Episode 20: Africa Rising: strong Africa-based Think Tanks with an Africa-centric development agenda. Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi interviewed.

About this episode:

In this week’s episode, Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi from African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET) de-centres the focus on racism and colonialism, and instead brings attention to the range of power dynamics present in the development and humanitarian ecosystems, including gender, class, and the historical origins of certain organisations. Mavis discusses the institutional sustainability of Global South-based organisations where they are often not considered the first choice by either Global North organisations or Africa-based governments and national partners, despite their considerable capacity. She describes the transformative approach ACET is implementing, through which African institutions work together to grow capacity in tendering and contract delivery, thereby strengthening the network of Think Tanks across the continent. By doing this, they are demonstrating agency and flipping the narrative on the decolonisation and localisation agenda, which has been historically driven by the Global North.
Episode 20: Full Transcript

​​The Power Shift: Decolonising Development

Episode 20

Africa Rising: strong Africa-based Think Tanks with an Africa-centric development agenda. Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi interviewed.

Mavis: [00:00:00] So what we are talking about is when you talk about decolonisation and you talk about localisation, okay? You make it all about them. This is not about them. This is about our agency, our drive, our ownership, our continent and the contribution our continent needs to make if this world is going to get back on the right track. Okay, so I’m not using those words because in my space, it’s not about colonies, it’s not, I’m not local, we are African, when I come to the UK, where I hold my second passport, I’m not local, I’m British. So for me it’s agency, we have agency, so the thing we are doing is we are exercising our agency. Or we are putting in place the systems that will ensure that we don’t just talk about our agency, but we are also able to exercise it.

Kate: Hello, I’m Professor Kate Bird, and I’d like to introduce this episode of the Power Shift Decolonising [00:01:00] Development. In today’s podcast, Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi from ACET, based in Ghana, tells us about the approach that she and ACET take to building a powerful and effective Africa-based network of think tanks.

She talks about partnership versus contracting. She talks about power dynamics and agency and the importance of intersectionality in thinking about decolonisation and localisation. However, she challenges those terms and flips them, saying that buzzwords have been around for a very long time and really what’s important is power and agency and actually organisations in the Global South or the majority world don’t really think about decolonisation as such. That’s our problem in the Global North or minority world. So she emphasises the importance of how development is framed and what Africa is bringing to the table and the importance of that and centering the power and assets of Africa, rather than focusing on the problems and centering those problems when [00:02:00] talking about Africa.

So this is a powerful interview with a powerful woman. And lots of meat in this interview. Listen on for more.

Charmaine: Hi Kate and hi Mavis. Welcome to the Power Shift Decolonising Development, the podcast series seeking to bring together thinkers, practitioners, and activists to share ideas, inspire change, and identify tools for practical action. I am Charmaine McCauley, a body psychotherapist, director of Kokoro, and lead facilitator of the groundbreaking training program called Racism in Real Time, and my co host is Professor Kate Bird, director of the Development Hub. As a Black psychotherapist and a White development professional, we are using our own lived experience and professional skills to frame the way we approach the topic of decolonisation. Over to you, Kate. 

Kate: Thanks, Charmaine. We’re talking to Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi today, who is the Executive Vice President of ACET, the Africa Centre for Economic Transformation. She oversees their strategy and leadership, raising their profile as a robust [00:03:00] pan-African economic policy institute.

Mavis has worked in the international development sector for over 25 years, with a strong focus on private sector development, working with the UK’s Department for International Development, Save the Children, and an NGO, The Power of Nutrition. For more on Mavis and her work with ACET, click on the show notes below this episode.

Back to you, Charmaine. 

Charmaine: Thank you, Kate. Mavis, you are a British Ghanaian and spent much of your life in the UK. This perhaps gives you a particular perspective when thinking about racism and colonial attitudes within development and humanitarian sectors. Can you share your thoughts and feelings with our listeners of how that might impact that?

Mavis: Okay, thank you so much, Charmaine and Kate. It is a great honour to be invited to join you for today’s discussion. So, you know, thinking about the nexus between race, colonialism, development, humanitarian sector, I always take it back to power dynamics. The whole space of humanitarianism and development has a lot of power at the heart of [00:04:00] it.

So it’s either power between the recipient and the giver. It’s power between senior management and junior management. It’s power between men and women. There are so many dynamics in that space. And then when you look at the history of humanitarianism, there’s a lot of class power at the end of it.

A lot of the large humanitarian organisations, as we know them, started from upper or middle class Britain or Germany or whatever it was. There was a class system in there. So a kind of like a liberal approach to helping those who need help. And so for me, as somebody who’s had to navigate this world of so many different power dynamics, I always struggle with the focus on racism and colonialism because I think it’s more complex than that.

