Iweala, CEO of The Africa Center, discusses the experiences and identities that led him to narrative work, how narratives are formed and how we can shape them in the development and climate justice realm, and what his definition of climate justice means for Africa.
Uzodinma Iweala is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, and medical doctor. As the CEO of The Africa Center, he is dedicated to promoting a new narrative about Africa and its Diaspora. Uzodinma was the CEO, Editor-In-Chief, and co-Founder of Ventures Africa magazine, a publication that covers the evolving business, policy, culture, and innovation spaces in Africa. His books include Beasts of No Nation, a novel released in 2005 to critical acclaim and adapted into a major motion picture; Our Kind of People, a non-fiction account of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria released in 2012; and Speak No Evil (2018), a novel about a queer first-generation Nigerian-American teen living in Washington, D.C. His short stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications like The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, and The Paris Review among others. Uzodinma was also the founding CEO of the Private Sector Health Alliance of Nigeria, an organization that promotes private sector investment in health services and health innovation in Nigeria. He sits on the boards of the Sundance Institute, The International Rescue Committee, and the African Development Bank’s Presidential Youth Advisory Group. A graduate of Harvard University and the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and a Fellow of The Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.
- Electric vehicles (EVs)
- As Rose points out, the history of EVs goes back a lot farther than most people realize!
- The Chevy Bolt EV Rose references.
- Norway’s EV market has sharply risen in recent years.
- Rose’s commentary in Quartz Africa on what the EV revolution will look like in Africa.
- Rose’s recent Op-Ed for The Standard on how Kenya should focus its EV strategy.
Uzodinma Iweala Interview:
- Uzodinma’s (Uzo’s) Africa Center bio, where he is CEO.
- Uzo’s Wikipedia page.
- Uzo’s novels.
- The Africa Center mission.
- The works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and Bessie Head that Uzo references to regarding the multiplicity of narratives.
- Chinua Achebe and the African Writers Series Uzo grew up reading, and his example of the importance of platform for narrative.
- The Star Trek Tricorder Uzo references as an example of how we’ve innovated in the tech space beyond historical imagination.
- Our collaborative work with The Africa Center on climate justice; including our Reframing Climate Justice Paper, and our series of COP events.
- The historical emissions inequity Uzo references.
- The $100 billion per year climate finance assistance commitment made by wealthier countries to put toward climate mitigation and adaptation in low-income countries.
- Financial Times piece Uzo wrote about international redlining.
- The origin of redlining in the U.S.
- The Ta-Nehisi Coates article, “The Case for Reparations,” Uzo references about redlining.
- Western pressure to exclude various options for energy futures in low income countries that Uzo is likening redlining to on the international stage.
- US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Uzo were college roommates at Harvard University.
- Idris Elba acted in the critically- acclaimed movie adaptation of Uzo’s novel, Beasts of No Nation.
- Uzo’s mother, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the Director-General of the WTO, which sparked two wonderful social media trends #ankaraarmy, and the #belikengozi challenge to celebrate her then-new role.
START (UZODINMA IWEALA INTERVIEW)
ROSE: I’m Rose Mutiso in London.
KATIE: And I’m Katie Auth in Washington, and this is High Energy Planet, the podcast from the Energy for Growth Hub about new ideas to solve global energy poverty.
ROSE: On today’s show we talk with Uzodinma Iweala, CEO of the Africa Center in New York City, and award-winning writer, filmmaker, and medical doctor.
KATIE: We’ll ask Uzo about his mission to create and promote new narratives on Africa and the African diaspora, why he thinks U.S. climate policy overseas might amount to a new kind of redlining, and why the Africa Center and the Hub are working together to reframe climate justice.
ROSE: But first Katie and I get amped up about electric vehicles in Africa.
KATIE: All that coming up on this episode of High Energy Planet.
KATIE: It’s time for Amped Up, when we talk about what we can’t stop thinking about right now in energy and development. And this week we’re obsessing about electric vehicles.
ROSE: So Katie, this is a long-time obsession of mine. So EVs have an oddly fascinating history. I’m sorry [LAUGHTER], I think all of our obsessions are so nerdy but I can’t help it, can’t help it. Anyway, so EVs have a totally fascinating history, and the first EVs were introduced over a century ago before getting totally displaced by internal combustion engines. And a lot of people don’t appreciate this, like, the history goes so far back. Anyway, so fast-forward it’s 2010. So when Tesla was just a small startup and Chevy Volt was – you know, first hit the market–I don’t know if anyone remembers that; that was the EV in the early days was the Chevy Volt–anyway, so I was a grad student research materials for next-generation batteries. And so very much in the kind of [quote, unquote] “EV general innovation research development space.” But, you know, the general feeling back then was that EVs had a really long way to go on the path to mass adoption.
