On how to be irreverent and other wisdom from Peter da Costa on shifting power in international development

Peter da Costa
Dr. Peter da Costa (center) speaks to Hewlett program officer Sarah Lucas and longtime Hewlett Foundation board member Koh Boon Hwee during a learning session in Kampala, Uganda in September 2017. (Photo credit: Olive Nakatudde)

Sarah Lucas, Program Officer for Evidence-Informed Policymaking at the Hewlett Foundation, and Al Kags, Executive Director of Open Institute in Kenya, remember their friend and colleague Peter da Costa, whose tenacity in celebrating and centering African intellectual power inspires them every day. We join in honoring Peter’s legacy and brilliance on this second anniversary of his untimely passing. (Don’t miss the Africa Leadership Centre’s annual memorial lecture in honor of Peter on September 29, with the title befitting of Peter’s legacy: “Reclaiming kindness and compassion as leadership and institutional qualities in Post Pandemic Africa.”)

This is the sixth in a series on shifting power in international giving and what INGOs, NGOs, and funders can do differently to support and sustain more equitable partnerships. In the introductory piece, Pat Scheid frames the issue of shifting power, and in the second, Joe Asunka shares strategies for funders to foster equitable partnerships. In the third and fourth pieces, Pat Scheid speaks with grantee partners about what happens when communities and their concerns are prioritized from the outset, and how to manage the power dynamics in partnerships between European and African NGOs. In the fifth piece, Sarah Lucas talks with Valerie Traore and Thea Anderson about shifting power in funders’ field-building efforts.

Every day we miss Peter da Costa. A man of towering intellect, enormous heart, mild verbosity, extensive networks, and deep history. Peter was a life-long advocate for shifting intellectual power to Africans for African development. He was a man of intellectual revolution rather than street revolution, but we wonder what Peter would have made of the tumultuous two years since his passing—the global uprising for racial justice that spilled out into streets around the world, the more open and frequent calls to decolonize development, and the global inequities further laid bare by the COVID pandemic and response. Peter left us before we could ever know his thoughts on these topics. But we sat down together in his memory to imagine them.

I always wanted to find out a little bit about how knowledge works and the power dynamics around knowledge. I always felt instinctively that it is an unequal world where science is accepted if it comes from certain parts of the world but that everyone else, including people from where I come from, are recipients of certain types of knowledge and not really actors in actually shaping it.

Peter da Costa

Sarah Lucas: At our memorial for Peter in Nairobi in November 2019, you gave a moving tribute and quoted from his departing words to you. It was a list of mandates or inspirations for how you must live your dream. Can you share some of those with us?

Al Kags: Peter was a powerful influence in my life as I was working to grow our organization. In our conversations, we were always very clear that Open Institute could be a different kind of organization, one that dares do some things that are unconventional, that dares fail because it tried something new or different. He showed me that it was okay to be experimental and that being vastly different was not necessarily a terrible thing.

Among the last things that he sent me was a message with a list of thoughts to live by that I continue to cherish and hold dear. I think they are true for any homegrown African organization that seeks to find ways to develop the continent by asking questions that people don’t like to ask.

Some of the mantras that he sent are explicitly about shifting power, and others are about the power of just being yourself. The full list has 27. Here are a few to start:

  • Don’t be afraid of white people with money—they are just people.
    I think about this a lot lately because I have been having a bit of a monologue on my blog about the idea of decolonizing development and also philanthropy. This was something that we talked about on our monthly lunches and that I continue to think about when I listen to luminaries like Prof. PLO Lumumba, Dr. Arikana Chihombori Quao, the founder of ADDI, or even the South African motivational speaker Vusi Thembekwayo who share these ideals prolifically.
    “The a**-kissing that Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) do so that they ingratiate themselves to donors is very harmful for everyone involved, but them especially,” he said. I contrast that with the browbeating I received a few weeks ago from a group of CSO Chief Executives who told me that I was jeopardizing my organization and my job by taking a bold position on the shifting of power to the African grassroots.

Sarah: One of the things I miss most about Peter is his willingness to call me out when he thought I was overstepping or getting in the way of an organization’s greatness. He was working to shift this funding power dynamic from both directions every day. What more did Peter say to you?

Al: Peter’s list included mandates for how I should be as a person:

  • Keep being authentic.
    The most important lesson Peter taught me in this regard was to keep the questions simple. Being a new entrant to the CSO space and to fundraising, I thought that the “smarter” or more intellectual I sounded the easier to get the funding it will be. Unfortunately, I struggled with this, not particularly drawn to intellectual theorization, and I disclosed it to Peter at my first ever monthly lunch with him in early 2016. “It’s far more valuable to be authentic. You may not raise ridiculous money as many do, but it won’t be short-lived money and it will be fulfilling.” He taught me to ask simple questions in simple language and reassured me that I would have significantly more impact. This is comfortable for me and I still bristle when I am in meetings where ideas become too abstract when discussed too intellectually.
  • Work out often—even walking.
    I walked with Peter twice. We walked in Nairobi for 4km and that was the most stimulating walk for me. He was much fitter than I was, and he had to slow down to accommodate my gait but talking with him for an hour while walking was challenging.
  • Speak truth to (any) power—politely but firmly
    Much of Peter’s thoughts and research revolved about the power relations between people between Africans and westerners, between citizens and governments, between beneficiaries and the “benevolent,” between CSOs and funders, etc. At one point he chided me when I was too timid about disagreeing with him. “I know the power dynamic between us, but you must have the confidence to speak truth to any and all powers. Otherwise, you will lose on every front.”

