YIRA World Fellows Panel 2023: TRANSCRIPT

Each year, the Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs selects a group of 16 extraordinary leaders from across the world to spend four months in residence at Yale as mentors, lecturers, and students. On Friday November 3, YIRA held its annual World Fellows Discussion Event, where students and faculty were invited to a Q&A session with these leading intellectuals.

Note: Questions 1-3 were submitted ahead of time by students. This transcript was edited for clarity.


[Guy Disney]: Hi all, thank you very much for coming out on a Friday evening. Guy Disney, from the UK. I was in the British army for seven years, did a trip to the North Pole, and then led an expedition to the South Pole. I’ve been working in Central and Southern Africa for the last five to seven years.

[Bam Aquino]: Hello everyone, I’m Bam Aquino, I’m a Filipino politician, so if anyone is interested in legislation or politics, feel free to ask. Thank you.

[Ala Qasem]: Hi everybody, my name is Ala Qasem, and I’m from Yemen. I work on different things: I established civic society organizations that engage youth in public policy, I established a boutique consulting firm that works on peacebuilding, and I work in areas of economic development, now as a part of the economic team advising the Presidential Leadership Council of Yemen. My career is wide and generalist, if somebody is interested in what it’s like to switch careers.

[Shamil Ibragimov]: Hi everyone, my name is Shamil. I am from Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet Union country in Central Asia. For the last few years, I was the head of Open Society Foundations in my country, and I am the founder of a data-driven, civic engagement startup. I work on the intersection of civic engagement and on social innovations, technology, and education. Thank you.

[Raphaela Schweiger]: Hi everyone, my name is Raphaela. I’m from Germany and I work at a big European foundation, Robert Bosch Stiftung. I work on issues of migration, climate change, global governance, and technology.

[Naasu Genevieve Fofanah]: Hello, I’m Naasu Fofanah and I’m from Sierra Leone. I work in different areas: I’m an entrepreneur, I specialize in gender and women’s empowerment, and you can ask me anything about that, including public service.

[Ann Iyonu]: Hi everyone, my name is Ann. I’m from Nigeria and I work on democracy, conflict resolution and governance.

[Abdouramane Diallo] Hi everyone, my name is Abdou. I’m from Cote d’Ivoire and am currently working in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia at the Islamic Development Bank. This is a multilateral development bank that oversees 57 countries, 27 of which are in Africa. I am also the co-founder of two startups: Agrobiotech in Mali, which specializes in cloning plants, and Paygas in South Africa, which specializes in the distribution of clean cooking fuel to low-income families.

[Smita Rakesh] Hello, I am Smita Rakesh and I am from India. I work on climate change, and particularly with early-stage start-ups — investing in them but also supporting them in non-financial ways. I’m happy to speak about social enterprises, innovation, or climate change in India. Thanks.

[Binbin Wang] Hello everyone, I’m Binbin from China, and I work on climate policy and governance. I and my team are going to COP28 [United Nations Climate Change Conference] and we will host a particular pavilion there, so if you guys have any interest on COP, global governance, our planet, come talk to me.

First question: What advice would you give to young leaders (like ourselves) and changemakers who are passionate about making a difference in their communities on a global scale?

[Smita Rakesh]: All of us know a little bit about leadership; it’s about discovering what you think your style of leadership is depending on where you work, who you’re leading, and what problem you’re solving. So, without being preachy about “what should ideal leadership look like” or “what should I really focus on,” I would say that true leadership is one that one leads from the front but also, in a way, from behind, in order to make sure that you’re not just a leader as somebody who is heading something, but also engaging more from the farther quarters as well. So, leadership in climate change, for example, means making sure that it is inclusive and we’re not just talking about one country, one sector, or one community’s problems, but thinking of the globe as a whole. So, in today’s time, which is particularly divisive, just ensuring that we are factoring in multiple interests is a big part of leadership in any sector, particularly in climate. So, leadership must be empathetic, inclusive, and equitable.

[Bam Aquino]: If you’re thinking about development work, politics, or any type of work, go for it. Don’t wait. Most of you will say “I’m going to do that when I’m established,” “I’m going to do that when I have a stable job,” or “I’m going to do that when I graduate.” If you want to do something, do it. You can be an intern, at this age, and you can set up something — we know a lot of people who have set up things, even while they are in college. Look for good people and for your tribe who can be around you and support you, and look for a mentor. You can do it right now. I think most of you are eighteen, right? [Mixed answers from audience]. Nope, seventeen? [Laughter and mixed conversation in audience] Oh, older!