KATIE: And yet, you know, here we are a mere decade later and you are no longer a grad student, you’re a podcast host.
ROSE: [LAUGHTER] I (inaudible), Katie.
KATIE: And EVs are, you know, not only the future of transportation, but increasingly its present. In Norway, for example, EV market share went from just 1% to 65% of market share in just ten years. But obviously assuming that what works in small Scandinavian countries will work everywhere is almost always a mistake. How is the EV market going to play out in African markets?
ROSE: Katie, if only we could all be in Norway–we’d have nice hair and nice fashions, [LAUGHTER] be very outdoorsy.
KATIE: Hey, we have nice hair, and we’re outdoorsy. I left out the fashion part, yeah.
ROSE: Good one, well done. We don’t want to commit – we don’t want to tell lies on the show. Anyway, so there’s no doubt that the EV revolution is coming to Africa. And, you know, one important difference to, say, geographies like Norway is that, you know, the biggest area of opportunity in the African market right now is in the two- and three-wheeler space, particularly motorcycles, which are actually the fastest-growing vehicle class in most African countries. So yes, things will look different, but, you know, EVs are going to have some role on the continent.
KATIE: So given that African grids are struggling to handle existing demand, do you think they can actually absorb EVs?
ROSE: You know, the grid is probably the most important constraint to EV growth in Africa, and not enough people are talking about this. So even in countries where power supply outstrips demand–which is quite a number of countries in Africa actually, including Kenya–(inaudible) grids would really struggle to accommodate even pretty modest EV loads. So if we’re serious about capturing the EV opportunity then we have to invest in grid infrastructure in a big way, which is unfortunately not kind of, you know, the super sexy flashy thing that you want to say in an EV ad.
KATIE: But it’s the perfect way to end this, because I feel like most of our conversations end up being strong calls for grid investment, so this fits the bill.
ROSE: (Inaudible) listeners are playing invest-in-grid-infrastructure bingo when they listen to our podcast [LAUGHTER].
KATIE: If you have an energy or development obsession, good or bad, tweet it to us at @EnergyforGrowth and we’ll include it in an upcoming episode. Coming up we talk with Uzo about the power of narrative change.
ROSE: So Uzo, welcome to High Energy Planet. It’s so great to have you.
UZODINMA: I Rose, thank you for having me.
ROSE: You have been next-level for us, just such a different, unique individual compared to the kind of nerdy policy-wonk types that, you know, we engage with. So you’re not even forty, you’ve been a medical doctor, an award-winning novelist, an essayist, a magazine editor, a filmmaker, you’ve worked in the healthcare industry, and now you’re the CEO of the Africa Center in New York, which combines art, culture, and policy. And so as we were preparing for this episode we were just struck by how much you’ve accomplished and on such a winding path. And so what do you think is the through-line? Like, how do you make sense of it all? Like, (inaudible), you know, who and/or what is Uzo? Like, how do you bring it together?
UZODINMA: Well, first I’ll say thank you both to you and Katie for having me, and also I feel like we’re about to start the therapy session. Because the truth is, you know, I don’t know if I know. I mean, I think there’s one thing that really does matter to me a lot, and that is it’s really narratives about who we are as black people and as Africans. And I think, you know, in all the things that I’ve done, whether it’s working in the health space, you know, as a doctor, whether – you know, or a public health person, whether it’s, you know, the magazine space, or the Africa Center, and then certainly in my writing and my artistic or creative work, it really is about what are the stories that exist, how can I be as a creative person party to putting and constructing those stories in a way that, you know, allows my understandings, or allows my curiosity about the world to show through? And then of course in the work that I do that’s maybe more – I don’t know if “technical” is the right word or “less creative,” it is about the larger structural narratives I think that we encounter in the world. And, you know, you can attack that as a creative person, and there’s space for that. And then sometimes I think you really do have to attack it from a systems perspective. And that’s where I think, you know, an institutional framework, or building institutions, or trying to change institutions is really a part of narrative-shaping. And that’s how I connect it all. This is what I tell my parents.
KATIE: So let’s dig into some of those narratives in a little more specificity. Because I know you’ve talked in the past about how growing up in the U.S. you were exposed to a lot of skewed or damaging narratives about Africa and African people, and that that discomfort kind of drove a lot of your current focus. So what were some of the specific narratives that you most wanted to change?
