Tolu Olubunmi: Africa’s Crisis of Confidence


Rob talks to social entrepreneur and activist Tolu Olubunmi about the lack of faith in government in Africa—and in the rest of the world—particularly in response to the pandemic. They also discuss global migration, climate change, and how to maintain hope in dark times.

Transcript

Rob Johnson:

I’m here today with Tolu Olubunmi, who has worked in… As a social entrepreneur, she was trained as a chemical engineer and evolved into a political strategist. And that makes me grin because I was trained as an electrical engineer who evolved into what I’ll call a political economist. She’s worked in many areas with the United Nations, the International Office of Migration. I think you’re still on the board, I believe, of the U.S.A. office for IOM, which is now working with the United Nations. She was once named, in 2015, one of the 15 Women Changing the World and an Outstanding Woman Entrepreneur by the World Economic Forum. You’re a vibrant public speaker, I’ve seen you speak many times. You’re just woven in between business, government, civil society.

And originally, from Nigeria, came to the United States, has been very involved in the questions of immigration, climate change, and African economic development. Tolu, thanks for joining me today.

Tolu Olubunmi:

My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

Rob Johnson:

I’ve just, how would I put it? A pandemic like this is chaotic, and disconcerting, and disorienting for all of us, really. This isn’t a movie we’ve seen before. And yet, I see you with such breadth and awareness of things around the world, and with a kind of radiant, optimistic tone, whenever you’re in a public forum. So, if you said, “We’ve got to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” there’s nobody I’d rather talk with than you. But things are grim right now. They’re grim in the Global South, there’s really, really toxic politics in the United States and an inward look that is not helpful. How do you see what’s happening? What haunts you? What inspires you? What are examples that you think we should all be paying attention to?

Tolu Olubunmi:

Wow, there’s a lot of deep thinking questions. What haunts me? Oh, yeah, a lot of things. We’re living in rapidly changing time where the world and its structures are being uniquely challenged. There is massive disruption, high uncertainty, and the corona crisis has upended life for billions around the globe. I think what is at top of mind for me is really people. How are people surviving day-to-day? How are people adjusting? And how will we come out at the end of this? I’m originally from Nigeria, was born in Nigeria, and Africa holds a very special place in my heart. And I am frightened sometimes, because there is such, already such massive inequalities that exist, and healthcare systems that are not set up, some, on the best day to handle an average crisis, let alone this one, that is upending systems in the West and around the globe.

I am frightened and nervous about civil unrest, possible regime change in different places that might not be able to handle it. Those, I think, for me, are really the things that keep me up at night, thinking through how to not have a continent that, in some ways, is still playing catch-up, fall further behind. How to make sure that the gains that are being made on the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, continue to achieve its targets. And there isn’t a receding to old ways, there isn’t a pulling back from progress, because of fear of the repercussions of investing financially in those beyond your immediate sphere of influence. I think that’s what I would say is haunting me. Is that hunting enough?

Rob Johnson:

Well, I remember you shared an article with me, and a gentleman who’s, I believe, associated with the World Health Organization, named David Nabarro, said that the poor nations really don’t have the resources to effectively battle the coronavirus and that they are on the edge of losing faith in governance. I know, from my own experience working with Mo Ibrahim Foundation and others, that in Africa, on the continent, you have a relatively young population base. I think the average age on the continent is in the neighborhood of 28 years old, and the average age of governance, meaning, people in government, is in their 60s. In the United States, the average age is say, 37, 38, right in that window, and the average age of people in governance is 57. So, it’s narrower.

But what was startling to me, in Africa, was that the young people’s faith that governance was looking out for and building their future, the people who would affirm that notion was about 8%. And now, the pandemic, which I might call, taxes the resources and taxes the capacity of leaders to lead, and Mr. Nabarro, he spoke about, this could lead to social unrest and a great deal of unnecessary turbulence and death. I don’t, how would I say? Want to dwell on the darkness, but I think those challenges are real. How do you perceive it yourself?

Tolu Olubunmi:

The challenges are real. They’re absolutely real. And global health experts fear that the virus’ potential impact on the Sub-Saharan Africa could be just devastating in many of these countries that have weaker health systems. We’re wary of the devastation it could bring to some of the governments who haven’t acted or quickly haven’t acted as quickly in implementing travel bans or closing schools, banning large gatherings, et cetera. Though we saw that Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, they definitely did that, but others lags behind. So, there is quite a bit of nervousness, there’s also a need for there to be trust. You mentioned, as you spoke, about there being just a very low level of trust in citizens believing that the governments are looking out for them.

