Olumide Abimbola©SLE

WHO IS WHO: Dr. Olumide Abimbola

Trainer of our governance class, and founder of the Africa Policy Research Institute (APRI)

What is the first thing you do after waking up?

Thank you very much. The first thing I normally do in the morning is to make coffee and check the news. I try very hard not to check my email first thing, but I unfortunately often fail at this. So let’s say the first things I do in the morning are to read the news and check my email for anything that needs urgent attention.

Talking about the class you gave at the SLE, what was the class mainly about?

In the class, we critically engaged with some core ideas in development theory and practice: governance, participation and empowerment. The goal was to understand these concepts, noting the rhetoric vs actual practices - and see how good intentions are often not enough. The idea being that the concepts are best not deployed uncritical.

It is often argued that good governance is a prerequisite to promote prosperity in the Global South. What are your thoughts on the concept of good governance?

I think good governance is important - but I am not sure that we need to mobilize it as a tool to explain anything else, including prosperity. At the core of the idea of good governance is accountability of governments to their citizens. It is about transparency, about rule of law and about states fulfilling all the good things one has come to expect of a functioning, modern state. The concept also includes some things that no state anywhere is able to deliver. My point is this: good governance is important on its own, even if many of the tenets are only aspirational. We can agree that these elements are good to have, without also needing to argue about whether or not they lead to prosperity in the Global South.

Do you think participation always means empowerment?

This is another point we discussed in the class. Unfortunately, participation does not always mean empowerment. We discussed cases where participation is simply just ticking boxes sent from headquarters of development agencies. This is at best cynical and produces cynicism - and at worst, it can lead “beneficiaries” rejecting the project or even causing harm. Participation should not just be an add-on. It should be baked into the process. It is like having a democracy where campaigning and voting is an afterthought.

How do you think can participation be really achieved in international cooperation?

I will focus here mainly on development projects and say this: we need a lot more humility from development practitioners, both bilateral and multilateral. They need to know that people almost always understand their own situations better than outsiders. And that, more often than not, they are already taking actions to address the challenges that they face. It is only when we start from this position that we can begin to talk about real participation.

What would be your advice and message to young professionals at the SLE before leaving this training and entering the work in international development?

I would say that you and your colleagues need to really understand who you are and what you want out of working in development policy and practice. You can do a lot of good in your work, but you need to approach it with a measure of humility. You need to quickly know, realistically speaking, what development cooperation can do and what it cannot do. You also need to understand how the bureaucracies you are going to be working in function and find your own way of making an impact in that space. It is not easy, but from what I have seen in your curriculum, I think you have some good tools to work with.


Lastly, what changes do you want to see in the next 10 years?

I currently do a lot of work on climate change and climate diplomacy, so my answer is towards this direction. What I want to see in the next ten years is this: the development of a global governance system for addressing the climate crisis, a system that really acknowledges the fact that those who did not create the climate crisis are currently the ones suffering its effect. I would hope to see that such a system works in a way that clearly shows the responsibility of the rich world, where the consumption emission is high, in acting drastically now to change the lifestyles that account for such emissions. And that the system works to really support the adaptation strategies of those who have been suffering the effects of the climate crisis the most.