[From audience]: Twenty-one!

[Bam Aquino]: I see, so you’re old! So, you know… All I’m saying is, don’t let your age, status, or where you are be a hindrance. You’re all at Yale, so that’s a leg up already. Don’t let those things hinder you from doing what you think you would like to do, or how you would like to contribute. My school in the Philippines is like the Yale of the Philippines, and oftentimes there is pressure for us to go into business or the corporate world; the most difficult thing is just accepting what it is you really want to do. I think a lot of the World Fellows, at some point in our lives, said we were going to take the risk and do this thing even though we didn’t know what the outcome would be. So that’s my suggestion: go for it and see where it goes. And if it doesn’t work out, you’re twenty-two and you can figure something else out. But don’t let where you are now stop you from doing that.

[Naasu Genevieve Fofanah]: I just want to let you know that having difficulties and challenges is part of life, and I’m here because I’ve overcome very difficult challenges. The strategy for that is you take responsibility for your role in whatever is happening; you cannot be 100% sure over other people’s roles. So, there should be self-reflection and you should be humble in understanding that you cannot always be right. Accept constructive criticism and feedback — there is nothing like bad feedback. However bad it is, just learn from it. My motto is that challenges are growth poles and that’s how you maintain your resilience. Remain humble, be intentional, and if you want to learn more about how to overcome that, my book is out there. Leave it to Naasu: How to Take Charge and Go for What You Want has a chapter for each and every one of you. Read it.

Question 2: In each of your opinions, how can education and empowerment be leveraged to create positive change, especially within your respective fields?

[Ann Iyonu]: I work as the Executive Director of the Goodluck Jonathan Foundation, which was founded by the former president of Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan. When you are working with a president, usually he is supposed to be smarter than everybody around him — that’s the perceived notion. But when you are working with the president, ideally you should be smarter than the president. You must always be ten steps, and if possible, twenty steps, ahead. That’s my own perspective. Education is knowing a lot about different topics — democracy, conflicts, context-specifics in the different countries we work in. I work in West Africa, so I have to know a little bit about politics, economics, socio-political life in all of the fifteen countries in the region. So educating myself beyond the education we see within the four walls of the classroom is very key. Learning from people, especially through assimilation (where you embed yourself in every community in which you find yourself), is another form of education. I allow myself to get assimilated; I learn the culture and the food, because we break barriers by being friendly with people. It’s not just the formal education that you need; it is the informal education — you can learn from peers, from people, colleagues. You can learn even by reading and keeping yourself abreast with current events. You must keep studying and studying. Just keep developing yourself; that has helped me. You guys are brilliant; I am sure you can help yourselves. Make sense?

[Ala Qasem] In my case, I’ve been educated in the West. I studied in Canada for my undergrad, I did my masters at Harvard University, and there was always this thought that maybe being educated in elite institutions would give you an advantage when you go back to your country, which in my case was Yemen. You’re going to get that advantage and you’re going to go back equipped with knowledge, and you will be able to push things in a direction that is necessarily better. One thing I’ve learned once I came back, and I came back to Yemen around the time of the Arab Spring, is that there is a level of knowledge that, as Ann mentioned, is not found in the books. It is the kind of tacit knowledge that needs only to be built through experiential learning. And that kind of knowledge only comes from being in the field and having yourself open to what the circumstances are going to teach you. It is only then that you will be able to understand systems that are not taught in books and relations that are not necessarily gained from just reading, but instead through experiencing. Those are very, very critical if you are to drive change in very difficult contexts. And they take time. Traditionally, this kind of tacit knowledge only comes from time, from putting yourself out there, and from being open to the fact that you’re not going to get it the first, second, or third time, but eventually you will be able to build it. That is the key thing — if you can link and connect that with the actual knowledge you are getting in schools here, then you will be able to create changes within complex systems that do not necessarily have pre-defined solutions. The solution only comes from being involved, and being able to adapt very quickly to changes and how the system pushes back. I think that’s one of the things that is very critical, and I have learned the hard way when I went back to Yemen and became part of the government. I hope that you get the chance to experience that, and to open yourself up to that level of training and education.

