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African Writers' Society event: Development as dignity

Development as Dignity: A conversation with Dapo Oyewole

by Su'ur Su'eddie Vershima Agema and Sarah Egbo

The discourse of development is complex but often seen from the point of view of a messiah coming in to save a people. Many times, the people who should own projects are neglected. But is development really about help? Is it about handouts? Is it about painting people as needy while showing others as benevolent angels? Again, is development a function of organisations, a society or of individuals?

These formed the crux of the event 'Development as Dignity: A Conversation with Dapo Oyewole' which was the theme for the African Writers' Development Cafe, organised by the African Writers [Society] of the University of Sussex.

The event started with a brief introduction by the President of the Society, Su'ur Su'eddie Vershima Agema. He explained the purpose of the society, which was to largely interrogate the African experience within and outside its context through the agency of writing while working to better the lot of its members, the school society and the continent at large. He spoke of the event for the day which was largely a conversation on development in its many facets moderated by the vastly experienced Dapo Oyewole. The session was going to be focused on 'Development as Dignity', a project which started as a TedX talk and grew into a bigger project.

Dapo Oyewole is an experienced adviser and consultant to governments, donors, INGOs, foundations and companies in the areas of governance, public policy and international development. In his 20 year career, primarily focused on Africa’s development, he has worked at senior management levels for thinks tanks, NGOs, donor agencies, government agencies, regional & international organisations and management consulting firms.

Accomplished scholar and Tedx sensation

An avid scholar, Oyewole has studied at the London School for Economics (LSE), School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Havard Kennedy School  of Government (HKS) and more. He is currently a final-year doctoral candidate in International Development at the University of Sussex. He is a Yale World Fellow, an Aspen New Voices Fellow and a regular Africa analyst for international news networks such as CNN and BBC. He is also a regular speaker at global events on policy, governance, development and human security and his TedxTalk ‘Development as Dignity’ was named one of the ‘Top 5 Global Development Talks You should Watch’ by FXB. The book version was published by the Aspen Institute and launched at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June 2018.

He has served as a Special Adviser to Nigerian government ministers, both at the Ministry of Finance and the Presidency’s National Planning Commission, with donor coordination, development cooperation and strategic planning as his primary portfolios.

Prior to public service, he headed the Research, Policy and Strategy Team of the UK’s Department for International Development’s (DFID) flagship technical assistance programme, supporting the Nigerian government to improve technical processes for effective governance and delivery of public services.  Before this, he was Executive Director of the policy think tank the Centre for African Public Policy & Strategy (CAPPS) and headed the Centre for Democracy & Development (CDD) both in the UK. He has also worked at the think tank Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and Amnesty International both in South Africa and has served as a senior consultant to several multilateral and bilateral agencies, such as UKAID/DFID, United Nations agencies, the World Bank, the Commonwealth Secretariat etc.

The 'Development as Dignity' video was screened to applause by the audience and followed by a 30-minute discussion on development in various contexts, including perceptions of development and the way it is handled with most of the beneficiaries looked at as helpless.

A perspective on developing countries

Dapo spoke from a personal point of view, drawing on experiences from his childhood to his student days and career. Without any recourse to a prepared speech, he spoke about how he had been shocked to discover that the third world that was usually denigrated was actually the reality he lived in. The fine Lagos that everyone can boast of. The fine Abuja that some colleagues would later see and tell him that it was not what they expected and they wanted to 'see the real Africa.'

This latter part, obviously referring to the stereotype of Africa shown in the popular media: That of starving children, mud houses, people living with animals and other such things. Dapo said: 'Yes, these are a part of our reality, but our reality is more than that one view.'

This gave him room to talk on the various, usually negative, stereotypes that people have of Africa, which keeps being perpetuated.

"Every country needs help but no country has developed solely on handouts from others. They must take charge of their own development journey and optimise their own resources. When you don't see what you need, you need what you see. Countries like China and India are developing rapidly because they had clear plans, mobilised their own resources and took ownership of their development agenda. Rwanda, Ethiopia and Ghana are doing the same. No development is possible without visionary leadership, no development is sustainable without local ownership," Dapo noted.