There is a power dynamic around race. There’s a power dynamic around the history of many [00:05:00] recipient countries and giving countries. There’s a power dynamic around gender. There’s a power dynamic around class. There are so many dynamics. And as a Black woman, I often find that you sit at this complex space.

So in Britain, I spent the bulk of my career in the UK. This is my first foray into a truly African organisation. And in the UK I sat in a space where I was mentored. I was mentored by a lot of individuals throughout my careers. Many of them White men, White women, Black women, there are very few Black men in senior positions in development when I was growing up.

That’s another story on the dynamics there. But I had a lot of mentoring. I had a lot of coaching. I had a lot of guidance. And on the journey, it was fine. But I got to a point where I like to say I grew up. Okay. And I had my own opinions and my own views and I became vocal. It didn’t always sit [00:06:00] well with those who mentored me.

Okay, so what was that about? Was that a gender dynamic? Was that a race dynamic? Was that a class dynamic? I have no idea. The other thing is that I’ve always been very conscious of the fact that I am a woman of African descent, sitting in, at the heart of economics, and there are moments where I have benefited because I have been put in front.

Okay? I’ve been moved. So I’m also aware of that dynamic, although I always said that it was lonely to be one of the few women there. But having said all of that, seriously, Charmaine and Kate, I am not your quintessential representation of Black Britain. I’m not. I am a young woman who comes from a middle class background, an African background.

I was encouraged to be educated. I remember when my teacher said to me, “Oh, Black women become nurses.” My father said, “That’s her Black people, not my Black people. You can be whatever you want.” I grew up in a very different world. I’ve never [00:07:00] lived in a council estate.

I knew what it was like to dress to be interviewed within the British establishment. When I went for my job in DFID, my mother took one look at me and said, “no, sweetheart, that doesn’t work. Use the scarf, wear these shoes.” I had that whole package, yet I benefited from the perception of being a Black woman, whatever that means.

So it’s a very long way of saying that it’s a lot more complex than just race and colonialism. In my development career, I went to countries in Africa and the Caribbean, where the first assumption was that I was the tea maker. By my own people of my race. Was that colonialism? Was that sexism? So for me the complexity has now led me to the point where I talk about power and how power is used in this very complex space, but this complex space that we must get right for the benefit of humanity.

Charmaine: Okay, thank you. I can really identify with not being the quintessential [00:08:00] Black person or the Black woman, I too grew up basically in England and then went to Canada. So being socialised very different than I’m a Black Canadian or a Black British or Black Caribbean. So yes, I like the fact that I’m hearing you say you’re reducing it down to maybe the most important thing which is power and that power runs through everything that we’re going to do whoever we are, whatever the intersection, there’s going to be power probably at the base.

Making the changes where we’re all going to have to adapt and I really appreciate that, because I think sometimes we have a tendency to minimise power and impact that it can have in a social group or individual. So thank you for that. My next question, Mavis is, ACET is based in Ghana. Why was working for an organisation headquartered in the majority world or Global South important for you?

It’s a big question and how does that differ from working for development organisations based in the minority world, or what we call the Global North, could you kind of talk about that? Thank you. 

Mavis: Okay, so I made a decision to come to ACET a few years ago because I’d reached that point in my career where [00:09:00] I really felt that something had to change in Africa and we all had to come and contribute and we have to come whilst we have energy to contribute.

And the thing I had to change was that I had worked in the Power of Nutrition for a number of years and I was really struck by one thing. Building the portfolio in Africa was so easy. You could literally walk into the country and gain access to ministers with a cheque book. Entry seemed easier than trying to do the same in Southeast and South Asia. There was this really powerful ecosystem that you had to work through. You needed an Asian, be it Indian, Indonesian, Filipino. You needed a partner in the country, either as a CSO, a think tank, to be able to do business in that country, because they were listened to, they drove thought leadership, etcetera, on the continent, yet it wasn’t the same for Africa.

I felt that, having seen this, I was a bit taken aback because I also know that Africa is full of [00:10:00] incredibly skilled people, okay? So there was something in the ecosystem that wasn’t working. So I thought, I’ve worked out long enough, I know how the development game works.

Maybe I could… come and work in this space. So that was one of the main reasons I came back. I wanted to be part of what I believe is the next evolution in the development agenda when it comes to Africa and the agency of Africa growing and getting more powerful. So I came back. I absolutely love it. Being at the heart of the choices that are being made, being at the heart of the decision, everything was really powerful.