Sarah: Yes. Peter had a way of elevating all our work, be it work to support citizen voice or work to strengthen policy research institutions, to this higher level of enduring power imbalances in society. This is one reason he was such an important advisor to us and to participating organizations of the Think Tank Initiative. In the research-to-policy space, it is easy to get caught up in whether specific policies are changing thanks to a given research effort, but Peter always brought it up a level. He had tireless conviction around the importance of African scholars and institutions (rather than foreign ones) having the power and influence that matched their intellectual capacities.

Al: Peter also had mandates for how we should be as an organization:

  • As soon as possible, transcend Kenya’s borders (You are the first organization of your kind and you can be a continental one).
    Every time I spoke to Peter about the things we were learning in our work with citizens, he always expressed an urgency that we must find “meaningful scale”that you demonstrate impact in as many places and people but meaningfully and sustainably. We always wanted to replicate and test out our citizen experiences in many other places outside Kenya, and he always egged us on with the proviso, do it meaningfully, not for the dollars. He always expressed quiet disdain at the donors and projects that were funded to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars “for mere bells and whistles and a launch.”
  • Take your time, but also feel the urgency of things. Africa has no time to catch up with the world.
    “Look, be thoughtful. Consider things deeply. But move fast. Africa has no time to catch up with the world and we must push ourselves harder. Especially if we have good and sound ideas.” This was a text message from him in 2017 after a call in which he had deeply questioned me about a project we were doing, wanting to see if we had thought of everything. I miss even these inquisitions, even though they made me very uncomfortable. But I do miss the discussion and the think-through.
  • Go toward the hard questions (people tend to run from them) but don’t intellectualize them.
    The hard questions are simpleoften child-like. When Peter would ask them in that quizzical unassuming way, I found myself able to craft whole programs of activities around them. “Why don’t people attend public participation meetings?” “What do farmers really need?”
  • Monitor. Evaluate. Not in the way donors want, but do it for real—for yourself, for your own lessons.
    This one is a hard one because many donors have very specific ways that they want to do Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL). Often, we have found that when we do MEL for ourselves, we adapt faster and better. I once showed Peter a report we did for a large donor. “I’d be interested to see the real lessons. I imagine they fit in a text message or a short email.” They did.
  • Partnerships are important.
    “Al, Have you met XXXV? You people look like you should know each other and do something together.” Peter often introduced me to people thus. What’s even more interesting is that he had a knack for reintroducing people afresh. “I know you have met, but you see they are doing this and that and it aligns with you so I think you should talk, see what happens.”

Sarah: Yes! I met so many great people through Peter. More importantly, he connected our grantee partners with people that would become enduring collaborators. He had enormous networks and was a one-man field-builder, strengthening ties across organizations and people. Can you share a few more of Peter’s mandates to you?

Al: These last two are more personal in nature.

  • Hug people genuinely or don’t hug them at all.
    We didn’t really hug much, but we had long handshakes that sometimes lasted as long as the greeting. “How are you? How’s the family?”
  • Always be irreverent. Don’t lose that quality about you.
    Irreverence is the idea of questioning why things are the way they areeven if there is an established system and structure. “It’s the only way true change happens,” he said to me at Buntwani in Dar es Salaam in 2017. Since he sent me these rules, this message gives me the most courage.

Sarah: Thank you so much for sharing these, both at Peter’s memorial in 2019, and again today. I know you kept some other items from this list close to your chest. Are you willing to share a few today?

Al: I did keep some of his mantras close to my chest and there are a number that I am unlikely to ever share with anyone. One that is very alive in my mind, however, as we begin to be an African (not just Kenyan) organization, is this:

  • Figure out how to decolonize development in Africa because neocolonialism is real, and aid is its real vehicle.
    This is not something that I am attuned to, even though there are many times that I have had conversations in which I have wondered why so much aid has come into Africa and yet, so little has the pace of development been. I read Dambisa Moyo’s book, Dead Aid, and a story she tells about the “aid effectiveness macro-micro paradox” has stayed with me. As I start talking about it more, I learn more.
Excerpt from Dambisa Moyo's Dead Aid

"There’s a mosquito net maker in Africa. He manufactures around 500 nets a week. He employs ten people, who (as with many African countries) each have to support upwards of fifteen relatives. However hard they work, they can’t make enough nets to combat the malaria-carrying mosquito. Enter vociferous Hollywood movie star who rallies the masses, and goads Western governments to collect and send 100,000 mosquito nets to the affected region, at a cost of a million dollars.