[Shamil Ibragimov]: I am the co-founder of a private school, the oldest private school in Kyrgyzstan, and I am mostly thinking and reflecting on the topic of high school education rather than higher education. Nowadays, in the time of high-speeds and tectonic changes that are driven by new technologies, we have to admit that the current system of education is outdated. It’s very static, it’s very slow. What you can do with this, this is my personal opinion, but I believe the most important thing you can get from education is to preserve curiosity, to make your passion to study, to develop it, to be curious. There is one phenomenon in school: when kids go to school in the first grade, on the fourth week they lose interest in studying. Because in the first four weeks [Shamil raises his hand above his head], they are so excited, they are so curious to learn something new, at the fourth week it’s like [Shamil drops his hand down low and makes a falling noise]. Their interest drops! Because the system that still exists kills their curiosity. They see that it is boring, that there is nothing to learn. My recommendation for you, for your age, wherever you are – twenty, thirty, forty years – preserve and nurture this curiosity. Because the moment you graduate from this university, the technical knowledge you are getting here will be outdated. Maybe in a year from now it will be outdated, AI drives a lot. You have to be curious, you have to find new questions, you know, that you will be curious to find the answer to. Thank you.

[Abdouramane Diallo]: I think my fellows here have said it all in the area of education and empowerment. I think what I’d like to share with you is that when we come from the kind of school we are in here, that we tend to want to be forward, we know a lot of things, I’ve seen and heard the best talk. I’ve felt the same as that, I did a graduate program at Columbia University. And then I went to work in the Middle East. So, I also was educated in the West, I come from the Ivory Coast, a French-speaking environment, a former French colony, so I studied in French schools, I studied in a French business school. I went to Columbia University. And then I went to the Middle East, to the Islamic Development Bank. And I went there with a conceptual framework of what I had learned in the West, so how to do peacebuilding in conflict-affected areas but I realized there it didn’t work like that. I was confronted with a lot of opposition of my views, and I felt that I knew things better than the people there. But it wasn’t the case; they knew much better. One of the best experiences I have had in my life is to learn from the people that I found there, in this institution where I was working. So, I founded an enterprise department in the bank worth three hundred thousand dollars, and then we brought it to forty-eight million dollars after four years, thanks to the people who were working there. Principally, because they had much better contextual knowledge of the place, they knew the players much better, and they were, especially, open-minded. That’s what I want to tell you. I went there with some ideas that I had from here, and whereas they had so many better ideas. What I am glad to share is to be curious, but to also let yourself be empowered by others. Don’t believe that you come from Yale or Harvard or from Columbia and then you are leading the world – those people, they know so much better. Just let yourself be influenced by others as well. Be humble and do that. I’ve co-founded companies, also, without having any knowledge of energy and agriculture or biotechnology, just because I’ve also worked with people from those fields who knew these things so much better. I humbled myself to the point where I could learn from them. That’s just a recommendation, learning actually happens both in the classroom and in the field, as my colleague said here, so just be humble and accept learning from others.

Question 3: In your individual experiences, what are some of the most pressing global challenges you have encountered in your fields of work and how do you navigate those?

[Raphaela Schweiger]: As I’ve said, I work on migration, and if you look at the world these days, you look at the high numbers of people displaced. You look at how many thousands of people don’t have access to education because they cannot continue with their life as they were planning and it was supposed to be. So, I think for me, when you talk about global challenges we can go through everyone here talking about migration, climate, agriculture, peace and conflict, the role of women in politics. For me it is a bigger question of how we envisage the world that we live in and how we create new collaborations and how we actually think and work together because we so many divisions and some of them are ending up in really big conflicts. Some of them are really visible, some of them are very present in the media, and others are not. I have been listening to so many colleagues, fellows, here. Over time, what it does to individual people’s lives and how much the geopolitics of it is influencing in that sense. If we are thinking about the [recording inaudible], thinking about how conflicts emerge and how to solve conflicts, thinking about different possibilities for the world, are we talking ourselves into conflicts between the US and China, are we talking ourselves into certain new challenges that we don’t need to have. How do we find different ways of thinking about it? And then you can go into all these areas that are increasingly interconnected and see how organizations and people are connecting. I work on how the climate crisis will affect migration in the future and already does. All the displacement we see all over the world is not only doing a lot of harm to people but is hindering economic development because people are being put into situations where they can really create. All the conflicts are hindering economic development. So what does that mean going forward, and I think places like here and people like you when you’re studying here, you can actually think about different possibilities for how to think about the world and how we can resolve some of those things in a very tiny way, having conversations about what are our commonalities as people in that sense. That was very broad, but I feel I wouldn’t only want to talk about migration.