I remember I had been in ACET for about a year and we just did, we had just done our handbook and I was going through the pictures and I turned to our head of HR and I said, this isn’t representative of ACET at all. It’s got too many Black people. There is no White or Asian representation.

And Africa has White and Asians, and ACET has White and Asians. So can we revisit these photos? And then I immediately called my brother and said, OMG guess what I just said? [00:11:00] And we all started laughing. It was just like a change from a world where I was looking for a picture of somebody who looked like me to wear in a different space.

So it’s been great to be at the heart of it. It’s been great to work with a network of incredibly brilliant individuals and organisations on the continent. It’s wonderful to see the the commitment to building an ecosystem and really enhancing Africa’s agency when it comes to thought, leadership and knowledge.

Having said that, there’s the flip side. Okay. The number of times I’ve told people, guys, I didn’t get a lobotomy because I joined an African institution. It’s the same Mavis that gave advice at DFID, Power of Nutrition, Save the Children. So stop assuming that I will organise meetings for you with our networks.

No, if you want to work with us, bring the money and we will do the research and we will lead the process. So there’s also a lot around reminding our leaders and our governments that they should use policy institutes like us in the first [00:12:00] instance. So there is still a journey to go on to lose that historical perception that we are not as robust as Northern based institutions are, but a lot of us working in these institutions, I’ve worked there, worked here. I don’t think something happened to our brains because we joined that set. 

Charmaine: So could you clarify that when you say that you haven’t received a lobotomy, right, and I get that, who are you speaking to when you say that? Which group of people are you saying that to?

Mavis: Thank you. I’m saying that to two groups of people. I’m saying that to our global partners whose perception of the role of an African based think tank and what we should do is very narrow, okay? And I’m also saying that to our national governments and national partners who see us as option two, rather than option one, when it comes to thought leadership and knowledge management.

Charmaine: Okay, and to work with that because I think that’s an interesting [00:13:00] phenomenon that you receiving almost the same information from two different sets of people. So how do you navigate that like what would you need to do to be able to tell the Global North, one?

And then how do you tell your compatriots? How do you make them understand that you are really important and to go number one with you? How do you do that? 

Mavis: There’s a lot of work that we are doing around really disseminating our research, packaging our knowledge in a way that our national governments find useful.

So, we do a lot of research, but we hadn’t perfected the art of packaging it. We take our data and we give them a report, you know, most ministers don’t have time to read more than two pages. So we’re doing a lot more on simplifying the reports, engaging them, sharing, building the kind of relationships that helps them see us way more for who we are.

And also to remind them that, look, less than five years ago, you were taking advice from this guy when they were at the World Bank. You are lucky they are at ACET. You can get the advice with the value addition of local knowledge and political [00:14:00] economy understanding. So you have a bonus here. So use the bonus well.

For my colleagues on the Global South, I would say to them that there are perceptions about local institutions, things are changing. Okay, we are changing. What’s happened with local institutions is when we have money, we are really strong. When the money is not there, we are weakened. So don’t kind of assume that we are always weakened. A lot of us are now putting in place risk management frameworks so that there’s continuity and there’s rigour. We are collaborating. We are drawing on each other’s strengths and skills and understanding of the political economy. So actually we are an asset for you today.

Because we don’t just have the technical know-how, we don’t just have the rigour but we combine it with real understanding of the political economy and how you take technical knowledge and navigate a complex political economy to start effecting change. 

Charmaine: Great. So that kind of just leads into my last question and Kate will follow up.

It’s that ACET [00:15:00] supports think tanks across Africa. Can you tell me about your own personal experience of fundraising for this work, and the links that you observe between funding, power and organisational independence?

Mavis: Okay. So the thing that I have learned about fundraising is the importance of ownership and agency.

And I think it also comes from joining ACET with over 20 years experience of working with donors myself. So I know how the fundraising landscape works. I know the fact that we need to put our money, the donors need to fund as much as we need to fundraise. 

I remember there was, in the UK civil service, that January to April window of, can you meet your expenditure targets on time? Otherwise you’ll be cut or whatever it was. I know how it works. So when I came into ACET, I was very clear. I came in, we set a strategy. And I was also very clear that we are fundraising for our strategy.

Okay. So we went to donors, securing strategic [00:16:00] partnerships to enable us to deliver the strategy. And we really focused on it. We worked on co-creation. We were very clear on the direction of travel and we agreed on how we would be held to account. But it meant that I also had to say no. So I said no to money.

So once you said no to money one, two, three times, people actually realise you’re serious. So I said, thank you for your offer, but it doesn’t align with our strategy. We can’t afford to spread ourselves too thinly because of what we need to deliver and what we’ve committed to doing with our national government and national think tank partners.

