Yale Greenberg World Fellows Interview Series: Babatunde Omilola

Featured Image: Babatunde Omilola, Jackson School of Global Affairs World Fellow, Photo by Tony Fiorini


By Zoe Duan


Babatunde Omilola is a global development leader, writer, speaker, and scholar who has worked with numerous NGOs and institutions. He has served as the Africa-wide Coordinator for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), as the Head of Development Planning with the United Nations Development Program, and works currently as the Head of Public Health, Security, and Social Protection at African Development Bank Group. His work has brought him to more than 80 countries worldwide, and his current initiative focuses on strengthening and assisting African countries as a part of the African Development Bank Group’s multi-billion-dollar response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.


To begin, what led you to pursue your current projects and your current goals? Essentially, what has motivated you to want to work in global development and on your current initiatives?


I’m motivated principally because of my passion for development –– to take people out of poverty, to solve global hunger issues, to deal with issues in public health, especially in Africa. 


I grew up in rural Nigeria, where I witnessed poverty firsthand and saw the importance of investing in human beings, in human development, in helping people to overcome different challenges, whether it be in terms of poverty eradication, or agricultural production, or food security or hunger. So, I became very passionate about global development at a very young age, growing up in my part of Nigeria, and that led me to attend university to pursue a career in development.


When I got into university in Nigeria, it was at the time when the military dictators of Nigeria at the time allowed for the most important election in the history of Nigeria. This was the year of 1993. We had the best election, the freest and fairest election, but it was annulled, and I became interested first in politics for the revalidation of that election. So, with some other friends, colleagues, and fellow students at the university, we started a political party to campaign and ensure that democracy was upheld in Nigeria. That, of course, led to me becoming the president of the student government at the university at a time, which helped me to really mobilize Nigeria’s students against the military dictatorship in Nigeria, for genuine democracy to be upheld. In 1999, Nigeria actually returned to democracy, but that democracy was not providing the kind of development dividends for the people of Nigeria. So, I became more interested in global development and to solve some of the development challenges in Nigeria, especially because Nigeria was obtaining lots of foreign revenues through the sale of oil, yet the people of Nigeria were not benefiting. There was still a lot of poverty, and development dividends were not being accrued to people as a result of the new democracy that we had fought for. 


So, I became interested in global development, and I was fortunate to receive several scholarships to pursue a PhD in Development Economics economics at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, where I studied at the best university for global development in the world. And while I was doing my PhD, I was also a research fellow on a joint collaborative effort between the International Water Management Institute, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank in a new partnership for Africa’s development. We were working at that time to analyze the impact of their development interventions in Asia and Africa –– on poverty reduction, environmental sustainability, and food security. 


After a few projects in between, I then joined the UNDP from the International Food Policy Research Institute based in Washington DC. I was based in Johannesburg, South Africa, covering many African countries with the goal of helping them to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. I had crafted the MTG Acceleration Framework, which principally looked at the MDGs that were not likely to be met in different countries and proposed action plans for them to be met while also providing resource opportunities for these countries. During that work, I was also made the senior economic advisor to the UNDP, and for the entire United Nations system in South Africa. My task was to help South Africa achieve its national development plan in terms of meeting the triple challenges of unemployment, inequality, and poverty. Through that, I was also able to help Africa on the post-2015 Development Agenda, but also for Agenda 2063 for Africa, which is the long-term continental development plan for Africa. 


In 2018, I was headhunted by the African Development Bank, so I went into the African Development Bank to lead the division for public health, social protection, and issues around how to eradicate malnutrition in Africa. While at the African Development Bank, the COVID-19 pandemic happened, and the bank put together a COVID-19 crisis response facility to save lives and livelihoods in Africa, to lessen the social and economic impacts of the pandemic, but also to provide liquidity for African countries and governments to support small and medium enterprises in Africa. We also provided social protection support for the poor and vulnerable in Africa. I was the one tasked with leading this COVID-19 response. It is a multibillion-dollar response, helping countries come up with their programs, budgets, and support operations, and providing grants or loans for countries to be able to deal with the pandemic. 