[Binbin Wang]: So, as I mentioned, I work on climate. You may think the crisis I mention will be on climate, the climate crisis. Fourteen years ago if you had asked me the same question my answer would be “Yes! Climate! The climate crisis!” At that moment, I was in Copenhagen and it was also my first time participating in this kind of UN treaty policy, at this high-level, influential conference. I was shocked, and I said wow! So many people care about this issue, but it’s not enough. If other people don’t take action then we cannot address climate change together. Nowadays, through this program something here changed [Binbin points to her head], and the fellows here changed my mindset. Why? Because when we talk about climate change, now there’s a new goal, a new word and that’s carbon neutrality, right? And if we want to reach the carbon neutrality, net-zero future we should use more renewable energy, right? But renewable energy means that it’s another chance for humans to experience an industrial revolution. We can look back in the history of humans. Every time – the first industrial revolution, we found coal. The second one, we found oil. These are all fossil fuels; we need to use renewable energy. You can learn from the history, you can identify this is really a new chance for all of us. To only talk about climate is not enough. Renewable energy will change all our systems. Our lives, our working style, everything. Together with AI. Then when we talk about the future, the net-zero future, what should we think of? Beyond climate. This is now why I, together with my team, work on the synergy between climate and the other sixteen SDGs [UN Sustainable Development Goals], which we will reach the seventeenth SDG together when we reach a net-zero future. And then we can see what is happening around the world nowadays. As Raphaela mentioned, conflicts, right? And Janah [Binbin is referring to Janah Ncube, another one of the 2023 World Fellows who was not able to attend the event], Janah is not here, she showed us a map of the world this year. Only North America, part of South America, China, and South Africa are still in peace. All the other parts of the world are in crisis, conflicts. Civil wars or other kinds of wars. If we have more wars, then how can we reach the net-zero future? How we can we reach the SDGs? This is why we should care about this kind of issue together. We need to find the synergetic solutions, and we should open our hearts, open our minds to not only stand in our own silo, our own aspect of the future. It’s not enough. What I say is why should open our mind to the world, keep our curiosity, and think of what I can contribute. Otherwise, if we only stand in our own silo, and we refuse to learn new things then we cannot shake hands with other people. We should set up our connections between academics and practicers. This morning, one of my students called me and said “I got a new offer in the UN but I refused.” I said “Why?” He said “Oh, I have participated. You have given me a lot of opportunities, to support me through different kinds of UN conferences, and I feel tired. They are similar, you know. I don’t want to go to these kinds of fancy conferences anymore, I want to go into academia, to a university.” And I said “What do you need?” “I need to publish journal papers, more papers. I need to reach Nature, Science.” “I see. Any conflicts between these two, your experience in different UN conferences, and your research interests? Have you asked the people in this conference for their feedback, their own concerns about your research interest? Because they are in the real world! Have you tested your research interests with them? And if you can make good use of this opportunity, then you can identify the real problems, and then you can change your platform to that of a university and conduct research on that real problem. Then, you can contribute more to solving those real problems. There are also deep connections between these two.” So this is my suggestion: to keep open and to try and set connections to your world and open your world to the outside

[Questions 4 and 5 came from the audience]:

Question 4:

[Tomas]: Thank you all so much for your time and for being here, it has been great. This question is especially for those of you who work in development institutions, and economic development in developing countries (I, myself, am from Colombia). What I want to ask you is: how do you navigate the institutional challenges of the public and the private together? Of going into a national, institutional framework and trying to bring things from international governance, for example? Oh, and my name is Tomas and I am a sophomore in Branford.