So thank you, but on this occasion, we will not be taking the money. And so I think once we demonstrated that we have power, we have agency, Africa has power, Africa has agency, okay, Africa is not a problem to be solved, Africa is part of the world’s solution to [00:17:00] global problems. And we need to be very clear in articulating what we will bring to help solve the global problems, which means we need to do our strategic thinking, we need to do our analysis, and it has to be embedded in our own structural development needs.

And once you’re clear on that, and you have that conversation, you are having a more equal conversation than if you go in as a beggar without clarity of what you are bringing to the table. So I’ll be honest with you, fundraising is never easy. It was not easy in Save the Children.

It’s not easy in ACET . But being clear on what we are fundraising for and why we are fundraising it, I think has put us in a very strong position to be able to secure that relationship and honesty in conversation is so important. And Kate knows me from a previous incarnation and will tell you that I speak my mind. It’s not going to [00:18:00] work, I’ll tell you, it’s not going to work. I’m not going to take your money and fail for the sake of failing. So I don’t know if that answers, Charmaine, your question. 

Charmaine: It does, there’s more questions but I won’t ask because I’m just sitting here actually marvelled at your incredibly bold, very bold to push back and go, sorry, but no, like when the hand goes up, I would just would like to have been a fly on the wall or on the screen to have watched their reactions as a Black woman is going, “I don’t think so, not today” and where you then are in the power to dictate the rhyme and reason of how you’re going to take them on. Just because it’s offered doesn’t mean I want to take it, but thank you for that. I like that. 

Mavis: But Charmaine, as Madam Ellen Johnson said, “if your dream does not scare you, it should not be a dream.”

So the dream for a bold policy institute ecosystem needs to be scary enough. And that fear includes parking bad money for good money. 

Charmaine: I love it. I love it. I love it. So thank you. Thank you. Kate, over to you. 

Kate: Thanks, Charmaine. [00:19:00] So Mavis, one of the things that ACET does is to provide mentoring support to other organisations in Africa, think tanks and other organisations seeking to provide policy advice to African governments.

I wonder if you could describe for us the process that you go through to provide that mentoring support and how, for you, the work that ACET does in providing that mentoring and support differs from the kind of inputs and support that would come from an organisation based in the Global North.

Mavis: Thanks, Kate. So this is where I’m going to talk you through our journey and be honest. So when ACET was set up, we were really clear that we didn’t want to have ACET offices everywhere. We wanted to work through local policy institutes because they have the knowledge, they have the political economy understanding.

What we were bringing to the table was the framing of economic transformation and how we analyze economic transformation, but it had to be embedded in local context. I think as a group in [00:20:00] ACET, most of us are ex DFID, ex World Bank, ex IMF, ex ADB, you know, we are fly in, fly out specialists.

So we were quite keen that we didn’t become an entity sitting in Accra flying into other countries and doing the same thing. So we set up this model of working with local policy institutes. It hasn’t been easy because you have different levels of capacity as you would everywhere else.

Okay, so the different levels of capacity meant that over time, we ended up doing one of two things. We ended up becoming a hands on traditional contractor whilst living in a bubble that we were doing it differently because we didn’t have an office, or we left the institute to do the work, took in what was not great quality and literally had to re-do it. Okay. And what we’ve done is we’ve moved. We’ve been on an evolution over the years, and we are now in a state of partnerships. We are working with our institutes, our partners [00:21:00] around partnerships. So one of the things we’ve just started now actually is we brought in an independent partner to work with us and some of our local partners on how we do a programme.

Okay, so they sit with us right at the beginning and they observe how we are operating and the power dynamics and they are helping us almost put the mirror in front of us on where we are really working in partnership and where we are pulling rank and where our partners are not voicing yet. So we’re going on this journey around what does real partnership look like, but we’re not leading it.

We’ve brought in a third party to help us work on that. So that’s one thing. The second thing we’ve done is we have taken a bit of a risk with our donor partners and said that we are not going to subcontract our partners. We want an agreement with our partners and they get the money, but we take responsibility for that money.

Okay. So it means that, I know, I love that look on your face, Kate. It means that we are really going on a journey of [00:22:00] openness and honesty. And we will say “Guys you had this money for this. You haven’t done it, we’ve done our bit”, or they can turn around and say, “well, you have money for this, you haven’t done it,” so we started this thing of shifting from traditional contracts to sub elements of granting with mutual accountability for delivery. So that’s the second thing that we are working on. The third thing we are working on is that we are being invited to bid and do proposals. So our partners can now come to us and say, “ACET, we need X number of days from you to help us with something” so we can feel that we can learn the pinch of being a subcontractor from our partners.