UZODINMA: Yeah and, you know, in terms of how I grew up I think maybe it’s important to start there. You know, my parents are Nigerian, and, you know, my mom came to the U.S. in the ’70s, my dad a little bit later. And, you know, we – I have an older sister and two younger brothers. Older sister was born in England, the three of us boys were all born in Washington D.C., and so we grew up in the D.C. area, you know, in the ’80s, ’90s. You know, so you can think about what – like, what exactly that means, right? And you think about growing up in a city that’s majority black, but in predominantly white areas of the city, like, going to those kinds of schools and what you’re exposed to. Like, looking at, you know, where your parents work and the environments that they work in, and the stories that they’re bringing home from work about the way that people speak about the continent of Africa, or the way that people treat black people. You know, and then what you begin to see with your own eyes, what you experience, for example, on the playground at a predominantly white Catholic school where people, you know, will make it a point to tell you that your name is impossible to pronounce, or will mispronounce it on purpose, or will… You know, that’s all part and parcel of trying to shape you as a black person or as an African person in this world. And, you know, I don’t need to repeat what so many people have said, but I’ll repeat it, which is that it starts very early that (inaudible). You know, and it takes – you know, it took a while for me to understand and connect that to story. But I think that happened for me, you know, when exposed to a lot of African writers, so that whole post-colonial side, if we’ll call it that, the (inaudible) and whatnot. You know, I grew up with a house – in a house full of their books, right? And so on one hand you’re being exposed to all the things that, you know, little young American kids are told are the pinnacle of literary creation, and those stories often exclude or shape, again, blackness in a way that I’m, like, but this doesn’t jive with the whole other set of books, or whole other set of stories, or whole other perspective that I’m seeing from going to Nigeria to visit relatives, what I’m reading in these books when people (set that up). And so that tension, that (flash), you know, happens very, very early, and it does take time to be able to crystalize and to understand what it is that you’re experiencing, what it is you’re doing, and then to find your own path in that construction, whether it’s you’re thinking about deconstructing it or reshaping it, whatever the word you may use is. I would say that that’s how it starts. And so, you know, as a young black person, like, I can go through the – all the things that I experienced that I think are in common with so many young black folks (inaudible) states. As a young African kid, or the child of immigrants, like, there’s so many things about misperceptions of where I’m from. You know, “Do you sleep in mud huts?” like, “Have you seen a lion?” I actually have never seen a lion [LAUGHTER] in the wild.
ROSE: Oh, we need to take you to Kenya, we’ll fix that – we’ll fix that.
UZODINMA: I do – I do, yeah.
ROSE: Yeah, and I think just digging deeper in this kind of – continuing the conversation about narratives, you know, you’ve stated the state of mission as CEO of Africa Center is to change these unhelpful narratives about Africa and the diaspora, recognizing how complex they are and multidimensional. So just to try and make this a little bit more concrete in our minds and the minds of the listener, so, you know, what do you think it really takes to change the narrative? What are we aiming for? What does success look like? Have you seen an example of this, kind of given your, like, vast body of work?
