US think tanks: Aloysius Uche Ordu, the veteran

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa’s voice in Washington, D.C

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Monday, 18 April 2022 10:29, updated on Monday, 2 May 2022 17:50

Aloysius Uche Ordu, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution. All rights reserved.
Aloysius Uche Ordu, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution. All rights reserved.

Aloysius Ordu, a former vice-president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), does not have to think very far back to remember what it was like to be one of the only Africans briefing Washington about the latest developments on the continent.

This is part 2 of a 7-part series

  • Think tank: Brookings Institution, Africa Growth Initiative
  • Title: Director (since August 2020)
  • Programme inception: 2008
  • Country of origin: Nigeria
  • African languages: Igbo, Ikwerre

Until about 18 months ago, the Brookings Institution stood apart in its decision to have experts from the diaspora lead its flagship Africa programme. Since its inception in 2008, the Africa Growth Initiative (AGI) was led by the late Kenyan economist Mwangi Kimenyi, Senegalese-born Amadou Sy and most recently Côte d’Ivoire native Brahima Coulibaly.

“For many, many years, it used to be just AGI that had an African,” says Ordu, who is also a former director of the World Bank. “No disrespect to the middle-aged white guys in charge of Africa in all these places, but for the first time now there are many of us.”

Unexpected role

The recent changes have left Ordu enjoying his unexpected role as the grizzled veteran amid a new crop of Africans taking the Washington think-tank world by storm.

Those complexities and textures of the environment, and (appreciation of) tribal alliances and allegiances, and the multiple languages … Africans bring all that.

“Now others have wised up, as the Jamaicans would say,” the 65 year-old says. “I think it is a groundswell of these think tanks realising that showing up matters. But who shows up also matters, […] so they’re beginning to appoint Africans.”

Ordu calls the new hiring focus a “step in the right direction” after years spent listening to foreign experts “lecture” Africa about its affairs, notably its relationship with China.

“That’s supposed to be the African voice in the nation’s capital and they’re blaming Africans for cozying up to China,” Ordu says. “The question is your approach, right? Because if you go and lecture Africans, then I’m sorry, you may not get our business.”

Among the diaspora’s contributions to the US-Africa dialogue, Ordu argues, is an innate set of African values that AGI identifies in its ‘2022 Foresight Africa report’ as “latent assets” that are cause for economic optimism: a deep-seated belief in merit-based social mobility, heterogeneous societies well-attuned to navigating a globalised world and scepticism towards authority.

“Those complexities and textures of the environment, and [appreciation of] tribal alliances and allegiances, and the multiple languages … Africans bring all that,” he says.

Don’t pigeonhole the diaspora

While Ordu is happy to see Washington finally listen to Africans on African affairs, he also cautions against pigeonholing the diaspora. He instead urges the US to elevate Africans to positions across its government to help share experiences to everyone’s benefit.

“The experience I will bring to Africa, after the opportunity to have seen good practices elsewhere, Africa will be richer for it,” Ordu says. “And the United States would benefit because we come to the table with [our own] experiences.”

Ordu is taking his own advice at Brookings, growing the number of partnerships with African think tanks from 12 to 22. At the beginning of the year, he also launched a new AGI podcast that “celebrates the dynamism and optimism across Africa and explores strategies for broadening the benefits of growth to all people in the region”.

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