But, to be able to effectively navigate this crisis, there has to be trust. Citizens must trust that they are being guided by their governments, being guided by facts and science, and are acting in the best interest of society. Citizens have to retain their faith in their leaders and their ability to lead. So, that is a really incredible tipping point, where, if we don’t have that as a basis, if, I, as a citizen, I’m not convinced that what I’m being told to do is not in my best interest and will not save me and my family, there is an imbalance there, and that could be significantly problematic. And of course, that translates to, not just a social distancing that helps with this, but also, testing and contact tracing.

There is a lot of trust that has to go between governments and citizens in order for the people to willingly give up their health information, to be tracked, to be tested, so that there is a method to the madness, there is a way to address this in a scientific and a systematic way.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I sense that the key word here, trust, that you brought up, is something that’s very, very hard to achieve in my own country, and now, your country, congratulations on receiving your green card.

Tolu Olubunmi:

Thank you.

Rob Johnson:

The government that we have leading the country now, had a campaign in 2016, the essence of was, the system is rigged. And there may be some truth in that. But the denigration of expertise, and the collapse of faith and trust in expertise, or in the integrity of expertise, even in the United States, is now a tremendous impediment, to which I might call, first, calm nerves, and secondly, taking direction. When people in Michigan, where I come from, are holding rallies against being confined, when the quarantine of people and their movement is a public good that stops the propagation and the magnitude and duration of this, of the hoard effects of this pandemic.

We have real problems. And I’m not an expert on Africa, but I sense, in Africa and other parts of the Global South, the trust in governance is no greater or perhaps even more dire than in the United States. You’ve been… Go ahead, please.

Tolu Olubunmi:

No, no, no, please.

Rob Johnson:

No, I was saying, you’ve been, in your own life, faced with lots of challenges, and in, I mentioned moments ago, your immigration status was quite a stressful thing and inspired you, as you often do, to form political organization to alleviate that kind of distress for other people. We’re in a world now that’s kind of at the bottom of the barrel. I don’t know, things could get worse under authoritarian government and so forth. But, how do you address, when you’re surrounded by grimness, how do you find inspiration? How do you start making headway?

Tolu Olubunmi:

I think, for me, it’s going back to the well of experiences that have in the past lifted you out of places of darkness. Going back to battles won, understanding that though you may not have been in this particular battle, you have been in other battles and have been victorious. I think about just incredible struggles with my immigration status for many, many, many years. The work I did with undocumented immigrant youth here in the U.S., where, for the first time in the history of the country, there was a shifting of the narrative of who an undocumented immigrant is, and what our potential as people really is, what our value to this nation is. A retelling of the stories of our lives and our struggles and our victories, not by innuendos or statistics or by policy experts, but by us, by using our own voice, sharing these stories in our own words and being more connected than ever to the average American in making that human to human connection.

I go back to those moments where, whether it’s sitting in the chambers of the U.S. Congress and watching a vote that I’d fought years for, go down in flames, or, whether it’s sitting there and winning the next battle. It’s, you have to go back to your experiences. You have to go back to the people that have always been around you and supported you, to your networks. And for me, that is my family, and it’s my friends, and it’s my faith. Those are the things that really keep me grounded and keep me going.

Rob Johnson:

Well, and as a new American, I remember you once shared a story with me about the role of the theater performance and music of Hamilton in helping you dig out of a ditch.

Tolu Olubunmi:

Yes. I am a huge Hamilton fan. A huge Hamilton fan. It’s funny because I didn’t see Hamilton util last year, until 2019, but I saw it in the best possible settings. I saw it in Puerto Rico with Lin-Manuel, and it was absolutely incredible. I got the Hamilton soundtrack long before I ever saw a single person on stage performing. And I remember, when I got the soundtrack, it was actually while I was working in an African development institution, and one of our board members had heard me talking about Hamilton, and he’s like, “Okay, I can’t get you a ticket to the play, but here’s a soundtrack.” And so, I’d have it in my car, living in D.C., I drove around everywhere. So, I’d have it in my car and I’d have it playing. And I remember listening to the entire track from beginning to end and bawling my eyes out at the end of it.

This is, without seeing a single person, a single actor, but the music, the words, the lyrics, all of it made an incredible impression on me. And in 2017, a lot of people, and in my experience, I would say, particularly people that were in my world and dealt with U.S. immigration policy, or were immigrants themselves, that was a very dark period. In the spring of 2017, we’d had the Muslim ban, we’d had so much uncertainty in our society. We were fighting for, to keep the deferred action for childhood arrivals, which is a program instituted by the previous administration that aided in temporary status for 800,000 undocumented immigrant youth that were now working and thriving in the U.S.

