INTERVIEW: How we contribute to tackling poverty, inequality in Nigeria, globally – President, Ford Foundation

Darren Walker

Darren Walker is President of the Ford Foundation, a global philanthropy outfit. He has for two decades been a leader in the non-profit and philanthropic sectors. He led the philanthropy committee that helped bring a resolution to the city of Detroit’s historic bankruptcy and chairs the U.S. Impact Investing Alliance.

Prior to joining Ford, he was Vice President at the Rockefeller Foundation where he managed the rebuilding of New Orleans initiative after Hurricane Katrina. In 2016, TIME magazine named him to its annual list of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.”

He was at the Banana Island Office of the foundation in Lagos recently. In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Editor-in-Chief, Musikilu Mojeed, and business correspondent, Oladeinde Olawoyin, he speaks on poverty reduction, inequality, impact assessment, a $12.5 billion endowment Nigeria may benefit from and other social interventions put in place by the Ford Foundation. Excerpts:

PT: You were at an event on impact assessment recently, what was it about?

Darren: Well, it was about how we can use private capital for public good. How we can use our investment in project and enterprises that will turn in both financial and social and environmental returns. And examples of these could be affordable housing or financial services for the poor, power project that both make money and provide social benefit for the community.

PT: Are you going to be partnering with the private sector on that or how is it going to work?

Darren: This is the way it will work is. We have a $12.5 billion endowment. We are taking $1 billion of that and we are investing in these capital projects in the U.S. and in the global south. Africa is a priority for us and Nigeria is a top priority. So, we will be looking for the private sector and public sector partners in Nigeria to make this type of investments.

PT: So, when they make money from these investments, do you expect them to plough it back into philanthropy or…?

Darren: (Cuts in) Well, we as an investor will plough our money back into philanthropy, into other investments because ultimately, we want a driving capital market that includes impact investing. So, it is not just traditional bonds and stocks but these include bonds and stocks in social enterprises and not just philanthropy projects.

PT: Is this your first time in Nigeria…?

Darren: (Cuts in) Nooooo! I have been in Nigeria many, many times. I have lost count of the times I have been in Nigeria. But each time I come, I leave more inspired and encouraged by what I see. And each time I come, the change around is palpable. Obviously here in our headquarters in Banana Island: I mean, it looks nothing like a deal when we first came but I understand there are other communities that are poor where people felt left behind and things haven’t changed. We visited Makoko when I was here a few years ago and it was my most memorable visit to Lagos because the people in that community are so resilient and so passionate about their country, about their community and about their future. And I think that’s very important because at the centre of every democracy has to be the idea of hope; that people are hopeful for the future; that parents are hopeful for their children. And I think part of what we do at the Ford Foundation is that we are in the business of hope and we can do our grant-making through our impact investing to provide resources that can be leveraged to impact the lives of people and improve their lives and communities.

PT: What difference have you noticed between your last visit here and now?

Darren: Well I think obviously the level of development has been extraordinary. The physical development of Lagos is mind-boggling. Everywhere you look, you see construction and new projects. So, this is the sign of progress and the thing, however, that we worry about is that progress is not being evenly shared by the people of Nigeria; that inequality remains a persistent challenge for the nation and we see it most starkly here in Lagos where we have slum communities next to very expensive flats in the state. So, our mission is to reduce inequality and to support NGOs and civil societies that are advancing justice and fairness and equity.

PT: Talking about inequality, recently Ford foundation has been tinkering with its programmes, saying it wants to fight inequality. What’s this new focus of the foundation all about?

Darren: Well I think what it recognises is that as a global foundation, when we look at the world, one of the most pernicious threats to development and to justice is growing inequality. Whether it is in the United States or Brazil or India or Nigeria, inequality is a common thing that people are experiencing. And so, we decided to work on this issue as one foundation, one globe because this is a global trend. Specifically, here in Nigeria, we see working to reduce inequality through a number of perspectives and interventions. First and foremost is recognising the importance of young people, girls and women to the development and advancement of this nation. And that, too often, young people feel marginalized and left behind. So, we have interventions and work with organisations targeting young people, youth, women and girls. My colleagues can join me on that.

