This edition focuses on the journey of a man, whose rise from a poor background to global prominence, was powered by his society’s investment in human capital development. From the charity hospital where he was born in Louisiana to the institutions of learning he attended, it was just a story made possible and promising by the social provisions of the system he grew up. Today, Daren Walker is the President of Ford Foundation-an international philanthropic organisation reputed as the number one in the world. The Ford Foundation works with visionary leaders on the frontline of social change. He discusses himself and the foundation’s contribution to the advancement of human dignity in Nigeria. Daren also offers insight into how his success story can be replicated in Nigeria.
Why are you in Nigeria?
I am in Nigeria to affirm the Ford Foundation’s support to the aspiration and vision of the people of Nigeria. It is to support a vibrant democracy which is our wish for the people of Nigeria. I am also here because I love to come to Nigeria. I love to be in Lagos because I am a nervous aficionado of cities and their urban landscape. There are few urban landscapes more compelling and confounding than Lagos.
You distinguished yourself as an investment banker and had been Vice President for foundation initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation, today you head the world’s leading donor agency. How was it possible for you to come this far?
My background of being born in a charity hospital in rural Louisiana and rising to be President of Ford Foundation is a story about investment in human capital development and investing in the potentialities of a young poor boy. The fact that our government has public education programmes contributed. I had private scholarships that were provided by individual philanthropists and I was able to sustain myself through a combination of public and private investments. And the Ford Foundation interestingly enough has been a consistent thing in my life.
I was on a programme called Head Start which is early childhood development programme. I was in the first class of Head Start in 1969. Head Start was a pilot project by Ford Foundation. I went to public school which the Ford Foundation is a strong advocate of. I received a grant to underwrite the tuition of poor students. That programme was initiated in the 1960s by the Ford Foundation. When I left Wall Street and went to work in Harlem, I led a community development organisation. The community development movement in the US was founded by the Ford Foundation. When I came to Ford Foundation it was like coming home because the Ford Foundation has been present in my life.
How is Ford Foundation working with state governments to deepen democracy?
The challenges outlined in your question are the things that make our work interesting. Without the challenges, I doubt if Ford would have set up a regional office in Nigeria. We work with partners, who are in the front line of responding to these challenges. And our role is to give them the support they need and the space to respond to these challenges. We have partners, who are based in the Southeast. We have the Social and Economic Rights Initiative, SERI, who are responding to the underlying factors that gave birth to youth restiveness. We have partners like the Abia State government that is trying to rebuild the entrepreneurial capacity of the average Aba person by giving them visibility to improve their products. That is being done through the made in Aba product by making people aware that the products are there. Our hope is that when they get the right kind of customers, they will be able to sell more and employ more people. And that will contribute to getting young people off the streets. We are also partnering with national organisations like the Yar’Adua Centre. For instance, we organised the 50 years after Biafra which brought all stakeholders together in the country to say that we have a problem and have the solutions to it if all Nigerians can hold hand together to respond to the problems. We also have partners like Savannah Centre that recently organised a summit on restructuring. We believe that by coming together and accepting that there are problems, Nigerians can begin to solve their problems. Our partners are at the front end of our work. All we do is to provide support.
Can you put figures to the level of support you provide, especially in Abia State?
We have an annual budget of $13 million that is spent across the three countries that are our focal points in the region. They include Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal. The amount we put into a project is based on the negotiation we have with our partners. We get proposals; we review them and provide support.
Beyond economic empowerment, in what other areas is Ford helping to assist Nigerians, especially the young population?
Ford does not directly engage in such works. We do it through our partners and it is through the proposals they send to us that we go into negotiation. Interestingly, Abia State is part of the nine Niger Delta states. We have a Memorandum of Understanding with the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, to contribute to a project that will provide the needed skills for youths in the country. And one of the focal partners is Abia State. Beyond the Made in Aba thing, we are also involved in skills acquisition programmes. The larger issue here which has been identified is that we work around the world to address inequality. Young people feel marginalised and left behind. Inequality is not unique to Nigeria, it is a growing scourge.
The United States, India, Indonesia, China, and others have systemic issues that have to be addressed systemically. We support the deepening of democracy. And the literature of democracy identifies inter-party alternation of power as a major indication of advancement of democracy. Democracy matures when parties who are engaged in electoral process compete on a level playing field by allowing the voters determine the outcome.
The support we gave at the last election enabled INEC to organise one of the elections that was considered one of the most credible in the history of Nigeria. And through that process, parties that participated conceded defeat when they lost. That has advanced democracy in Nigeria and the region. The same thing happened in Ghana, Senegal and Benin Republic where their democracies are fragile. Our works on democracy are on elections. We try to see how our partners can engage in policy developments in this country. We are doing that kind of support through maintaining engagement after elections.
What is Ford Foundation doing to ensure transparency and accountability in governance in Nigeria?