Those battles were raging and I personally was dealing with whether or not I’d be able to even remain in the U.S., which has been my home since I was in high school. I went to college here, I joined a sorority here, this is life. This is where my family was, or is, and I was facing this untenable situation of possibly not being able to remain in my home. I’d lost out on an incredible job that I was certain would change everything and life would finally begin. And I went into quite a dark place. I retreated from all of the structures that had helped me stay sane in the past, and just went inwards in myself, had excessive insomnia for a bit and really struggled to dig myself out of it.

And I remember one morning waking up and talking to a dear, dear friend of mine who inspires me beyond words, and she had just one simple advice for me, she’s like, “Go to what’s happy. Try to remember the last time you were happy, and go there.” And the last time I remember being happy was in my car driving and listening to Hamilton. And so, I put on my headphones and blasted the soundtrack and just danced and laughed and went back to a time when I felt freer, I felt inspired by the story of a young man, who, by all estimations, should not have become who he became, should not have been able to create the legacy that he ultimately left the world with. He, as a person that made the impossible seem inevitable. And I relate so much to that. And I found hope and strength in that.

And that really for me was an important experience to have and hold close to my heart, because now I can go back to it. And even in the middle of this, I go back to that time and I can think at my lowest moments, I was able to dig myself back out, with family, with faith, with Hamilton, and just understanding that life goes on, in one form or another, life goes on. And your worst day does not have to be the legacy you leave for the rest of your life. You have an opportunity each day to build something different.

Rob Johnson:

Well, that’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. That’s really, how would I say? And the way I see it, the courage that you exhibit in sharing when you’re down is part of why you take people up. And I really, really enjoyed that little passage. Thank you. We’ve talked in the past, as in difficult circumstances, you’ve worked a lot in climate and questions of migration, working with the UN on a big project there just in the last year or so. Young people, Greta Thunberg, fresh eyes. My late friend who died on Christmas Day, William Greider, who was one of the most brilliant journalists and commentators on American political economy that I’ve ever encountered, he set up his website, and he was in his 80s at the time, I believe, or late 70s, early 80s, and one of his, I think it was first post, was about why he had so much trust in young people.

In an essence, it was because, they look at what’s needed, and they’re not conditioned by what’s feasible. And there are certain times when our institutions, whether government, private sector, our intellectual ideologies, have gone stale, have revealed fault lines, and need transition. Do you sense that the energy and the conviction of young people will be invigorated by this crisis as almost an unmasking, so we can turn the corner?

Tolu Olubunmi:

Absolutely. I don’t doubt it for a second. I think, for us, we lived in rapidly changing times. We’ve been through this before. I was reading a piece, not too long ago, that talked about how my generation has experienced two recessions successively. It feels like, and so close together. And that’s not normal. There was the advent of rise of the internet and new technologies that we’d never could have imagined, and we continue to just roll with it. And found opportunity and beauty and a way to not just enjoy life more, but also to create space for others to build a more fulfilling life. So, I don’t doubt that. At top of mind, for me, in this, is that we cannot allow this crisis to go to waste.

One of the people I enjoy learning from is Jean Case. I love her push to make failure matter. Our failures when it comes to this global pandemic, can be the basis for transformational change in addressing the impact of climate change or building empathy that leads to action on the migrant and refugee crisis that is still raging. For the first time in our history, each of us, every single one of us on this planet can relate to every other person in some way. We are all going through the same storm, and although we’re not in the same boat, some are riding out the storm in yachts, while others are barely keeping their head above water in rafts. But still, still, there is a connectedness. And that empathy can drive a solution, it can drive us in this situation to search for better.

It is now easier to draw a near direct line between citizens in the West and their race to protect their families from the same potential threat as that of migrants and refugees who long before this crisis struggled with educating their kids, preserving their livelihood, having access to medical care and other resources. So, in the midst of massive amount of tragedy and suffering, I think we have to honor all of that by learning from it, growing from it, and making necessary adjustments to ensure that we never go through the same crisis the same way again. But, more than that, we can even take the opportunity to fix those parts of our world that have always been broken, but are made ever more plain, if I could say it that way, by this crisis.

Rob Johnson:

And who was the author that you cited, that…

Tolu Olubunmi:

Jean Case.

Rob Johnson:

Jean Case. Because I’ve read similar works of similar spirit, A Paradise Built in Hell, by Rebecca Solnit. The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster was the subtitle. Or the Buddhist, Pema Chodron’s book, when things fall apart. And that’s more about the inward disciplines that one adopts in order to become constructive and the contributor. One of the things that I find fascinating, and this really relates to the Institute for New Economic Thinking, is that, I heard you say earlier in this conversation, that dwelling on the human, focusing on the human, a lot of our mechanical abstract economics is which I might call icy, it’s cold, it’s distant from humans, as though, what you might call a dispassionate view from afar, may, how do you say? Not make you victim of the siren songs of temptation.

