UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Conversation with Youba Sokona

12 January 2018

Youba Sokona

Dr Youba Sokona is an Honorary Professor at STEaPP. He visited the Department on 6 and 7 December and had a number of meetings with faculty and students. In one of the conversations with Dr Julius Mugwagwa and Prof Yacob Mulugetta, he shared his thoughts as follows:

1. Youba, you have been thinking and working on energy, climate change and development issues for a long time now, what motivates you to keep going?

In reality my work and focus have all the time been on development in Africa. Development is complex and complicated in particular for Africa and other low-income regions as you have to deal with a multiplicity of intertwined issues - all high priority and important - with constraints imposed from the African continent and from outside the African continent, both reinforcing each other. An adequate approach to dealing with such complex systems is energy access as a strategic entry point. Energy is a central prerequisite for development. It is a key requirement for adequate access to basic education, health care and food; for industrialisation, for transport, infrastructure, for wellbeing and as a building block for dealing with poverty and delivering benefits of development. Everything human beings engage with and/or need requires energy. Unfortunately, this is not yet well understood by policy makers in most developing countries. Climate change is another entry point for approaching development issues - fully informed by scientific knowledge on climate change - particularly for a continent like Africa due to the fact that the continent has the advantage of being a late comer on the road to development and has not yet experienced any lock-in effect with high anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. Africa is thus open to exploring new ideas and new avenues for making development more sustainable and climate compatible. Energy, climate change and development, all require enduring and long term effort. This is part of my motivation.

2. Reflecting on when you started off, which issues still under discussion are a surprise to you? 

Poverty, capacity building and access (for energy, food and health) - these are not new issues, yet they remain persistent challenges. Lots of studies have been done on these, and in my view one of the fundamental problems is that we are addressing symptoms and not the root cause of problems. Lack of development is the problem, the core issue. Development should come first. There needs to be agreement to move away from addressing symptoms, across the board from funders, agenda-setters and decision-makers at global and national levels and among the implementers. This means having radical structural transformation in the form of industrialisation that allows countries to move from being only raw material producers to higher up the value chain as part of efforts to capture greater value. This will not be easy since much of the space is already occupied. Africa though has the advantage of huge resources, both human and physical, that it can harness. But Africa has to move fast since the window is closing.  A leadership that is in ‘sleep mode’ can only feed into negative spirals such as the persistent focus on high levels of youth unemployment, migration, destitution and destabilisation.  When focus shifts to the core issue of development, even the kind of data or evidence we collect will change and where we spend available resources too. Local voices are indispensable in this endeavour.

3. These areas, climate change in particular, are fraught with conflicting ideologies, systems and models. What is the way forward on this in your view?

From an African perspective, but equally for other developing regions - as I said before - the urgent issue is to bring development back to the centre and making sure the required development is compatible with climate change. Indeed, there are too many players, and there is a historical logic to it (good or bad as it may be depending on one’s standpoint). For example, there have been arguments that the proliferation of NGOs in the 1980s and 1990s dismantled and severely weakened the public sector in the global south. Of course, the political elite in Africa played its part in the process as it handed over power, and in some cases even colluded with those who were intent on ‘disciplining’ Africa to their version of adjustment, which later came to be known as the Washington Consensus. The focus now should be to strengthen the public service and making it more responsible, efficient and effective; like what you see in the global north and emerging economies where the public/civil service is generally very strong. There is a correlation between strength of institutions and the confidence that stakeholders have in long-term planning efforts and outputs. It is only after this that the private sector can play its part of the game effectively.

4. Issues of capacity-building and political will are mentioned a lot, for example regarding climate change mitigation and energy access. What’s your take on these issues?

In Africa, political will existed in the 1960s when most countries gained political independence, but this period of great optimism got eroded by economic structural adjustment programmes and in some cases ‘political experimentation’ which later backfired or got corrupted by the ineptitude of indigenous leadership, leading to internal conflict in some countries. In my view, political will is slowly re-emerging in individual countries like Rwanda, Ghana, Ethiopia, Tanzania and at the African Union level. It is a critical prerequisite for any form or type of positive societal transformation to happen, including tackling climate change and ensuring energy access for development. While political statements at different levels can be a good sign of political will, beyond that I always say there are four fundamental requirements: system leadership; strong institutions; resources; and programmes that are addressing pressing urgent societal needs and longer term developmental imperatives. Capacity building sits at the centre of these pillars, and is a process that requires long-term commitment and enduring effort. Certain historical trajectories have shaped and locked-in the way these issues are handled across different countries. I would also add that western countries should not see assertive countries in the global south as adversaries, like what happened in the early post-independence era, but rather welcome this new form of self-actualization. It is a win-win situation as it would mean countries are trying their best to deliver meaningful results and contribute to global development goals.

5. What is the one output from all your policy work that you are most proud of?

We offered energy planning training to many young African energy administrators, energy professionals, research institutions and practitioners from 1985 to 1993. We viewed this as an instance of ‘getting down to business’, and being concrete, with a view to showing policy makers the need to build from the bottom-up by understanding their reality. In the words of Paolo Freire, ‘we build the road by walking’ - we were trying to create the space for energy dialogue by bringing together young Africans from different countries to interact with others, learn from these dialogues, and begin to piece together their specific reality, and imagine their country’s or region’s energy future. While that training could not be sustained due to financial constraints or in fact lack of political will or support, some of the beneficiaries of that training are still playing active and key roles in energy matters in Africa and globally today.

6. If you were to give a piece of advice to policy scholars, what would that be?

Funding is a key part of what gets done or not done, but a scholar should always maintain his/her integrity. I recommend what I call the slow onset strategy … within the big funded agenda, find a way of developing your own, complementary agenda which will allow you to stand out, so that you do not just become part of history, but you can also create history. Having said that, let me end by saying that STEaPP’s contribution to the development of critical and agile policy scholars who are able to work on key technology-related policy issues across the world is highly commendable. Synergistic partnerships with institutions in the global south providing similar training or utilising such scholars should be urgently explored to support countries addressing Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and Climate Change.

Image: Dr Youba Sokona at a panel discussion on the organization of work and production, Flickr Photo 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) © Marcel Crozet / ILO