Former executive secretary of the United Nations (UN) Economic Commission for Africa and one of the continent’s leading development economists, Dr Carlos Lopes, is now also an honorary professor at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance based at the University of Cape Town (UCT). He explains how three mentors set him on course to becoming a staunch pan-Africanist and why he is currently researching African migration.
When Lopes joined the Mandela School, Professor Alan Hirsch, its director, welcomed him by saying, “Dr Lopes has helped to turn around the negative perceptions of African prospects which have prevailed since the 16th century, while retaining a deep understanding of the challenges which face us."
According to Lopes, this balanced approach of optimistic pan-Africanism qualified with clear-eyed pragmatism is born of his choice to be both a scholar and a civil servant. Choices, he says, he may never have made if it wasn’t for the three mentors who shaped his life and thinking.
A firebrand father and a pan-Africanist intellectual
Lopes was born in Canchungo, a small town in north-western Guinea Bissau. “It is a beautiful place: a small town that we called a city,” he says. “This is where I grew up and it was not far from here where my father was imprisoned for his role in the liberation struggle.”
“Dr Lopes has helped to turn around the negative perceptions of African prospects which have prevailed since the 16th century, while retaining a deep understanding of the challenges which face us.”
Lopes was inspired by his father’s idealism. “He was really my first role model. I wanted to be like him. I was a 13-year-old when Guinea Bissau became independent and I soon found myself swept up in the politics of the time.”
Lopes finished his secondary schooling early and by the time he was 17 years old he was working as an aide to a man who was to change his life: Mário de Andrade, the first president of the Angolan MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) who had become a dissident living in Bissau at the time.
“I wanted to go to university but by that time there were no universities in my country for me to attend. Instead Mário became my university.
“He taught me how to do research, how to be precise in my thinking and writing and how to pay attention to the intricacies of language. Really he taught me the curiosity and discipline of the intellectual.”
“Thanks to Mário making me read so widely about Africa, I had already at that time a continental perspective. I was a pan-Africanist without even realising it”
“I went from living in one of the world’s poorest countries to living in one of the richest and it was a shock.”
Eventually, thanks to Andrade’s network, Lopes won a fellowship to study abroad, first economics in Geneva and later at Paris-Sorbonne University where he completed a PhD in history.
“I went from living in one of the world’s poorest countries to living in one of the richest and it was a shock,” Lopes remembers. “I recall walking down a street and seeing a watch in the window of a shop which cost far more than the annual budget of my entire family.”
A rock star of diplomacy
After completing his studies, he returned to Guinea Bissau where he founded a research institute that focused on sociological and economic research in the region. Once he became disillusioned with the political instability in Guinea Bissau, it was time to move. He was approached by the UN Development Programme to become a consultant.
“At first, I travelled around Africa doing research, but by age 28, I found myself working as an economist at the United Nations headquarters in New York.”
Eight years later, Lopes was appointed the UN resident coordinator to Zimbabwe. By 40, he was assistant secretary-general; 12 years later, he became under-secretary-general. “I led a great many institutions during my time at the United Nations, but to my mind my most rewarding role and another piece of good fortune was to work as political director to Kofi Annan, who was my mentor and also my friend.”
“I led a great many institutions during my time at the United Nations, but to my mind my most rewarding role and another piece of good fortune was to work as political director to Kofi Annan, who was my mentor and also my friend.”
Lopes describes his time working with Annan as akin to returning to university. “He was a remarkable man. His level of tact and diplomacy, his ability to arouse empathy and his keen emotional intelligence was astounding,” explains Lopes. “If I had learned a continental perspective from Mário de Andrade, from Kofi Annan I learned to see on a global scale.”
African emigration today
Lopes’ work with Professor Alan Hirsch on the role of narratives in Africa and the research he completed for his newest book, Africa in Transformation: Economic Development in the Age of Doubt, has led him to his current research focus on the place of African migration in narratives about the continent.
“There are a number of phenomena that will increase mobility and provoke emigration from Africa in the near future, such as mass urbanisation and youthful populations. If we don’t correct perspectives about African migration, it will only aggravate the misunderstandings,” he says.
“I am excited to be able to engage with what I consider to be an essential part of the development future for the continent, and to do it from a school such as the Mandela School which is truly inclusive and pan-African.”
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