The nets arrive, the nets are distributed, and a ‘good’ deed is done. With the market flooded with foreign nets, however, our mosquito net maker is promptly put out of business. His ten workers can no longer support their 150 dependents (who are now forced to depend on handouts), and one mustn’t forget that in a maximum of five years, the majority of the imported nets will be torn, damaged and of no further use.

This is the micro–macro paradox. A short-term efficacious intervention may have few discernible, sustainable long-term benefits. Worse still, it can unintentionally undermine whatever fragile chance for sustainable development may already be in play. Certainly when viewed in close-up, aid appears to have worked. But viewed in its entirety it is obvious that the overall situation has not improved and is indeed worse in the long run."

Peter often took the view in our conversations that a real lasting development system will be the one that will fundamentally be built from a homegrown strategy and that required a child-like questioning of the situation—one that asks the most basic of questions based on common sense and not any sophisticated reasoning, which often had invisibly flawed precepts.

I have many questions that rage in my head around decolonization of development and the threads that rise from there to decolonizing aid, Africanizing the grand strategy, and so on.

Sarah: What do you think Peter meant by “be irreverent?” How do you live that in your work?

Al: Many organizations find themselves feeling so beholden to their sources of funding that they are unable to argue and say “no” or take fundamentally opposite views from their donors when the moment calls for it. The risk of being defunded is often too great. This is tied to the notion of “being afraid of white people with money.” The nature of race in Africa is that the Caucasian is still placed at the front of the queue, especially where ideas are concerned. It is kind of like how an African waiter will prioritize a white guest over a black one or how a white customer will be allowed to jump the queue in independent Africa. “The thing is,” I was once told by an askari (security guard) who oversaw a parking lot in a hospital, “They tip better because they have more money than Africans.”

But this insidious notion permeates the development space as one often observes ideas that will not work in the African context being implemented by local civil society organizations (CSOs) just to accommodate the money—or worse yet, the maddening negative competitive practices that many CSOs engage in to endear themselves to (usually western) donors.

At OI, we are okay with saying things as we see them, even though it may be unpopular to do them and the advice of a great African man—Peter da Costa, spurred us on.

Sarah: If Peter had lived through what we are living through now—intense periods of disinformation and distrust, a global uprising around racial justice, deep questioning about racism and colonialism in the field of development—what might he have added to the list?

Al: I really don’t know. His mind worked at a different atmospheric level than mine. What I might add to the list is: Recognize that the insecurities that arise from otherness are not just African (as termed to be “ethnic” or “tribal”). Rather, they are global, and we all have something to contribute to build models that fight these insecurities of otherness and build inclusiveness and tolerance.

Who would have thought that the US, that fabled paragon of democracy, would be as polarized and bigoted a society as it is now? It isn’t just about race there, but it is also about the Democrat tribe vs. the Republican one. Who would have thought that Europe would see such high levels of xenophobia—and not just against people of color but even against other white people from Eastern Europe who are spoken of as inferior.

Otherness is a primitive part of humanity—one of those hard-coded ideas in our psyche that needs us to consciously fight it.

I also think Peter might agree with me that being too politically correct often comes in the way of solving a problem and instead promotes the performance (as in drama) of caring and seeming to solve the problem. In a meeting today, I learned a new phrase: “People living with poverty” instead of “poor people.” It is to me a clear example of such political correctness that lends itself more to the drama of respecting people and their circumstances, and perhaps betraying the helplessness of doing something about poverty. Of course, the thinking is not flawed—“poor people” is identity while “people experiencing or with poverty” is about circumstances which can be overcome. Does that then mean that we can’t say “rich people” and instead “people with wealth?”

Sarah: Words are power, so it is important that we interrogate the words we use to describe others’ experiences. But it seems there is no one answer. At the Hewlett Foundation, we’ve had conversations with Trabian Shorters, whose work on asset-framing encourages us to describe people by their aspirations and assets rather than their deficits (e.g. being “poor”). And we’ve had conversations with Rev. Dr. William Joseph Barber, Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign who argues you can’t solve a problem unless you have the courage to name it.

Thank you so much for sharing these stories, Al. They are such a testament to how Peter’s legacy lives on in you personally and in Open Institute. I imagine his legacy lives on in the hearts and institutions of many of our grantee partners, to whom he was completely devoted. And I know for sure that his wisdom continues to guide us at the Hewlett Foundation, including as we rethink our grantmaking strategies. For example, our recently-refreshed Global Reproductive Equity strategy prioritizes an explicit commitment to equity and power shifting, both in who and how we fund. Peter had a beautiful way of both pushing us and inspiring us; asking very tough questions and helping us find the answers; both calling us on our ignorance and helping us fill in the gaps in our knowledge. He was a consummate intellectual with a deeply caring heart. What an honor and privilege it is to have known him, and to carry his voice and wisdom with us every day.

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