So the idea here is that we are really changing the way of operating. Then our ambition is over time, we can work together to build an ecosystem where we can come together to bid for money. So we can say that within Africa, Organisation A will actually build the capacity for USAID grants. And we will [00:23:00] work through them to get USAID grants or whatever.

So really building an ecosystem of accountability, mutual partnership, all of that. And at the back of it, we are all doing one thing. We’ve all said very clearly, okay. This thing about think tanks being sustainable is nonsense. This is one of my loveliest mantra. Every time I go into a foundation and they say, Oh, what’s your sustainability plan?

I just say, give me one think tank that is not an academic think tank funded by a university that is truly independent in your country. If you can mention one, ask me for my sustainability and exit plan from you. If you can mention one, can we have a kind of a proper conversation about risk management rather than this dream that some money is going to fall from the sky?

And they can’t. Because if you look across Europe, North America, there aren’t any. Do you see? It’s the honest truth. So as think tanks, we are then saying within this ecosystem, how do we manage our risks? How do we have enough months of a buffer so that when the money goes down, we can support ourselves [00:24:00] until we are able to gain more money and then diversify our income sources, etc.

So these are some of the things that we are doing. So Kate, it’s a very long way of saying to you, we are still on the journey of shedding the bad practices we all came in with and really trying to truly be partners, rather than hiding behind “we are all Africans, so we are fine.” It goes back to the point I made to Charmaine.

We are acknowledging where we sit in that power dynamic and trying to find a better balance so that we can really change and improve the system together. 

Kate: Sounds really fascinating. And you commented on my facial expression at one point because it sounded to me as though ACET is taking responsibility for the quality of delivery.

First of all, that delivery will happen. Secondly, the quality of that delivery. But what levers do you have at your disposal if you’re not where the money is routed through and you are not subcontracting the other organisation, how do you negotiate that if, I don’t know, I just don’t [00:25:00] understand how that would work.

I can see that in terms of picking apart power asymmetries and actually having a partnership that’s worth its name – because there’s a lot of weasel words and weasel talking around partnerships, where they’re not partnerships at all, they’re contracts. Yep. 

But I just, I would like you just to expand on how that actually works in practice a little bit, because I’m fascinated.

Mavis: So there’s a few things. The first one is that the partner has to go through the same due diligence we go through with the donor and the donor does that due diligence of the partner. So on both sides, we agree that they have the financial management skills, they have the system skills, they have all of that, to do the reports in the accountability and all of that. Okay, we have a contract with the donor, but we also have a contract with the partner and the partner has a contract with us on mutual accountability. So, that’s how it works. 

Kate: Okay, so there are contracts in there, but money isn’t routed through you. Money for you comes to you directly from the donor. Money for your partner organisation goes directly to them. So you’re not holding a big stick over them saying, stick to our timeline, do it [00:26:00] as we want to, or we will punish you. 

Mavis: Yes, and we also say, we make it very clear that mutual accountability matters.

Now we have something that our partners will want. It’s in our partner’s interest to be seen as having made the ACET bar. Okay. Okay. So if they can show they’ve made the ACET bar, then the historical perceptions of their weaknesses are starting to be moved aside.

So there is a mutual interest here. Now we would not go in with a partner that we know is not there yet. We wouldn’t. It doesn’t make sense. And two, it erodes the long term ecosystem ambition we have. Okay, so there are others that we have to build up and nurture, et cetera. But we have some partners that we’ve been working with for 10 years.

We can revisit, you know, and 10 years, it’s been reasonably consistent. And I’m saying reasonably consistent because if you go and talk to our partners, they will also say to you, they have been reasonably consistent. Because they’ll also say, Ah, they said that we’re going [00:27:00] to do it on this day. They didn’t do it.

And then they came and accused us of not meeting the deadline. You know, it works both ways, but both sides can have challenges. So it’s the partners that we know we can walk this journey with, that we have started the journey with. 

Charmaine: I was just going to say, basically, you are the new gold standard. So you have set the standard. And you want whoever you’re going to be working with to hit this standard if they fall short of in any way, you perhaps mentor them to get to that level but you will not work with anybody below your standard, basically, in a nutshell. 

Mavis: No, we will work with colleagues who are below our standard, but we will do the traditional engagement and contracting and accountability. But if you make this standard, then we think the partnership should be different. It should be truly a partnership rather than contractual partnership as we like to call it. I don’t know if that makes sense. 

Charmaine: Yeah, so there’s more equality is what I’m hearing you say, in terms of sharing the power dynamic since that’s your base that you’re working with.

Okay, sorry Kate go ahead sorry. 