UZODINMA: Ooh, the concrete just bane of my existence. I mean, what does it take to change a narrative? I mean, to be very honest with you, like, I’ll just, you know – and not to be flip – I mean, lots, and lots, and lots, and lots of money. Like, it really does. I mean, I think – you know, so I think that’s one thing. And I think it – you know, oftentimes we try to sort of, you know, I don’t know, like, tiptoe around the fact that this is – it’s a numbers game. It’s a cash game, right? I think the second thing there, and it’s closely related, is it’s about access and it’s about platforms. So, you know, I think more than anything you have seen narratives shift as people who have traditionally been locked out of spaces that create or generate those narratives are able to step in or move in and control the creation of those stories. You know, again I think it’s really easy to go back to the Hollywood example or to take publishing or, you know, the kinds of stories and books that are published about the continent of Africa. As more and more African writers from various parts of the continent, from various generations, various orientations, (inaudible), whatever, have gotten access to international publishing platforms, you know, there has been questioning. I wouldn’t say that the narrative has shifted completely, but people have had to question the sort of tried-and-true narratives that they grew up with, right–you know, “You live in a mud hut, you,” I don’t know, like, “pet lions and ride giraffes,” like, whatever it is–you know, to something that is entirely more sophisticated in terms of understanding, but also more true in its complexity. You know, so you can read Chimamanda, or you can read Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or you can read, I don’t know, Bessie Head, whoever, and you’re getting a much fuller picture of the struggles, and of the joys, and of the world-shaping from that perspective. And so that access I think is a really, really important thing. And then in addition to that, or very much hand-in-hand with that is platform. You know, I think Chinua Achebe did it best when he started the African Writers Series. He was, like, “Okay, so my book got published, Things Fall Apart is an international success, but I can’t stop there. It’s not just about my book and the story that I’m telling you, it’s about all these other individuals.” How many young African writers of today benefit from that decision to platform a whole bunch of other writings so that we have a whole canon that we can work with, and that the rest of the world can work with? So I think those things are exceedingly important when it comes to this idea of narrative-shift and projection. You know, and then within the context of the continent, which obviously is something that I care very deeply about, you start thinking about media platforms who have international messaging about who we are to ourselves. Which I think, you know, there’s a multiplicity of new speakers all over the continent, in each country, some more reliable than others as is the case anywhere and everywhere in the world. What I don’t think we necessarily have a handle on that I think other folks have gotten right and have done to our detriment, right, is the ability to project internationally the stories that we want. And I say that “we want” very deliberately, right? Because it is about shaping an environment; it’s not just about putting stories out there. There is a project, you know, that comes with shaping. The BBC is about shaping your worldview, right? So is Deutsche (World), so is Russia Today, so is CNN, Fox News. You know, like, it’s about shaping. And I think we’re not as thoughtful about the external shaping that will impact our environment as we should be.
KATIE: And thinking about foreign aid, which is a space that both Rose and I have worked in in various capacities, it’s definitely built on certain narratives about the U.S. and the role that we want to see for ourselves in the world, and power dynamics. And a lot of it is quite damaging. What kind of new narratives would you like to see in the development space?
UZODINMA: Sure. I mean, I don’t know how radical this perspective is, you know? But I would say first and foremost when it comes to that, when we’re talking about the development space, we’re talking about aid, I think the thing for me goes back to questioning those very terms, right? So first and foremost is – and, you know, I try as much as possible not to say “development” or “developed world” and “developing world,” because I think those terms are very detrimental. So let’s just be honest about what we’re talking about. And I think that’s very – that’s – the problem starts from there and from that construct is what I would say. And, you know, so when you start thinking about it in that sense, right, like, we’re on a – we are – the whole development sort of, like, aid whatever, like, you’re on a journey as a black person, an African person; you’re never going to – like, you’re not going to (win it) if you agree to that framework. That’s the first thing I think needs to be said. I think the second thing then comes from the way that resources have been moved about in the world. So if you start with the understanding that this is a lesser (inaudible), right, and you have every right to their resources, including their labor, to extract that for our benefit of the (inaudible), right, then, you know, like, everything is built from there, right? So you will – you don’t – you know, there’s no consideration of wrong, really and truly. And I think even to today there isn’t really a consideration that anything that was done to put this together was wrong. The issue that I have is that when it comes to certain things… Like, people like to think that that aid thing is solving the problem, and it’s not solving the problem that they think it is solving, right? That’s all I want to say in that situation. It is solving a problem, but it is not the one that we all think it’s solving. And it’s not designed to solve that problem. It’s not designed to solve the problem – the fundamental problem of inequality. I would actually say that it’s designed in many ways to perpetuate it, because it’s designed to perpetuate a power structure that’s particularly advantageous for certain people.
KATIE: I mean, it sounds like you’re saying, like, step one is not to burn the whole thing down but just to be honest about what we’re actually doing and why, and that that kind of shifts the conversation to a space where you can actually start to figure out how to make it better.
UZODINMA: Right. And then that’s step one. And step two is to recognize and remember that as much as possible people want you to think that narratives are fixed, right–that’s number one–that narratives are – that they’re somehow – like, you – I don’t know what the right word I’m looking for is, but that they’re objective is the other thing. And, you know, it’s just like people want you to think that, like, nations have been nations because they’ve always been nations, which we all know is not true, right? So the Chinese example is, again, very instructive, right? You would like to think that that narrative is fixed. Like, this is a place where people are (back-watered). That narrative is not fixed, right, and they have proved that to the whole world, which is, “Yeah, we were in a tough spot before, and now we’re not in a tough spot.” You know, like, and the West is finding – you know, and finding it very uncomfortable. Yes, we were predominant before, and oh wait, hold up, maybe now we’re not so predominant. And, you know, the continent of Africa, I think we need to really take that – you know, like, we have been in a tough spot for quite some time, but that doesn’t – and this is the thing that I think is really damaging, is to think and to sort of to take on that idea that you will always be in a tough spot. We won’t, right? Things will shift. Like, ideas of what it means to be African whatever, whatever will shift. Like, ideas of the continent’s ability to project power, ideas about power itself will shift, and that’s all going to change the world that we live in. I think we don’t talk about that as much, which also very much reframes this discussion about development, and reframes the discussion about aid, and reframes the discussion about resources.
