Farewell interview with Ton Dietz as director of the African Studies Centre Leiden

Ton Dietz, a human geographer, will retire as the director of the African Studies Centre Leiden and as a professor of African Development at Leiden University on 1 September 2017. On this occasion, we did a ‘farewell’ interview with him.

You have been the director of this Centre and a Professor of African Development at Leiden University since May 2010. What was a highlight for you during your directorship?
‘The best highlight - there were many - was the news that Chibuike Uche had been appointed as full Professor at the African Studies Centre, last April. Many things were combined in that: 1) It was the first official Professor we got as African Studies Centre. That was possible because of our successful merger with Leiden University. 2) It’s a subsidy for the next three years from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, acknowledging the importance of what the African Studies Centre did and does for the Ministry. 3) The Chair was named after Stephen Ellis. And Stephen Ellis has been our most important, most influential scholar, who unfortunately died in 2015. And finally, it was very important to have a first African Professor as a member of our staff, and a Professor in a very important field: the Governance of Finance and Integrity in Africa. Which makes it clear that the political economy aspects of the study of Africa have become very much at the heart of the African Studies Centre, next to all the other things we are doing. The fact that Chibuike Uche has been appointed to this Chair for me is in fact a dream come true of what I see an African Studies Centre should be.’

In your inaugural address ‘Silverlining Africa’ in January 2011 you were optimistic about Africa, almost in a provocative way. You said:
‘Not long ago, the continent was seen as lagging behind, a sick place full of violence, hunger and disease, and either a threat to world stability or a disposable place to avoid. Now its image has shifted to one of hope, which is making Africa a hotspot in the new geopolitical reality of a multi-polar world.’
In the meantime, we have seen tremendous outbursts of violence, the Ebola virus epidemic and, recently again, millions of Africans threatened with starvation. Has the image, and reality, shifted to that of a sick place again? 
‘As you rightly say: it was deliberate intention to provoke, because so many of the people who dealt with Africa, particularly in the media at that time, were still so much overwhelmed by this negative atmosphere, while the examples of things that did go well or were nice, were just minor experiences. I decided to try to flip the coin. In the 2000s it was already clear that Africa’s economies were experiencing high growth rates, that there clearly was a growing middle class. So it was not a story that was cooked, it was real.

That positive economic development continued up to 2015. Then for various reasons, the world market prices for important African export products were threatened. The oil prices went down. That immediately translated in many African countries into a new economic crisis. At the same time, throughout the whole period of high growth, Africa had so many problem areas that a majority of the African population was not gaining a lot by this economic boom. So the picture I tried to show was meant to provoke a much more positive image of Africa, while at the same time it was quite obvious that it’s very much a mixed story.

Currently, the story of economics in Africa is much more problematic than even two years ago. The big threat to Africa’s future is the fact that its economic growth translated into growth for 20-30% of the population, but that 60-70% of the population were not gaining much; part of them were even experiencing worsening conditions. Then, if something like Ebola hits, there are high risks. But the Ebola epidemic also showed that, though it took time, it could be curbed. Not only because of the input of local health workers, but also of the world community - although it was late in responding - and of organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Organization. It did show how vulnerable some African countries and conditions are. I think that we would have another type of discussion now if the Ebola epidemic would not have stopped at Lagos (Nigeria). There was a case of Ebola there, but if Lagos would have been hit by a real Ebola epidemic, there would be a real health crisis in much of the world now.’

What about the drought that is currently hitting parts of Africa?
‘In the whole history of Africa there have been extreme events where people do not have an easy answer. And Africa will be hit by these extreme events for a long time to come, and it will create lots of dramatic situations. That’s part of life in Africa, it’s part of life all over the world. But it’s quite likely that these extreme events will become more and will have more dramatic effects. Not only droughts, but also the other side of the coin of climate change: extreme events that cause flooding, storms. What you see is that all over Africa, people are migrating to the coasts, all along the coasts you have very high densities of poor people, in very vulnerable conditions. They go to areas with the highest vulnerabilities in terms of climate change, and the conditions they live in are extremely problematic if an extreme event hits. All those people in areas that are flood prone and risky in terms of disease outbreaks after flooding, are a major threat to Africa’s future and to managing its high density areas.