Kate: I’m really interested in this and I just wonder if ACET is writing [00:28:00] this up as a case study of good practice because it sounds to me as a model that could be adopted by other organisations, because, one of my big bugbears is how funding is routed through Northern organisations, and they subcontract organisations in the Global South, who they call partners.

But they’re not partners because the timeline is set by the Northern organisation, the milestones are set, the quality assurance and quality control is undertaken by the Northern partner. And the allocation of resources is determined by the Northern partner, often in a non transparent way.

So the Southern organisation never sees the total budget, they only see the budget that they’ve received. 

Mavis: So, we are on this journey and yes, we have somebody walking with us who will be able to write up what the journey is. So the journey is we are doing this in two ways. So we have part of it is what we call the research side of the journey.

Okay. The other side is the implementation side of the journey. So the implementation side includes government. So you have the research institute, government, us, and civil society when it comes to [00:29:00] implementation across the continent. So we are doing this. What does partnership for the end game look like?

So a couple of things, what is your end ambition? Okay. So our end ambition is to have an ecosystem where the cake gets bigger, and we all benefit from a bigger cake. Okay? That’s our ambition. So, we could have very easily said, well, if it comes to us, we get our overheads, we tick, we tick. If your ambition is for your overheads to be substantially bigger because the cake is bigger, then you look at some short term, temporary loss for a bigger ambition at the end game. So that’s the first thing that we are looking at. The second ambition we have is about building an ecosystem. Okay. Where we are competitive on the continent against others globally. Okay. So it also means that we need to work together and build trust amongst ourselves to truly compete on the continent. Okay. For where? For the continent. Okay. So I see the point you’re making [00:30:00] around North-South contracts, etc. The game plan there is very different from the game plan we have. Our game plan requires us to take a very different journey to increase the size of the cake. Because if we don’t follow such a game plan, seriously, they’ll never get to a point where we can go directly and bid for proposals.

And we need to get there. Right now we are subs. We are always subs. If we are strong together, we don’t have to sub. We can sub to each other. We can work together. Do you see the vision? So it’s about laying the foundations for an ambition that is bigger than what we have right now. 

Charmaine: So rather than being individual entities, you go more with a group entity, which in the long run is a lot more powerful than doing it one by one. I think that’s what I’m understanding. 

Mavis: Exactly, that’s right.

And this is not something that only ACET is doing. I think all the big think tanks of the continent are thinking this way. So we talk amongst ourselves, how are we all working [00:31:00] with our national partner institutes? What are we doing? How are we collaborating? We even have a process whereby, for example, right now we’re going through a process where one of the regional institutes has done a number of pieces of work and is doing specific training for the much smaller institutes on how they can use the data and draw from the data and build their own over time for national benefit. Now, you would say, why would they do that? In precisely five years, those data sets that they’ve facilitated, they can aggregate into a much more richer regional document than they would otherwise have.

Okay, so that is the thing that I think makes what we are trying to do and it’s not just ACET. There’s a number of us working together. The thing that makes it work is the ambition we have for policy institutes going forward.

Kate: I think this is fascinating because what you’re talking about is building capacity for leading bids and contracts and working with other organisations across the continent to build that [00:32:00] capacity, not just for individual entities, but for a network of entities across the continent. And what I find really interesting about this is that you’re flipping the perspective on the localisation and decolonisation agenda, where the narrative is being driven by the North.

So you’re taking hold of the narrative and you’re saying, okay, “Whatever! You guys do, whatever you want to do, but we’re actually starting from our strengths here!” Yeah. “Come and talk to us.”

Interestingly, you haven’t used the language of localisation and decolonisation, I think, at all but you talked about power, but you’re talking about taking hold of the agenda yourselves. 

Mavis: So what we are talking about is when you talk about decolonisation and you talk about localisation okay? You make it all about them. This is not about them. This is about our agency. Our drive. Our ownership. Our continent and the contribution our continent needs to make if this world is going to get back on the right track. Okay, so I’m not using those words because in my space, [00:33:00] it’s not about colonies, it’s not, I’m not local, we are African, when I come to the UK, where I hold my second passport, I’m not local, I’m British. So for me it’s agency, we have agency, so the thing we are doing is we are exercising our agency. Or we are putting in place the systems that will ensure that we don’t just talk about our agency, but we are also able to exercise it.

Kate: I love this, I think it’s brilliant. What I’d really like to hear now is as we move towards the end of our podcast interview is for you to describe to our listeners and viewers what you think the priorities are around Africa and African organisations exercising their agency. And what our listeners and viewers can do from wherever they are in the world to support this process and whether you call it, decolonisation, localisation, anti racism, shifting power, what do you think the priorities are?