After the progress recorded in 2015 election which everybody applauded, we sat down and reviewed the election and found out that even with the progress, the marginalised were excluded. The participation of women and children reflected that. In 2011 women constituted about 20 percent of the national parliament but after 2015, the numbers dropped to seven percent. In the case of young people, there is no affirmative policy and there is a constitutional provision that anybody below 30 years cannot compete in an election. And it means that 70 percent of our population is zoned out and cannot compete in an election. Our strategy is to work with women and young people to ensure that they are better represented in an election. We are doing that by supporting movements that are interested in the elevation of women and children. We also work with political parties to see if they can have affirmative action that elevates women and children.
How do you deal with parties, whose processes are opaque and at variance with democratic norms?
Deepening democracy is a process. We have been in it in America for more than 200 years and it is still not perfect. We amended our constitution for several times. The larger issue is that democracy making is a messy process and is never perfected.
Nigeria is still a young democracy. And the growing pains that this country is experiencing are not different from the pains of growth that has happened in many democracies. It is not diminishing here; the situation here is not hopeless. 80 years into the American democracy, we had a civil war and we still made amendments into the 20 century.
And they still talk about amendment today. However, if people are cynical and hopeless about their democracy because it does not work for them, there is a reason to be very alarmed and worried. I think the circumstances in Nigeria today are absolutely very alarming.
On building strong institutions
Ford Foundation is a philanthropic organisation, we have never claimed to have the solution to everything. And we are working with state actors and non-state actors to make the little contributions we can. We are also hoping that they will be strategic and catalytic enough to unlock other doors. As a private philanthropy that has been here for over 60 years, we can share what we have done over the years that have contributed to the little progress that we are making.
On monitoring aids
We have a rigorous process for the selection of our partners. We don’t just see individuals and groups with good proposals and start funding. We have an institutional mechanism of checking their capacity and governance system. And when we make our grants, we engage our partners knowing that we can’t just cast aspersions on what they do. We can beat our chest and say that our partners have been effective with the work they are doing and we are proud of them. They are also transparent in sharing information about the work they do. State governments also call us to do third-party monitoring in works they do. One thing that makes us unique is our offices in the regions where we work. It is not just about making grants; it is making sure that the grants are used for the purposes they are meant for. We are actively involved in that change-making process and it makes our partners more committed. They also tell stories about their works which give us confidence about the support we provide to them.
Peculiarities of working in Nigeria
Every country has its peculiarities. There are particular ways which Nigeria emerged as a nation that has been part of the body polity and culture. There is a colonial history that is still with Nigeria that defines the geography of Nigeria. It put in place geography and structures that marginalised some parts of Nigeria and advantaged others. And there are kinds of practices that reflect the unique set of variables at play in this country. I tend to find that there are more things consistent with global trends here that change the thinking that Nigeria is a difficult case. When you look at China, it has a particular peculiarity because it is a Communist country. And when we look at our 11 regions, we found that it is the only country with a unique system of governance.
Everywhere else we work, it is some form of democracy or republic. Therefore, I don’t see Nigeria’s challenges as products of some problems with Nigeria. I see the manifestation of a colonial history and I see the challenges of ethnic rivalry in Nigeria. We have our own history of ethnic rivalry in the US and other countries are also challenged by ethnic and geographic rivalries. These are not things that are completely unique in the Nigerian context. There was a theory that the outcome of the US election was because a particular group of states was marginalised in the American body polity and the advantage has gone to the East Coast and West Coast. In some parts of India, we have some parts that are disadvantaged also.
However, I don’t want to diminish the palpable challenges that Nigerians feel every day, but if you look at the world, inequality, discrimination, gender bias and prejudice are consistent in all forms. And the way they manifest may have some unique attributes. But a larger challenge is what we work on everywhere. We are not planning to scale down our operation in Nigeria because Africa’s success depends on Nigeria’s success. And if Nigeria is not a successful nation, Africa will not be a successful continent. So, I believe it is premature to declare victory in Nigeria. We can’t take our eyes off the price here. The major challenges here are governance, economy and the need to build strong institutions. All of them are interrelated. Therefore, it can’t be said that this is a particular problem of Nigeria. It is true that it may manifest in governance but solving that problem involves investing in institutions and human capital because young people need to believe in the political process.
Greatest achievement in Nigeria
A lot of people do not know the role Ford Foundation played in the Construction of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, IITA, Ibadan. It was actually Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation that built the institution. Our greatest contribution anywhere we have an office is our contribution to human capital development. A generation of our post-independence leaders often tell us that but for the support of Ford Foundation, they would not have gone to school. There are many stories like that. The people that benefit from us represent a reservoir of human capital that we have made $400 million investment in over 10 years. Our theory of change is that if we invest in people, their communities and countries will benefit from them in the long term. It does position the nation for success.