Now, I’m still doing that work and in doing that work, I’ve been instrumental in helping the African Development Bank prepare its first strategy on health for Africa, which is called the Strategy for Quality Health Infrastructure in Africa. Through that strategy, the African Development Bank can finance different aspects of its infrastructure, including primary health care infrastructure, secondary and tertiary healthcare, infrastructure, diagnostics infrastructure, digital health in telemedicine, issues around social protection, and health insurance. 


Then, my role here as a Yale World Fellow is to connect –– to network –– because I believe in collective leadership. I believe that we’re at a stage in this world today, where we have many overlapping crises. You know, we have the COVID-19 crisis. We have the conflict crisis –– whether it is the ongoing Ukraine War or many other conflicts around the world. 


Around one fourth of the global population today live in conflict-affected societies, because there are so many other conflicts that are not being reported as much as they should be reported, such as the conflict in the Tigre region of Ethiopia which is going on as we speak. Now, in the world today, around 100 million people are forcibly displaced due to all kinds of conflicts. It’s a big deal. Then we have the crisis related to climate change: the climate crisis. So, we have a confluence of three C’s: COVID, climate, and conflict crises. 


So basically, to answer the question, my motivation is to contribute to global development in different ways, whether in terms of solving most of the challenges that we face.


You’ve conducted and published significant research on poverty reduction interventions and economic factors of growth. Therefore, I’m interested in learning about how you decided that an economic approach is important in sustainable and global development.


Yes, I studied international development and development economics. Now, the idea is that development is not just about economics, but I believe that economics of development is extremely important, because you have to understand, first and foremost, economic growth, and then understand inclusive growth. That is to say, when growth continues for a long period of time a country’s economy can provide employment opportunities for people and can help people get out of poverty. In that, economics becomes important to understand economic development issues, but also to understand international trade–the economic relations among countries–to see the growth models that can help a country get out of poverty very quickly. That’s why I think I’ve concentrated a lot on economics of development and different poverty reduction interventions. 


I also come from a continent, where for a long period of time, poverty has been the bane of our development. When people are extremely poor, they don’t have access to good health, to education, to economic opportunities. For them to be able to contribute to their societies, it’s important for poor people to have economic power to have access to education, to health, and to many other things. So economics becomes important. 


But my work has never been limited to only the economics of development. I’ve also embraced anthropology and development, environment, and development. I look at development holistically –– at different aspects of development, whether it is the sociology of development, anthropology of development, environment of development, trade of development, and look at how all of them can help a country grow, develop, and take people out of poverty. 


I have worked in different areas of development, and I believe that economic development is the foundation for industrializing rapidly, integrating African countries, and resolving most of the poverty-related issues that we have in Africa.


More broadly now, among all the issues that you’ve worked on, what do you think was the most challenging and how did you overcome those challenges? Or perhaps, are you still looking for solutions to those challenges?


Among all the issues that I have worked on, the biggest challenge that I’ve faced is the issue in public health for Africa. Because, the African Development Bank, for a very long period of time, the bank has been known as a bank for infrastructure development.  Health was not seen as a priority for the African Development Bank. Health was something that was done sporadically before I took the position because, principally, the idea was that that bank would only intervene when there were health emergencies in Africa.


This mentality was especially apparent during the Ebola crisis that affected three West African countries. The bank intervened and supported those three countries –– Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone –– with $22 million to recover from the Ebola crisis. Now, with the COVID 19 pandemic, the board of the bank has approved up to $10 billion COVID-19 crisis response. The board of the bank also approved a social bond –– $3 billion –– to lessen the social and economic impacts of the pandemic. 


Now, the challenge was that all of those things were done on an ad hoc basis without a coherent strategy from the Bank for public health. Because of the lack of support in that area, it was a big challenge. But I think I was able to overcome this challenge by working with teams and many other actors, to convince the board of the bank that the bank must invest in health because it supports the well -being of the people and enhances economic productivity and economic development of the continent. Ultimately, I was able to convince them, and I was able to lead the preparation of the health strategy on health for the bank, which is called the Strategy for Quality Infrastructure in Africa. So that, I think, has helped a lot to overcome that challenge, because health was not seen as a big priority for the continent. But now, it is gradually becoming one of the key priority focus areas, because it’s important for the economic development of Africa.