Of course, we all know that Africa is huge. The stories that you hear very easily condense Africa to a one-story issue: it’s Ebola. It’s hunger. It’s the big inequality. While Africa is so huge and diverse that you can tell many different stories at the same time. And the speed at which things are changing in Africa is so rapid, that the situation you describe in one moment can be completely different two years afterwards.’

Africa will experience a population explosion this century, and it will be a very young population. On top of that, there will be rapid urbanization. Can African cities accommodate all those people, and where do you think most of those people will find employment?
‘It’s not only the future you are talking about. When I was born, 65 years ago, Africa had about 230 million inhabitants, now it has 1,2 billion. The demographic transition is happening, but it’s slow, and it’s much slower than elsewhere, and it started later than elsewhere. As a result it is quite likely that Africa at the end of this century will have 3 point something, if not 4 point something billion people. Unless there will be real disasters, this is going to happen.

A second demographic development is the enormous geographical mobilization of people. Already in the 1990s this Centre put high on its agenda the mobility of Africa’s people, at a time when the image was still one of a rural, stagnant people who were not moving very far and who were living very traditional lives. Already then, that was a myth. Now, the majority of Africa’s population, and particularly its young adults, are on the move. Not so much from A to B, or from rural areas to the big cities. Being on the move means that many people are continuously looking for better situations, for better prospects. Many people live in different worlds. They cannot be seen as purely rural-urban migrants who become urbanized and just live urban lives. They are combining different places, sometimes three or four, where they also have different stakes. And they are moving to and fro. This has to do with the fact that a big part of the African population is now between 20 and 35, young energetic people, looking for opportunities, not yet having a lot of responsibilities for children. Simultaneously, there is a massive shift to the cities, and not only to the big cities. Towards the end of this century we will see a shift from what is now 45% urban to maybe more than 70% urban. A lot of that urbanity will be coastal. Many coastal areas will become dense population belts, flowing over boundaries, big lint cities full of people who live mostly urban, but also still a bit rural lives.’

Why do people move to the cities?
‘The image is that life is better there, that you have more opportunities, or that you can escape what some see as very conservative pressure back home in the rural areas. It gives opportunities to live a more independent life. It’s not only economic, it’s partly cultural, partly lifestyle-based. For example, many gay Africans find ways to start new lives in other places, like Cape Town, that are more gay-friendly. Sometimes people move because they do not see a future for themselves as farmers in the rural areas. They see more opportunities for themselves in the cities. Interestingly, the more successful people in the cities start putting some of the money they earn back in the rural areas. They become what some people call ‘telephone farmers’ or ‘long-distance farmers’.’

What kind of work are all those people doing in the cities?
‘First, the sheer fact that the number of people in the cities is growing so rapidly means there is an enormous growth in demand for all types of goods and services. That alone causes a lot of commercialization and professionalization of production and consumption. I see Africa’s future economic prospects much more based on demand from Africa itself than on demand from the world market. The tendency that many economists focus mainly on Africa’s export products is a wrong focus. The focus should be on the consumption by Africans of products basically produced in Africa. The urban demand also makes it much more easy to develop agro-industries or products from the countryside translated into more consumable products. My take is that in 20-30 years’ time, Africa will see a huge wave of industrialization focused on Africa’s demand, urban demand basically, and the nearby countryside will play a major role in providing the inputs.

That means there will be a major economic mobilization in the countryside, and a lot of farmers who are now living very poor lives will be drawn into this urban expansion. One of the research programmes we did was Tracking Development. This compared South-East Asia’s development with Africa’s development. One of the big serious outcomes was the importance of stimulating economic opportunities in the rural areas, connected to an overall economic growth in the country that was driven by the cities. In that sense I’m optimistic in the long run for Africa’s urban economies. I’m also optimistic for the hinterlands of the big urban agglomerations. But I am quite pessimistic about the far-away, more peripheral areas where there are not many prospects for agricultural breakthroughs or other forms of economic growth. There is, yet, one hope on the horizon: energy provision will become green. Africa is in an excellent position to reap the benefits of the technological breakthroughs that are happening in solar energy, wind energy, but also in translating using solar energy, e.g. by adding water provision. In the next 30-40 years I see massive breakthroughs in Africa in technology and making energy technology cheap and green. There, the peripheral areas can play a very positive role. The biggest solar park is in the desert in Morocco, the biggest wind park is in a very peripheral area in the north of Kenya. That will grow. In these peripheral areas you will have secluded zones where law and order must be maintained. Yet I fear not many people, governments, nor the world community will be very interested in other peripheral areas. For those places, there is quite a chance that the anarchy we now see will continue, and will continue for ages. How to contain that is one of the biggest challenges not only for Africa but for the world.’