[Abdouramane Diallo]: Look, how to navigate the challenge of international, public institutions and the private sector. To be honest with you, it’s very difficult, okay? I started my career as a banker, in Europe, so I’ve been always kind of private sector driven, and I decided to go back to school and join an international, multilateral development institution. But, you know, over time I got bored by the work in that development institution; it’s still very important what the institution does, but that’s the reason why I felt the need to go back a little bit to the private sector and try my way at entrepreneurship. That way, I could always be connected to some sort of world where I can see some concrete things. So, how I reconcile this is by actually acting, by trying to do my best to, you know, see private sector work, speak with companies, build companies, and understand those challenges. I had the chance to be in an institution where I understand the biggest issues and I’m connected with governments, with ministries, with influencers at that level, which is important. With resources, also, that they provide to do this work, but it’s also very good to be close to reality. Hence, being close to the private sector. I don’t really have a recommendation, you know, for that, but if you intend to do a career in a multilateral development institution, there is also always windows available at all institutions. They are always, I mean you’re from Colombia, you have the Inter-American Development Bank and you have the World Bank, and here you will always have some private sector sections that are there. Then, the biggest challenge is to overcome the administrative part of it, the red tape part of it. If you are someone who is really active, likes a fast-paced environment, then you know you have to make a choice where you would like to go: if you would like to go to the public part of it, or if you would like to strictly remain in the private part of it, that will depend on you. But what worked for me is to actually keep one foot in the private sector, while actually looking at the bigger issues and benefitting from the network of the public institution.

[Bam Aquino, addressing the audience member who asked the question]: Do you intend to work in Colombia or do you intend to work in the multilaterals?

[Tomas]: I’m still figuring it out, but I am leaning more toward the multilaterals.

[Bam Aquino]: So, from the perspective of a local practitioner, the big multilaterals come and there is a tendency to do everything they say. And that’s just not the case. You always have to remember, they come with good intentions probably, but sometimes things don’t translate the same – that’s happened in the Philippines many times. For example, policies that the World Bank pushed that on paper seemed really good but in practice didn’t really work. If you’re from the multilateral, just have the humility to understand how things really happen in the local setting because there’s a tendency for people from these multilaterals to come in with all the solutions. They say “oh, it worked in Colombia, it must work in the Philippines” and sometimes it just doesn’t. So always have that in mind.

[Ana Iyonu]: Let me just add to what Bam said. I think it’s all about context, knowing the context of where you want to work properly. Like he said, if they come with the idea that whatever worked in let’s say Venezuela should work in Colombia, I think it’s about understanding the context. Taking what you can, and applying it within in your own context. Because most times, they have the peripheral knowledge about the environment, but you have been somebody who probably comes from there, who understands the context and the issues better. It’s not about taking everything hook, line, and sinker, but applying it to your context.

[Naasu Genevieve Fofanah]: I will answer your question but because others have to ask, we can talk. I worked in government, I worked in the UN, I am now in the private sector.

[Ala Qasem]: I’ll add one more, one last thing. I think this is very, very important what you are trying to ask, and I have as well worked in the government, within economic development. One of the realizations that we have come to is the fact that, particularly in fragile and conflict-affected countries, or least developed countries, is that development will not happen by the government alone. You need the private sector, you need civil society organizations, you need all the actors. Now the challenge that we have faced when we are trying to mobilize the private sector is that in order for them to come in a context where there is a high cost for accessing finance, it becomes really hard. That formula of risk and reward, it is not calibrated in a way that makes incentives for the private sector to want to invest. So, what we are trying to do at this point in time is we are trying to work with development finance institutions and others to bring in some of the development financing to lower the risk for the private sector so that they can accept to work in countries like that. If I am, for example, the World Bank or others can I put in some money towards first-loss or [recording inaudible] so the private sector is going to come and it’s going say “this is going to make it now much more attractive for me.” This is where we need to start thinking of some creative solutions where you can bring the multilaterals or development finance institutions or others and bring the private sector and bring the government and get them to talk about what is it that is preventing that kind of synergy and that kind of collaboration and come up with solutions that are very pragmatic, that can be implemented. And that requires some dialogue, that requires some openness to thinking about some new innovative types of solutions. That is just one of the big issues that we are facing.

Question 5:

[Katia]: Hi, thank you so much for being here. My name is Katia, I am from Ukraine and I understand that if you want to go back and help your country it’s more about the skills rather than the concrete facts that you learn. And I love America, I love studying here, but I feel like my purpose here is to go back to my country and help there. But, for many of us, I feel that our home countries are quite different from where we study and go to university. So I was wondering: how can we be the most helpful and how can we overcome the fact the issues we deal with here and at home can be so different?