Mavis: Okay, so we’re living in a world [00:34:00] now where the nexus of challenges and the intersectionality is so clearly defined, you can’t get away from it. So whether we’re talking about green industrialisation, whether we’re talking about debt reduction or debt restructuring, it’s all interlinked.

So where we are is we’ve reached the point, and we’re hearing it from our leaders, for those of you who listen to the Africa Climate Summit, you heard a lot of this from our leaders. Okay, we are sitting on 70 percent of the world’s cobalt, which is necessary for us to realise green industrialisation and green growth.

We are sitting on 60 percent of the world’s lungs. Whether you like it or not. We are the largest growing in terms of population and the youngest population in a rapidly aging world. So we are also sitting on the labour of the world. And finally, we are sitting on 60 percent of potential solar energy.

What we have to [00:35:00] offer to the world in solving our biggest problems are massive. Okay. We know we are starting from a low base, but it’s fine. We have a lot of foundation to build on, and we are now working together and harnessing to get there. It’s not perfect. They give us a country that has perfection on its journey.

It’s not gonna be linear, it’s gonna be bumpy, there’s gonna be problems, etcetera. But the other thing we are also very clear of is that we are not some small islands sitting on the side. We are connected to the rest of the world. We are interconnected to the rest of the world. So whatever we do, that connection needs to be acknowledged and it needs to work well.

So anybody who is sitting in this space of development, humanitarianism, whatever it might be, okay? The first thing is see what we are bringing to the table first, before you see our problems. If you see what we are bringing to the table [00:36:00] first, you come to the conversation with a very different perspective than if you see our problems and you believe you are coming here to save us.

Okay. There are two very different propositions. If you see what we have to offer, if you acknowledge and accept our agency, then we come to the table and we start to have a real grown up conversation. Okay. Historically, there are challenges. Going forward, there will be challenges, but it’s no different from Europe or North America or wherever it might be.

It’s how the story is told. So come to the table in that way. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is recognise your power. Do your homework and recognise your power as an individual first, and your power as an individual within an institution and the power of that institution and ask yourself, how am I acknowledging how my power plays out in this space?

And am I being honest enough with myself in how I’m engaging in this process? So that would be the second thing. And [00:37:00] then the third thing I would say to everyone is so long as you keep hiding behind buzzwords, nothing will change. Because some of the very hard conversations that we need to have and the journey we need to go on requires us to just acknowledge the reality we are in and navigate it, but be very honest in how we are navigating it.

Because, we’ve been in this business now for almost 30 years. What was it? I can’t remember what it was before decolonisation or localisation. Oh yeah, I think we went through the whole phase of budget support, government ownership. We went through a government ownership phase, didn’t we?

And then we went through a phase of the voice of local civil society. And recently I was in a panel and somebody said, oh yeah, it was the voice of local civil society, but guess what? You got the crib sheet before you went out. Come on, it’s just buzzwords.

We need to do the homework to get to the core of the problems. And then we also have to acknowledge that the journey will always have cracks. And when we hit that [00:38:00] crack, let’s stop, group, course correct and continue. And finally, you’re not going to fix the world’s problems overnight. We are all on the journey.

The best you can do is work really hard on how you are driving power dynamics and feel confident when you hand the button over that you have contributed to a shift in that power dynamic, then let them take the next step. 

Kate: That’s brilliant. Thank you very much. So in terms of practical steps, be aware of your perception and don’t patronise Africa. Be aware of what Africa has to offer as its starting point. Don’t hide behind buzzwords and do your homework. The problem won’t be fixed overnight, and be aware of your own power and positionality.

Mavis: Basically. Yeah. Yeah. 

Kate: Thank you very much. Charmaine, do you have any last thoughts to add? 

Charmaine: I was going to ask more of a personal experience where you’ve been in a situation where you really have felt the lack of agency, where you have really felt the push, where you’re [00:39:00] talking about your sense of power, where you really had to negotiate, what does that look like?

What does that feel like? I don’t know if you have enough time just to give us, you know, because these are buzzwords. But for me, it’s like, when it comes to the personal. What do you do when you’re actually feeling that you are being diminished, your agency is being taken away, your voice has been taken away.

So what do you rely on to work through that, to push through that? 

Mavis: So a couple of things, I grew up in a system where I literally had people lifting me, like support, guidance, engagement. And I got to a certain point of seniority. And suddenly, it was like, attacks. Yeah? And it was a bit of a shock to me.

