role?
You are making a big assumption that he would call me for advice. In the United Nations structural management team, there are about 20 people and I am one-of-them. I assume, whatever experience I have, it will be valued (by him). I cannot assume that he will necessary going to consult with me. If he does, I do have lots of advice to give. But let’s leave that with the Secretary General.
Q: Any parting words?
I have always tried to do my best to honour the privilege I have had in life. You know you can earn a privilege and be selfish or you can try to do something. As soon as I finished my studies, I went back to my country to try to contribute my bit. Ever since, I have been working on African issues. That has been the compensation.
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