‘Africans, despite a lot of adversity, retain humanity at their core’ says Frannie Léautier

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Tuesday, 30 November 2021 12:43

A coffee break is an ideal meeting time for someone as quietly frenetic as Frannie Léautier. At the end of a long day of her virtual meetings in several different time zones, we connect via the ubiquitous Zoom, sipping our East African coffee as we work through my lengthy roster of questions.

It is a week to the UN General Assembly, where African representatives will be trying to move continental concerns about climate change, conflict and vaccine nationalism up the international agenda.

How best to do that? A good strategy, Léautier argues, would be for Africa to go to New York and to the climate summit (COP26) with some clear trade-offs aimed at the G20, the club of the world’s biggest economies.

“Gabon is a good example,” says Léautier, citing the reforms that limit timber exports in favour of local processing. It is a viable new model, she says, as it has “that circular economy benefit: you get the job creation, and you get the reforestation benefit […] and because they could crowd-in private investments, that allowed them to use the derisking role of the state.”

The DRC, with the world’s largest expanse of rainforest, is looking at a similar plan. Combined with its hydropower projects and the world’s biggest reserves of cobalt (used for electric car batteries), the country could become a green-energy and biodiversity superpower. That would require heroic amounts of political will from President Félix Tshisekedi’s  government.

Transitional fuel for Africa

Another model which Léautier points to is Seychelles’ green bonds, which raise finance to protect the island state against rising sea levels. In the same vein, regional giant South Africa has proposed a ‘debt-for-climate’ swap to raise $10bn and enable its Eskom power utilities to replace coal-burning power stations with low- or no-carbon alternatives.

There is also the matter of natural justice. Oil and gas producers in Africa as well as the Middle East face pressure from rich Western states – the same nations that developed their economies on the back of coal and oil – to keep their fossil fuels in the ground.

Léautier says this needs a more imaginative approach – political economy mixed with an understanding of technology: “I was very interested to hear [Nigeria’s vice-president Yemi] Osinbajo’s comments on gas as the transitional fuel for Africa.”

She says this could work “from an engineering and operational point of view” and it “helps Africa leap-frog into a hydrogen economy, because it’s roughly the same technology that’s needed. You can even transport hydrogen and natural gas in the same pipeline.”

Although Léautier will not be standing on any podium at the UN in New York, she is a leading member of that unofficial band of African intellectuals and practitioners whose discreet counsel is valued by governments and companies.

Her resumé – chief of staff to the president of the World Bank, senior vice-president at the African Development Bank (AfDB) and executive secretary at the UN/World Bank’s African Capacity Building  Foundation – partly explains the busy calendar. Then there is her academic story: a doctorate in civil engineering, and teaching stints at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as Harvard’s Kennedy School.

One of the things I found quite amazing going from the World Bank to the AfDB was how much closer to the reality on the ground the AfDB is, but how much less muscle it had to get the solutions […]

Both sides of Léautier’s career make her sceptical about creating a new climate-focused international institution. Instead, she backs the idea of the African Union having a seat at the G20 alongside South Africa, to reinforce the continent’s bargaining power.

It is still necessary, Léautier says, to find ways for the multilateral banks and institutions to work better with the regional and national ones. That same approach might help preempt a wave of debt crises, if creditors and borrowers could coordinate better.

She says: “One of the things I found quite amazing going from the World Bank to the AfDB was how much closer to the reality on the ground the AfDB is, but how much less muscle it had to get the solutions […], therefore marrying these two is where the impact would be multiplied.”

Chances of transformation

Léautier’s history, growing up in northern Tanzania near Mount Kilimanjaro and then studying engineering in Dar es Salaam, mirrors that combination of groundedness and an international view. Today, she is hopeful about Tanzania’s chances of transformation under President Samia Suluhu Hassan.

Having stepped in after the death of her predecessor, John Magufuli, in March, Hassan has to “figure out what she can change quickly and what has to take time. On the health side, there are things she was able to do quickly, like wearing a mask [in public] – now people are getting vaccinated and there’s cooperation with international entities.”

However, it could be a long march for Hassan. “She can shuffle the cabinet, which she’s done, and she can reprioritise the budget […], but changing perceptions and attitudes is slow.” Reforms could speed up after Tanzania’s next election if Hassan vies for the presidency. Léautier says she would enthusiastically support this, arguing that Hassan could surprise people in the same way as President Lyndon B. Johnson did in the US, when he pushed through some of the country’s most radical reforms after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Tanzania has a history of women pioneers, such as freedom fighter Bibi Titi Mohammed, who inspired the post-independence generation of activists. Mentoring successive generations of women is critical, Léautier says.

Africa’s soft power

In these semi-pandemic days, Léautier limits her travel between her base in Paris and the Kigali offices of SouthBridge Investments, a financial advisory firm of which she is CEO. We end our coffee meeting with some musings on Africa’s soft power – its ability to project its culture far beyond the limits of its current economic rankings.

“Africans, despite a lot of adversity, retain humanity at their core,” says Léautier. “If you can empathise with people, which they call ubuntu, that gives you an opportunity to learn from others and spread your own way of thinking […]. It’s very important for a culture to absorb other ideas.” That might explain the global boom in interest in African music, books, dance and film, but it is also a neat summation of Léautier’s own trajectory.

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