And I think there were moments where I regressed to the point of, oh my God, what do I do here? And I’m talking about pretty cruel mental bullying, it got to a point where I felt at moments that you are here to do what makes [00:40:00] me look good, not what makes you look good and you are taking my space. Or you are here to do what I tell you to do, who are you to have an opinion? There was a period I think when I got to a certain level of seniority, I had moments where I had or felt I had no agency. It was very, very, very difficult.

And in those moments, I have to say. The first time it happened, somebody approached me and said, what’s going on? I was trying so hard. I was exercising. I was walking. I was doing everything in my power and I just could not work through it.

And this individual came to me and said, “Are you okay?” And my first reaction was, “I don’t trust you!” “I don’t trust any of you anymore.” Okay, but the individual didn’t walk away. The individual came back and outside the office space asked me once again. “Are you okay?” And I said, “What’s going on?” And they said to [00:41:00] me.

“Something, a light has dimmed in you. This is not the Mavis that came here. A light has dimmed in you. What’s going on?” And I broke down and the individual gave me practical tools to navigate what was in every way a bullying situation that I was in but did not know. And I followed those steps and literally I came out of it.

And I found myself again, but what that taught me was the need to do three things. One, be aware when you are in this space and know where to go to for help. Okay. Two, if you go for help and you still can’t navigate it, your health, your sanity, everything, is more important than where you are. And three, really know what you are brilliant at, invest in what makes you uniquely Mavis, so that every time they remove you from that space, you know this is what the organisation has lost because once you have that, you will have the confidence to do number two when you need to do [00:42:00] number two.

So those are the three things I did. And then finally, your village. I can’t speak enough of my village. I have a powerful village, and my powerful village includes my beloved family, my siblings, my parents, my husband, my child. It includes my sisterhood, as I call them. It includes my brothers and uncles that think I’m crazy but love me for it.

But in that village, they always told me one thing, “Mavis, you will never starve, you will never go without a roof on your head, you are more precious to us than anything, if it gets too much, we have you.” So amidst all of that, my village holds me. So I would say to you, your village is powerful.

Charmaine: Thank you. Thank you. What a beautiful way to end. Thank you. Yeah, I think it was just very gracious that you allowed us into that part of you, the personal, which I think for many people, they don’t want to share the personal. So thank you very much for being so open and sharing that with us today.

Mavis: It’s fine. I think a [00:43:00] lot of women will know what it feels like, the difference between climbing the ladder and getting to the top and what the attack at the top is like, and honestly, the attack at the top for me has been both sexist and racist.

It’s been both. Because I’ve had White females attack me, and I’ve had White men attack me, and I’ve had Black men attack me for where I am. 

Kate: Having known you for some time, Mavis, what drew me to invite you for the podcast is my knowledge of your personal strength. So I know you to be a very strong, forthright person. And I think to speak about the themes that we’ve been covering with a woman who is strong and powerful and forthright and based at an organisation in Africa, it’s fascinating. And I think what you’ve shared with our listeners and viewers today, is really encouraging and I’m really looking forward to hearing more over the months and years about this approach to partnership that you’re [00:44:00] taking across the continent and the way that you’re building capacity across the continent. And how actually what’s going to happen in the next year, 5, 10 years is African organisations becoming the lead organisations in major contracts. Because I think that will be very interesting in that what we’ll see then is the narrative and the agenda setting and the strategic processes actually being centered where they should be. 

Mavis: It’s not going to be an easy journey. I think I’ve articulated it like it’s straightforward. It’s not a straightforward journey. But if you don’t try, you’ve already failed. As my grandmother always said, my grandmother says, what are you complaining about?

If you don’t try, you fail. You might as well try and fail. I’m like, okay.

So it’s important. Yeah. 

Kate: So, thanks very much for your inputs today, Mavis, and goodbye from me and from Charmaine. 

Mavis: Thank you. Thank you. Goodbye. 

This weeks guest:

Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi is Executive Vice President of African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET).

Mavis oversees ACET’s strategy and leadership, and is responsible for ensuring the organisation is respected as a robust pan-African economic policy institute. 

Mavis has built a distinguished career over 25 years in international development. Born in Ghana, she is a political economist by training and a private sector development specialist. She previously worked at the UK Department for International Development (DFID), where she led the creation and implementation of DFID’s first private sector development strategies in a number of countries. More recently, she worked as the Director of Program Policy at Save the Children. In 2016, she joined a newly established NGO, the Power of Nutrition, as its Director of Investments, overseeing rapid growth across a dozen African and Asian countries.

She holds an MPhil from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, and an MPhil in Development Studies (Economics and Political Economy Analysis). Mavis is a member of the Board of Directors for Results for Development and Sightsavers International and an Independent Member of the Strategic Coherence of ODA Funded Research (SCOR) Board.

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