PT: People would say you have always been fighting inequality since 1936 when Ford Foundation was founded, but what is different about your new approach, really?

Darren: Well I think we actually have fought poverty for most of our history; we had not focused on inequality because inequality was not a major problem. And let’s be clear, there has been a great progress made reducing poverty. Sometimes people say people are still poor all over the world; actually, there’s less poverty in the world than there was twenty or thirty years ago. So, rates of poverty have come down around the world including even in Africa. What has emerged, however, is the growing and huge gap between the very rich elites and the rest of the population. And that gap is, we believe, a threat to our mission of supporting healthy strong democracies because democracies need an opportunity to breathe; democracy needs the idea of hope. And so, you know, hope is the oxygen of democracy and we have to focus now on inequality which is different from focusing on poverty––poverty remains a focus for us but the larger threat of a divided society economically of haves and haves-not is a threat that could ultimately undermine the nation.

PT: You attended public schools all your life. As you set to tackle inequality, is that a direction that the foundation might be looking at in Nigeria especially looking at the poor state of public schools here?

Darren: Well, I will allow my colleague (Program officer, Ford Foundation) to join me to answer that but what I was saying is that we believe in the public sector; that we need a functioning public sector and so we believe that public-private partnerships are important and the private sector has a role to play. But we cannot forget that for a democracy to function, it must have a well-functioning public sector.

Dabesaki Ikeminjima (Program Officer): This is the central focus of our work and like Darren said, young people constitute about 34 percent of Nigeria’s population. So just looking at that demography and the majority of those attending public schools. While many of them don’t transit to higher education, only 25 per cent manage to achieve higher education. So, we are looking at how do we address the challenges. First, we are providing young people public education as well as in the informal sector with the right kinds of skills that they need to enter the labour market, looking specifically at those who would be unable to move on to higher education. So, our work in Nigeria is really focusing on strengthening the ability of young people to get skills, in secondary level technical education. Working with public authorities both at the national, regional and state levels depending on the specific areas to provide the necessary frameworks that will enable young people who receive the training to get the right kind of certification of their competencies which allows them to enter for more employment as long as that’s the pathway that they chose. Yes, we are working to strengthen public secondary education that is focused on technical skills. One example is that we are working with the National Board for Technical Education around the National Vocational Qualification framework as an approach to adequately recognizing young people’s competencies. We are also working with regional agencies like the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, specifically also focusing on strengthening the vocational education and in states like Lagos. We are actively working with the government on skills development.

Ford Foundation has been here for a long time, investing in programmes that would advance social change. Looking at Nigeria today, would you say this has been a worthy investment?

Darren: Absolutely it has been a worthy investment. I think it is very important to recognise today that Nigeria is the most important economy on the continent––it is the largest, most vibrant and, certainly, the world is watching what is happening in Nigeria. We have seen progress during our years of investing here. As I said, we have advanced in poverty reduction, education and in other areas of well-being. That said, Nigeria remains a country that has serious issues that must be addressed if it is to be a successful nation and prosperous society. I was asked recently about donor fatigue and I actually think we are energised after working in Nigeria. We will commit ourselves to another period of working in Nigeria, because of the progress being made. And so, at Ford Foundation we see the glass as half-full, not half-empty. We see the progress that has been made, we recognize because we listen to our grantees and our partners who are thirsty, hungry for progress––or hopeful.

PT: What would you say is the most impactful programme that the Ford Foundation has invested in?

Darren: I think the programme that has been most impactful are our human capital programmes. Like the International Fellows Programme, IFP, because it is important that we invest in human capacity. I am a public school beneficiary through early childhood, through a public students’ programme and these were all interventions that rested on the theory of investing in human capital and in turn, that human capital will yield benefits for society. And so, I believe that there are 4,500 IFP fellows around the world and well over a thousand around Africa and I am confident that in the coming years, we are going to reap the benefits of this remarkable pool of talents and capabilities to be in leadership positions, in NGOS, in government, in the private sectors, and together we will move this nation forward.


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