As a follow up, you’ve previously talked about how around $66 billion dollars of investment is needed for investments in health in Africa, yet only $4.5 billion is currently going into health infrastructure. So, my question is, where do you envision these investments to come from, and what is the strategy for obtaining or creating these investments? 


It would have to come from the government and from the private sector. Currently, only 10-20% of investment in health is coming from the private sector in health infrastructure in Africa. So much more needs to come from the private sector, from the government, and from diaspora investments. It’s important for Africa to do something similar like what they have done in India. In India today, nine of the top fifteen hospitals, in terms of infrastructure, have been financed through diaspora investments in its infrastructure in India. Africans need something like that, because in Africa, we train a lot of public health professionals, and then they leave Africa to come to the US, to go to the UK, to go to Europe, and other parts of the world. That’s why here in America, according to statistics, there are about 35 Nigerian medical doctors practicing. Many of them have been trained from Nigeria. So that’s a big deal –– how do we connect them back to contribute to development in Africa.


Since we talked a bit about investment, both from diaspora and foreign investments, I’m wondering how the regional people of Africa feel about what might be called “foreign talents” coming in and like helping with their development goals. Specifically, there has been great controversy regarding how graduates or students from American or Ivy League colleges come in and intervene in the work there. These actions stem from what is called “the white savior complex.” What is your opinion on this?


I think, generally, development is not something that only a group of people can do. Development requires partnership. That’s why the Sustainable Development Goals, specifically the 17th goal of those 17 development goals, is about partnership for development. There must be cooperation and collaboration between developing and developed countries, and between different kinds of people who want to contribute to development. 


Having said that, it’s always important that the people that are receiving any kind of support take ownership of their own development agenda. They are the ones to determine what development needs they require. It’s not like somebody coming from outside and imposing on them how they wish for them to develop –– to impose their values and ideas without knowing what the people really want. So we’ve seen in several instances, where people will come from outside, they will just say, “Oh, this is what is good for these people. Just provide water or housing.” And yet, maybe that is not what people want.  It’s always good to let people take ownership of their own development agenda. Let them see what they need, what they want, and how they want it. 


Going back to why you are here now at the World Fellows Program. You mentioned how you wanted to expand your network and learn about other people. How’s that going so far?


I love academic environments very much. To learn, to interact, to equip myself with new knowledge, innovations, and new ideas, but also to interact with intellectuals. So as an intellectual, I like to be in an intellectually challenged environment where I can learn, grow, but also contribute. So, so far, so good. It’s been going well. I’ve been able to make some connections, create some networks, and engage with fellow Award Fellows.


To wrap things up, what advice would you give to young students like myself who are looking to go into international development, work, diplomacy, or research in the field?


I would say, you should consider yourselves fortunate to be students at Yale, because you are getting the best education –– world-class education –– in the world. Yale, I believe, is much more global; the outlook of the kind of education you are receiving is a global outlook, which is already preparing you for your lives ahead. 


In terms of engaging in diplomacy, politics, global development, and global affairs, because we have so many challenges in this world, we need highly educated, well-equipped people like you to contribute to the solutions for many of these challenges. There are so many things to be done. We live in a world where the population continues to grow. I always say that when you are a student, you are being trained to be the best that you can be. And in doing so, when you focus on solving some of the challenges in the world, you are also preparing yourself to live the best lives that will be meaningful –– that will not just be about money –– but will be about service to humanity, to mankind, to happiness, and to live in a more peaceful, sustainable world, which we all deserve. 


Lastly, is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about? Any last takeaways that you want people reading this issue to know?


The world needs very smart, dedicated, committed, passionate, global development experts, more than at any time in the history of mankind. We are living through a confluence of crises today. The three main crises –– the COVID, climate, and conflict crises –– they are precipitating other crises, whether it be crises in food security and nutrition, in education, in health, in energy, or many other crises. This means that we need more people –– more globalist –– that can help provide solutions to many of these global challenges that affect the entirety of humanity.

Zoey Duan is a first-year in Jonathan Edwards College. You can contact her at zoey.duan@yale.edu.