KATIE: Awesome. Thanks Uzo.
ROSE: Yeah, this is all so interesting. I think I’m even tempted to push the conversation further. Maybe allow me to ask one more question, because I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I just read a fantastic essay kind of reflecting on sixty years since Frantz Fanon–I can’t pronounce his name correctly–but sixty years since he published Wretched of the Earth, foreshadowing in many ways a lot of what we have now, including the kind of – what I’m thinking of as the kind of [quote, unquote] “unreliable narrators” from within – from our side, right, the elites who are – have just replicated their (inaudible) terrible [LAUGHTER], you know, ways of the previous masters, and also the ways in which our imagination is circumscribed by the trajectories of the West. So we want to develop, we want to catch up, we want to show that we can be economically strong. And so I struggle with, you know, aside from, oh, we’re trying to change how, like, the Western overlords or whatever think of us, I struggle with how should we think about ourselves? Like, how do you – like, who are you addressing when you think about narrative-changing, and what should we as Africans be aiming for? We seem to be locked into this kind of narrative and are in a defensive pose around it. And to be honest, a lot of the narrative-driving is done by some pretty unsavory characters who are exploiting the system. So I don’t know, how do you tackle that?
UZODINMA: Yeah. I mean, I think I would agree – I would see this. And, you know, if you think about people who are working in the (inaudible) space about what the continent could be, that’s where these ideas come from, right? This is where – how shaping your society and shaping the way that you govern yourself, and the way that you’re economies are constructed (come from). The example I’ll give is I was a big sci-fi fan growing up. Like, I was – I really – I’m admitting [CROSSTALK].
KATIE: I’m surprised that you were a nerd growing up, shocking. [LAUGHTER]
UZODINMA: Yeah. But if you think about Star Trek, like, you know, and the Next Generation episode of–and for all you Trekkies out there we going to get into it, so let’s get into it–they had this – you know, this tool called the “Tricorder,” which essentially looked like a flip-phone, right, for those… You know, this, like… And what do we have now, right? You have this thing. You have your iPhone in which you can touch the screen, you’ve got wearables… Like, so somebody had to sit down, you know, X-number of years ago and dream up this thing that has now completely reshaped the way that we do society. You know, what are we doing on the continent in terms of that? And this is directly tied to some of the stuff that, you know, like, we’re working on together that you guys are really interested in, which is, like, it is a failure of imagination on our part on the continent to not think about what a new economy looks like that is completely not based on the resources that have driven the growth and expansion, and often violent expansion of Western or wealthier countries, right? It is a problem for us that we are not positing, like, or posing, like, a different model for growth and expansion that doesn’t necessarily involve exploitation, murder, and whatnot. Like, it is well within our ability to do that, right? And it is well within our ability to act on it. And I think we need to be – like, we need to less be about what other people tell us, you know, democracy, good governance development is, and say, okay, in Kenya this is what it will actually look like, in Nigeria this is what it will look like, and in, you know, Burkina Faso, you know, or any one of these countries that is now undergoing these spasms, as people actually do, like, think about what they want government to look like. This is the process. Like, that’s what I think.
KATIE: Coming up, we ask Uzo about the similarities he sees between environmental racism in the U.S. and U.S. climate policy abroad. And of course we play Rant or Rave.
KATIE: So Uzo, the Africa Center and the Energy for Growth Hub are working together on a series of events right now that try to expand the concept of climate justice to include the need for reliable abundant energy, and also to start to break down some of the narratives that we were talking about in the first part of this interview. What needs to change in the discourse around climate justice from your perspective?