Development and development aid was another interesting phenomenon mentioned, since most countries that receive these aid benefits do not grow up to - or even close to - their potentials. A major issue is that most of this so-called aid does not even get to the target beneficiaries. In other cases, it is the West prescribing what they think is right, many times, to a people who do not even have an understanding of the prescription or drugs that is being offered to them. To paraphrase Dapo: "How can a project be sustainable if it is not understood by those it is directed at? How can a people own a project that they do not even understand? How can a project be successful or sustainable, if it is not understood?".

“No development is possible without visionary leadership, no development is sustainable without local ownership”

There are several other issues, including the exclusion of voices. The narrative also has to change in terms of donors having to be as accountable as the local implementers in the beneficiary nations, who are often scrutinized and greatly criticised. All these are part of the spirit of 'Development as Dignity', which Dapo said he started casually as a TedX talk on his birthday. The concept for the book was formed but expanded when, as an Aspen fellow, he was able to talk to and eventually collaborate with colleagues to collaborate on a book with competent insight from brilliant scholars from around the world.

How then do we change this? A member of the audience asked.

"The power of ideas and changing the discourse," Dapo answered, drawing again on an earlier story he had told of him and a group of colleagues who would discuss issues at lunch. Critical issues concerning the continent were discussed. In the end, they formed  a policy think tank. As chance would have it, it was around the time when the [Western] world decided to concentrate on Africa's development; 2005 the year of Africa. There was a need to interface with policy think tanks around and since this lunch time think tank was there, it was a date with destiny. He also spoke on how he had had to challenge a Professor of his to change the reading list on a course that excluded key voices he [Dapo] knew. As one notes from the video, he had grown in a university community and was aware of brilliant scholars with published research on diverse fields, who were not included. Thus, he challenged his Professor that he would use those voices and if he wrote a good paper, such names would be added to the reading list. Fortune was on his side and the paper turned out more than just alright. Two years later, the reading list was changed.

In this wise, Dapo called for the discourse to be expanded and for everyone to take charge of their narrative. He gave some more pointers [paraphrased here]: How do you start a revolution? Sit down and think. Discuss the way forward and take action. If you find an idea, take it and fly with it. Ideas rule the world so give life to your ideas. Master your trade and build your tools. Make your voice known. Importantly, understand the political economy and find a way to work within it for effect. He also advised that:

...to change the current development narrative and own the development journey, one must have the 3Vs: "a clear Vision of your own development goals; a strong well-informed Voice to advocate and mobilise support and resources for it and; strategic Visibility backed by competent technical capacity. You must masterfully hold the chisel as you sculpt your own future and must ensure your head is not shaven in your absence.

In closing, Dapo called on everyone again to redefine development from a personal view, ensuring that in their work places, in their various spheres of influence and in fields where they do any intervention, dignity should be the key word

The African Writers Development Cafe is an initiative of the African Writers Society that is an intersection of development and writing. It is a platform for the advancement of discourse on Africa, her people and the world in all facets. The 'Development as Dignity' conversation is the first in a line of continuing events and conversations that would be had online and at different fora. The concept for the cafe was largely conceived by Jennifer Agbaire, an Executive of the African Writers, a doctoral researcher in the school of Education and Social Works. It was also greatly contributed to by Olusegun Sangowawa. The Executive Committee of African Writers, University of Sussex is grateful to them. Most importantly, the Executive is grateful to the Students Union, University of Sussex who supported the event through organisation, venue, refreshments and other general support. Umar Jahum was the official photographer of the day and we thank him. For various reasons, the African Writers Society are also grateful to the schools of Education and Social Works and Global Studies, Dr. Tish Marrable, Dr. Marcos Delprato, the MA International Education and Development programme and everyone who came for the Development is Dignity event. Our greatest appreciation goes to Dapo Oyewole who made time to make the event awesome and kickstart what we hope would be a revolution on discourse.

For more information or to be kept abreast of her activities send a mail to sueddie.agema@gmail.com or sarahegbo01@gmail.com. Alternatively, you can send a mail to the African Writers at africanwriters@societies.sussexstudents.com.


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