[Guy Disney]: Horrendous, to hear what’s going on at home for you. There will be light at the end of the tunnel. For myself, I mean from my point of view, while I was in the British army at [recording inaudible] I got my right leg blown off below the knee in Afghanistan, I lost a soldier, it was quite challenging. And then to lead expeditions with other injured soldiers – I’m not saying that to talk myself up but more seeing what human beings can do post-conflict. And you know I’ve been seeing the Superhumans Project you’ve got in Lviv which I think is exceptional. For me, it’s all about how do you empower society to be a better version of itself and it starts at the individual level and builds up. But you know, seeing the coverage that’s coming out, I’ve no doubt you guys have that in you, but it will take changemakers to do that. And it’s finding the grassroots projects that really can affect that, not losing sight of what you are as a society. There will come a point when it is over. And all of us, we still focus on the good society piece, and it’s fundamentally important. Making money — great. Being good politicians — great. But having people who are invested in what they believe and, I don’t want to sound too fluffy, but a slightly better world. Do go home. And make it better.

[Raphaela Schweiger]: Maybe I can just add, for my organization and philanthropy we work a lot with civil society actors in Ukraine who have left Ukraine for now, all across the world. And my sense specifically referring to Ukraine is that amazing people who can do great stuff are all over the place right now for all of the very dramatic reasons. I really believe all the people that I work with have the sense of “we want to rebuild” and are thinking about this and I think this will be an exercise where it doesn’t matter where you spent the time during the war, but more kind of what skills, what intents you are bringing to it. I think it’s horrendous what’s going on. There are coalitions that are being built right now for rebuilding, there will be major finances, there will be impact funds, there are already a lot of funds for civil society and social investments and start-up investments. When it comes to Ukraine I think there will be, on a positive note, a lot of opportunities that you can think about here right now, but probably you are in that world enough that you have and start something. What I’ve seen specifically from Ukraine is a lot of the digital connectivity of people just getting things done without being in the same place, which is very, very impressive, which is what I have seen coming out of this, even in this situation right now. So keep up that spirit, and go with it.

[Naasu Genevieve Fofanah]: So I returned home after living in the UK, I returned to Sierra Lione just after the civil war and I went back because I was feeling like you and needed, you know, I was hungry to go back home. So took the degrees, left everything here, a good job, and I returned home. I went back because nobody is going to build Ukraine for you. You are Ukraine [gestures at Katia]. You are the person who is going to build Ukraine. Because you understand Ukraine better. So you have to go with that zeal, understanding that you have more influence now. Networks. Education. That you can take to Ukraine and make Ukraine a better society. So what you have, which is really good, is the passion and the intentionality, which is all good, but you are going to make a difference. And when you get there – when I went back, I wasn’t expecting to do the things that I am doing now. I will tell you had I not gone back, I most definitely would not be at Yale University talking to you today. I am here because I returned to Sierra Lione. I learned, and I have supported, I have worked in Sierra Lione on post-war reconstruction. That’s the value I bring to places like this. So, go. You will find a niche. You will not find the big job you think Yale is going to give you, but you can create. And once you do that, it’s so valuable, you will expand; you are going to find all the rough diamonds. You will claim them, and come back here, and people will be in this room, trying to listen to you.

[Clapping from audience]

[Shamil Ibragimov]: We have an office in Ukraine, and the director is a good friend of mine. I noticed one thing, I was several times in Ukraine, what I really admire about the local initiatives in Ukraine. My point is that, after graduation from Yale, you will be inspired like I was to go big, to do something big, you know? To be employed by the World Bank, whatever. But the real things happen on the very local level. So my point is the best you can probably do for your country is to be “glocal”: think globally, and act locally. And that you will find, because you have a huge, great legacy in Ukraine of very local initiatives. I love them and I admire them. I love them so much that I implemented them back home, also. It is a competition between being humble and at the same time thinking big. And then you will end up with something really cool. Here at Yale, you will find so many opportunities. Then you can apply those opportunities. [Shamil expresses his support for Ukraine to Katia in Russian].

[Clapping from audience]

[End of transcript]