UZODINMA: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s – one, it’s, like, a great project to be working on, because I think it is very near and dear for you guys very specifically in terms of what you do around energy, and for us in terms of what we’re thinking about around narrative-shift. But, you know, again, I think it starts with this idea of assigning responsibility first and foremost, right? And there are people who are more culpable in terms of what has happened to this continent, and starting, you know, from that. So I think, you know, what we were talking about earlier in terms of violent extraction is not just – you know, it doesn’t just apply to human beings, but it applies to the very, like, earth that we inhabit, right, and this idea of doing that with reckless abandon, you know, thinking that you will always be able to do it because you have done it, and that’s just the story. So that’s where I think the whole thing gets set up. And so when it comes to ideas of justice it’s about the person who is responsible for the issue at hand, you know, and it needs to be, you know, brought to account, needs to be held to account, it needs to make amends for it, right? And so I think about it within those terms. If, you know, one country is responsible for the vast majority of all the greenhouse gas emissions, then that country should bear the burden of, you know, financing [slash], like, working on things to transform, right, like, to make amends for the situation it’s caused. That’s number one. Then there’s the other aspect of it, which is, you know, the justice aspect of it also applies to the fact that you cannot say, “We have done this, therefore we will always do this. And oh, we are scared when you want to do this, therefore you should not be able to do this because it will mess up our whole little game plan,” right? That’s not going to work. And, like, you can say that all you want, and you might have the tools to enforce that (inaudible) limited amount of time, and then very suddenly you will not be able to enforce that and be – the amends that you will have to make at that point in time will be even more dear than if everybody decided to take into account how to do it now. And so that’s – in the sort of, like, larger sense what does that mean? I mean, it’s things around investment, right? So we’re talking about this paltry sum of $100 billion over X years to deal with mitigating climate catastrophe, impacts, or what? I mean, come on man, give me a break, right? Like, when – and, you know, again, it’s a framing. Like, that’s framed as aid and assistance, and what we’re actually talking about is… Okay, so you all made a hell of a lot of money off of this, right? And we all have a – we actually have a price tag for how much it will cost to transform our economies, to transform the way that we live, the ways that we think and do business. You know, it’s not even saying – people aren’t even saying, “Give us that money. Like, give us our money.” People are saying, “Let’s work together to make sure that that money is moved and spent as efficiently as possible in different areas. Let’s also make sure that where you have to bear the brunt”–and this goes to this whole stuff that we’ve been doing around gas-financing and energy–“that you all take on that responsibility and you also acknowledge that in order to improve the lives that we have here there is an investment that needs to be made in other ways of generating energy.” And that’s not to sort of (shill) for natural gas or whatever, you know, also coming from a country that doesn’t make a lot of money off of gas-extraction and sales. That’s not to be, like, this is the only way to do it, but it is to acknowledge that that is a reality that exists. And if you decide to cut that off you’re condemning – you’re essentially saying, “This world is unfair. It will remain unfair,” as opposed to thinking about a new paradigm in which we all benefit if we do the right thing. You know, again, I don’t want to sound too, like, lofty or moralistic or whatever, but, I mean, there is an (underpinning) there that, you know, sort of like a moral imperative that underpins the practical aspect of where you then distribute your resources. And then there’s the sort of just like a – sort of future security aspect of it, which is, like, you can’t shut your eyes to the problem, right? Like if you think that you can – like, you know, if the carbon that you emitted didn’t stay in the United States, it didn’t stay in Germany, it’s not going to stay in China or India, right? Like, we just have to be real about that. And the people who are impacted are not going to stay where they are. Again, I think this goes back to this idea of, you know, their narratives are not permanent, they’re not concrete. People have always moved, right, have always moved. The reason the world looks the way it does today is because people have moved. And people will continue to move whether by force or by choice. And so you have to I think acknowledge that in what you’re doing. And if you want to make that an orderly – ordered movement in a way that it sort of, like, doesn’t too dramatically upend our understandings of ourselves or cause super – much conflict, then you have to start making investments to encourage people to move in an orderly fashion. I think there’s a fear component to this, which is this whole thing is going to fall apart. And then there is a promise component, which is, like, look at the world that we can actually build. Think about the world that exists if, you know, folks on the continent of Africa have access to energy. Think about the talent that you can see. Think about, you know, if we want to be crude about it, think about the amount of money you will make by bringing folks online and transforming the economies of these places in this way. Like, think about how everybody actually wins if we, you know, are successful in our energy transitions and create new economies from new sources of energy. How do we make sure that that is a powerful stories or those narratives are put out there in conjunction with the “this is what happens if we screw up,” and in conjunction with the work we need to do to break the sort of framework which doesn’t consider us human enough to deserve those things?