You are also a Platform member of INCLUDE, the Knowledge Platform for Inclusive Development Policies in Africa. What are the prospects for inclusive development in Africa, given the challenges you’ve just summed up?
‘Africa’s economic growth can only be managed well if the public sector will step in to manage the inequality. That depends on the composition of the political elite and the way the political elite, together with the economic elite, manages the social contracts. Because of the fragmentation of Africa in so many different states, and a still rather weak leadership at the level of the African Union and the regional entities, you will get very diverse situations, even within countries. Take Nigeria. In some of Nigeria’s states, very progressive, rationally thinking politicians see the virtues of a policy of social inclusion, of creating employment, of encouraging the poor to take part in the economy; while in other states it’s a complete disaster in terms of the social contracts. In some countries this type of situation will result in quite a number of people on the run, or people who are locally contesting power, or are forced out because they are not agreeing with their leadership. If this politically motivated migration - which will spill over to Europe, that’s for sure - cannot be managed well locally, the big challenge for the African Union is: how far do you accept the individual powers of individual rulers in countries? If they ruin the conditions for a much larger group of countries, or if they ruin the prospects for peace and stability in Africa: when do you step in? When do you take charge as African leaders to correct these problematic political situations?

Recently, interesting things are happening. For example, the fact that Boko Haram was fought by a combination of armies from different states in West Africa; or the fact that in other parts of Africa neighbouring countries are stepping in when things go wrong - like in the Gambia. The idea that what happens in your country is something for your country, has gone. Will this grow into a much clearer role for the African Union or for regional entities? What will be the connection between those entities and the world community? In what way do they still want or allow European or American involvement? How will this be organized financially? What will be the role of new leading countries like China, Turkey, Russia? Those are among the most interesting geo-political questions for the next many years. Things are changing rapidly, but if Africa allows its poor to live the types of lives without prospects that many of them are experiencing now, there will be turmoil after turmoil after turmoil.’

You have written, most recently in your blog, about the fact that development will lead to more migration. You expect massive immigration from Africa to Europe. How should Europe deal with this even larger immigration than it is experiencing now, while it already states it cannot handle the current flows?
‘Let me go back to how I found out how important this is. One of my most successful former PhD students is Hein de Haas. Hein went to Oxford and became one of the leading scholars dealing with migration theory. Hein is now in Amsterdam. I read his blogs and contributions to the debate with a lot of interest. The way Hein and the Oxford people looked at macro-level evidence was an eye-opener for me. I never connected the figures of international migration with the changing economic position of countries and people. One of the most shocking pieces of empirical evidence in this field is a very simple graph where you connect the foreign migration percentages of people with the stage countries are in in terms of the Human Development Index, or GDP: you see an inverted ‘U’ for emigration, and you see a very slow growth and then ever more rapid growth in immigration. What struck me was that, according to some of the more daring economists, the balancing point, where emigration and immigration more or less are the same, is only at a level of 5,000 - 7,000 dollars per capita. Most of Africa is far below that. So with the growing economy in Africa - and I expect that to happen for the next decades - you will first see a growing out-migration from Africans to neighbouring countries, to other parts of Africa, but also to China, India, Malaysia, the Gulf States, and to Europe and the USA. With the exception of the real refugees who are pushed by war and disasters, a large majority of people on the move are the ones who can pay for it, who have at least some funds at their disposal to finance their long-distance travel. So what I learn from Hein’s group and their statistics is that we fool ourselves in a very dangerous way if we think that supporting economic growth and supporting countries to become richer and better organized will curb migration. It’s the other way round. The more Africa develops, the more Africa becomes involved in social change, the more people will be tempted to also look for opportunities elsewhere, including Europe, even though it’s probably in the future not even the most important destination.