ROSE: Yeah. So Uzo, kind of continuing this thread of kind of how dehumanizing narratives result in real policy interventions in the real world with real impacts… So you just recently wrote a provocative piece in the Financial Times comparing rich countries limiting development finance for fossil fuels in Africa to a new kind of redlining, which is this racist practice in the U.S. that prevented black Americans from building worth through homeownership and, you know, essentially reinforced the racial segregation that we continue to see today. So two-part question here. Like, one, could you kind of explain what you mean in terms of kind of applying this redlining frame to climate justice? And then related to that, is there a difference between how race factors into policy conversations Americans have about climate in the U.S. compared to how it factors into our international and development policy?
UZODINMA: Sure. Yeah, I mean, well, I should say thank you to you all because that piece was written with a lot of help from you guys. And, you know, I think it just – it fits. It’s this idea of… So when you talk about redlining, right, it was really this idea that we – the banks – sort of a collective understanding that banks, or financial institutions, or insurance providers, whatever, would not finance black people to buy properties in certain places, you know, so as to keep the character of certain neighborhoods or whatever. You know, and what it resulted in, what we see now is, like, an extreme gap in terms of wealth here in the United States between black Americans, or black people, and white people in the United States, right? So I think it’s sort of on the order of almost ten times, right? Like, that the average white family has ten times more in terms of sort of net worth than the average black family, and that’s a problem. And that is directly traceable to these policies of redlining. I mean, I think the best thing to read on this is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay that really just kind of really – both in terms of technical terms, and also in terms of human terms, like, just lays it out. And, you know, all of the (knock-on) effects of that are very visible. So you have worse health outcomes, you have lower rates of graduation, you know, you have all these things that… And the problem here is that people then think these are innate differences, you know, as opposed to directly traceable to a deliberate policy. And so the idea is to take that analogy and say, okay, so, you know, if you’re looking at people in some of these countries making the statements that, you know, that I guess play well politically internally with certain groups that “we will not finance gas projects abroad,” right, “We will not finance this or that,” when folks know and understand that that’s got to be part of the energy mix for so many countries. And you know how we know and understand it? Like, because we are doing it here, right? Like, you know, all these countries are not saying, “We’re going to cut off funding for all of this…” You know, like, I think I’d have less of a problem if people were, like – you know, like, “All across the board we’re just cutting it thoroughly. We’re not going to finance this anywhere in the world, including internally,” and everybody (parties) over, “Let’s do what we need to do.” That’s not happening, right? And so that’s the same – it’s a very similar thing. It’s like, “We are making sure that we will take care of ‘our own’ [in quotes], and then y’all, you know, we need you in a subservient position so that we can continue to use your resources to take care of our own.” So, you know, what is the example here? It’s, like, you want people in a subservient position. You want that permanent underclass because it serves you politically, right, just as you want that globally, right? So all the argument is there is if you do that, and if you don’t finance, you know, all forms of energy production… And, I mean, you can exclude some that are just not efficient or not, you know, whatever. We’re talking coal. But, like, if you don’t finance these ways that need to be part of the energy transition then what you’re doing is condemning a good billion people to that gap growing wider, and wider, and wider, until people think that that is a natural state as opposed to a constructed one. And that’s what I think one has to fight against, right? You know, you’re not able to provide energy, you can’t provide things like internet access, you can’t do manufacturing, you don’t have the money necessary to run sort of, like, health systems that will improve health outcomes of people, and so on, and so on, and so on. Like, and that’s going to be a big problem if we’re not very clear about it.
KATIE: So we’re going to wrap up by trying to kind of come full-circle and revisit something we talked about at the very beginning, which is your relatively unique career path and the freedom, and maybe the privilege that you had to explore different avenues, and the fact that not a lot of young people, whether it’s in the U.S. or in African countries, are encouraged to emulate that sort of journey. And we were wondering whether you think they should be, and if so kind of how we could start to encourage more Uzos in the world.
UZODINMA: Look, you know, I am extremely lucky, right? Like, and I think about that every day, and I’m very grateful to my parents, to, I mean, like, luck of the draw, right, luck of birth, like, that has allowed me to pursue these things and to not have to worry about certain things. Like, I haven’t ever been in a position where I’ve had to worry about whether or not I’m going to be able to eat, or whether I’ll be able to pay my rent, or, you know, whatever, right? And so that has allowed me the path of exploration that I’ve been on, and I take that very seriously. And I think that I have a duty, right, then to do something with it, and also to try to open the space for other people. And, yeah, I think the thing is it’s twofold. One is, I think people are doing that even if they don’t necessarily have the same resources that I have, right? And you see that in the creativity that’s emanating from the continent. I think, again, you know, we’re coming up against rigid systems that were created for a very particular kind of administration as opposed to ideation. And what you see is people frustrated with those systems that, you know, like, educational systems that are created to provide administrators for a colonial project, you know, coming up against this, like, whole generation of – and whole (legion) of ideators across the continent who are making do with literally whatever they have in front of them. And the point and the purpose is then to – how do you – I mean, how do we push resources, both, like, I would say attitudinal resources and also money, towards those folks who are ideators, right, who really do want to reimagine or imagine a totally different future? You know, and I – you see it. There are folks like Papa Omotayo in Nigeria, who’s an architect, you know, with his whole Whitespace concept. You know, there are folks – you know, which is, like, bringing designers together with, you know, architects, with artists, with whatever, creating those spaces locally. And that’s not just a Nigeria thing, it’s all over the place. I would say, like, we need support and those things. And, you know, cash and whatever is really important, but also just the, like, “we see you” is also incredibly important as well. Because that for an artist–and I’m putting on my creative hat… You know, like, if you didn’t pay me–and I’m not saying that so that people don’t pay me–but, like, if you didn’t pay me I would still write. But, you know, (inaudible) why? Because I get the chance to sit – or, you know, stand up and read what it is that I’ve written and see how it impacts, and affects, and changes the discussion. And that’s really, really important. And we can’t underestimate the power of being able to transmit, disseminate, and receive affirmations for the ideas you put out into the world.
KATIE: Thanks so much.
ROSE: Yeah, thank you so much Uzo, you’ve given us so much to think about this interview. In closing we’ll – you know, we try to end on a slightly lighter note with our guests. We play this really fun game called “Rant or Rave.” It’s a quickfire game in which we give you a word or a term and you choose to either rant or rave about it and explain why. You have to be really quick. We have about a minute and a half to get through as many of these as we can. Feel free to be controversial [LAUGHTER], having held back during the interview.
UZODINMA: Okay [LAUGHTER].
ROSE: Now is the time. Okay, starting now. Afro-futurism.
UZODINMA: Rave, because I think it’s the imagination (thing). Like, the more ideas, crazy ones, we have the better.
KATIE: Sharing a room with Pete Buttigieg.
UZODINMA: Rave as well. One of the smartest guys that I have met in my life, and also one of the most thoughtful and kind people that I have (inaudible). I love that guy.
KATIE: Oh okay, okay, but there must be something. Is there a little bit…?
UZODINMA: He had a weird fascination with a wooden (salmon), that’s all I’ll say.
ROSE: All right. Idris Elba.
UZODINMA: Also rave. That one’s easy. Dude is super cool, one of the nicest folks that I’ve ever met. And he really was so awesome in the movie Beasts of No Nation.
KATIE: Which everyone should watch, by the way.
ROSE: Yeah, I’m literally writing a list of people I want you to introduce me to [LAUGHTER].
KATIE: Okay. New York City subway system.
UZODINMA: Ooh, rant. It is – yo, New York needs to up its game. I’m saying – like, I grew up in D.C. The D.C. Metro, like, you know, you got carpets on the D.C. Metro. I mean, damn, you know? Like, that’s all I’ll say.
KATIE: Okay, maybe Pete Buttigieg is listening actually.
UZODINMA: Maybe he is.
ROSE: All right, so the hashtag #AnkaraArmy or hashtag #belikeNgozichallenge.
UZODINMA: Oh, I mean, you know, what am I going to say? Like, rave of course. I love my mom, I think she’s wonderful. And I think it’s really important for people to see that, like, you can do it the way that you want to do it and set your own path. So I rave tremendously.
KATIE: All right, that’s all the time we have.
ROSE: That’s it, yep.
KATIE: Awesome job, Uzo. [CROSSTALK] Thank you so much for being with us, for sharing your thoughts, for nerding out with us, and we look forward to more work with you.
ROSE: So that’s it for today’s show. High Energy Planet is a production of the Energy for Growth Hub, matching policymakers with evidence-based pathways to a high-energy future for everyone. Find out more at EnergyforGrowth.org and tweet your questions and thoughts to us at @EnergyforGrowth.
KATIE: If you liked today’s episode please be sure to rate and rank the podcast and tell a friend about us. Bob Lalasz is our executive producer, Mariel Ferragamo is our senior producer. Join us next time for more High Energy Planet.
END (UZODINMA IWEALA INTERVIEW)