Technology also plays a key role. The fact that so many youth have easy access to internet now: they all have access to mobile phones, many are quite technology savvy, they know how to  get information, how to circumvent attempts by rulers to curb information. So I see a combination of things: people on the move as a general trend; the technological information revolution; plus the fact that many of the receiving countries have a problem of an aging population. They will have positions for people who are clever and prepared to work for very low pay in functions that are difficult to fill with local people. That creates lots of hypocrisy on the receiving end. The big message I have for general audiences is: get used to it, this is going to happen. And be prepared that it will come in waves. Part of those waves are disaster driven. But what we now see is the start of a very dangerous political process, which easily considers victims of disasters and real refugees as people to no longer allow access to. Of course, if politicians say that all those people should stay in neighbouring countries, and that we should assist them to stay there until they can go back, that is the sensible thing to do. But you can’t avoid that Europe is also going to play its role in welcoming at least part of the people. Europe does well to organize it in such a way that you formulate a wish list: what type of people would you like to have? What type of people would you like to add to your labour market? How do you create conditions where you make it more easy for people to live floating global lives, where they are not forced to stay in the Netherlands, and not to go back to their countries of origin because they are so afraid that they will never be able to come back again. How do you create conditions that make it easy for the more trade-oriented or the more education-oriented people among the international migrants to float around, to live in different places, like many Africans do in their own continent? Why not make that a global thing? But the political atmosphere is: we don’t want them, let them stay there. Not preparing the Dutch or European population of what is to come, is foolish and politically dangerous, and will create ever more conditions for extreme right-wing parties to take over.’

What publication are you most proud of?
‘Can I mention two? The first is a publication with Adano Wario Roba, Karen Witsenburg and Fred Zaal in the Journal of Peace Research in 2012, which is the result of 20-30 years of involvement in socio-economic dryland research connected with political analysis. It’s a publication that shows that there is a long-term link between the ups and downs in violence and the ups and downs of extreme events in nature. It’s about Kenya, the country where I have been doing most of my early work as a human geographer. I have worked a lot in one district in particular, West Pokot. Part of that work was expanded to other areas in Kenya: I had PhD students like Fred in Masai area, Karen and Adano in the north of Kenya and others in the east, and at some point we came together and combined the findings in this seminal article. I’m happy that we did that as a team, that we worked with African scholars, and that it’s become a publication that is so well-read; it’s my most cited work after my PhD dissertation “Pastoralists in Dire Straits”.

The second is more recent: at a certain point I co-developed the methodology of Participatory Assessment of Development, PADev. We got funding from three Dutch NGOs to apply that in Ghana and Burkina Faso. It first created lots of small products: a website full of evidence, very much the products of local students and local colleagues who played a key role there. At the end, we brought all our insights together in a collective process and wrote a kind of final-touch article for the American Journal of Evaluation, one of the paradises for this type of scholarly work. The fact that it was accepted and that it was a co-production with African colleagues and with colleagues from Amsterdam like Nicky Pouw, made me very proud. PADev also had a lot of impact in the way NGOs were thinking and the way policymakers were thinking. Methodologically we organized breakthroughs. That makes me happy in a methodological sense, it will be used for quite some time.’

Finally, do you have a message for your successor, Professor Jan-Bart Gewald?
‘Again two. One: make it obvious to everyone that the success of the African Studies Centre Leiden as an information hub is rooted in its library. Make sure that the fantastic work the librarians are doing and the type of things they do to really make this a hub of Africa-relevant information will continue. And two: continue walking on two legs. Maintain the integrity of a scientific institute, make sure that the scholarly work you do is beyond doubt, is rooted and belongs to the world top, and simultaneously make sure that this Centre continues to be an information hub for non-academic users, for which you need not just scientists but also translation of all that knowledge into knowledge-beyond-academia. For that you need the professional and dedicated support staff we have, and you need scientists that are not happy in their ivory tower. If you manage to continue both, you will make this Centre even stronger.’

Fenneken Veldkamp

Ton will give his valedictory lecture 'Development in Africa' on Monday 25 September. You are very welcome to attend. Register for the lecture.