But I think economics has, how would I say? Perhaps gone too far on the pendulum of trying to avoid the notion of humanity and feelings and emotion, and psychologists and literary and artistic figures can, how would I say? Help us come back to the table. But in my conversation with you in recent days, I heard another thing you repeatedly uttered, which is, instead of seeing the Global South, or this place in Africa, or that place in India, as another nation, people are recognizing that we’re all in this boat together. I’m reminded, not a particularly, a happy statement, but Martin Luther King once said, in reference to the United States, “We all came in on different ships, but now we’re all in the same boat.” Or, “We’re all in the same boat now.”

Is there potential, is there energy in, when we talk about antiseptic notions of global governance, but is there now, a positive energy associated with people connecting with the suffering and humanity, wherever on earth? And is there a possibility for analogs to things like a Marshall Plan or a structure, where resources are transferred to support those poorer economies in the Global South, those poor societies, excuse me, in the Global South, who need resources and who are in tremendous danger of a prolonged and deep crisis?

Tolu Olubunmi:

Absolutely. I’m a scientist like you, we believe in facts and numbers, et cetera. And as much as I am a scientist, and I am about statistics and what makes sense, I also understand that people are people, are people. And although numbers and statistics have their place and they are extremely important, but you have to first connect with people as human beings. You have to find that commonality. You have to find a way to relate and then start a conversation. Because, not only does it give you access to that person on a very basic, very human level, and to their heart as opposed to just their brain, it also allows you to make a link and to make a better argument that suits the individual or the community that you’re communicating with, rather than one that is purely based in innuendos or statistics that may not completely translate to the person you’re talking to.

Breaking down barriers, exposure as a tool of social change is incredibly important. Exposure to those, and inclusion of the other. Breaking down of assumptions that dehumanize and creates an impulse to recoil and fear or maybe strike out. When you connect with the person, all of that changes. And I see opportunity in this moment to say, I may not understand what was happening in your country that got you on a life raft through the Mediterranean to try to get yourself to Europe, but I do understand, after losing my job, and my daughter was unable to go to school, and my town was shut down, I understand the fear and the frustration of not knowing where to turn to for help.

Building that bridge means that we can start from a place of trust, a place of understanding, a place that recognizes and respect our common humanity. I think that change, particularly change that politicians may not see in their direct interest, has to come from the people. I am a firm believer that all politics is local, you really do have to connect with the individual. So, start with the individual, then the community, and then go up from there. And that is the way to build lasting change. We saw that here with the Affordable Care Act, where policy came before really a mass movement and mass understanding of the need for this in a person-to-person level, and then we spent years defending it. But the second that people related to it more, the second they experienced it more and understood, “This is my life.”

It was your life, and I did not get it, and yes, we should do better at making sure that you don’t have to personally experience pain, for you to care for another person’s pain. We should absolutely do better with that. But in this moment, what we do have is an opportunity to make a simple connection and say, “We can relate on a human level, let’s use that as a foundation to build better.” Because, this crisis is really just revealing very plainly, areas that have been broken, healthcare systems that have been overtasked, communities that have not had the resources that they’ve always needed, black and brown businesses that haven’t gotten the support that is needed or the economic relief that is needed, whereas others do. All of these things have always been there.

They have been made worse by this, but I am hopeful that we can take advantage of the opportunity to recognize it and make it better, and not just honor the struggle. I think that’s one thing we tend to do is, we magnify and honor the struggle, and put our essential workers on a pedestal, but we don’t give them the basic things that they need, a living wage, hazard pay, recognition of the work, accompanied with appropriate measures to make sure they can continue to do that work and protect themselves and their families. All of these things are opportunities for us to be and do better.

Rob Johnson:

You, in your, what you might call organizational or managerial dimension of your talent, have worked very hard at, what you might call, the weaving together of government, philanthropic organizations, and the private sector. And as you envision the challenge here, are you seeing a positive response from each of those three areas that, how would I say? You’d like to aluminate? Is part of what you might call the rungs in the ladder of a return to hopefulness, evident to you, in each of those sectors of society?

Tolu Olubunmi:

There are people that are doing very well, and then there are others that need a little bit more coasting along. So, there, you look at example of governments doing incredibly well. You look at New Zealand, and Jacinda Ardern, and what she’s doing and how she’s leading her country, doing incredibly well, leading with empathy, backed by science, and governing in a way that is building trust. That is an example of governments doing exactly what’s needed to protect their society, to protect their citizens. You look at businesses that are also making a pivot to not retreat from investing in their social impact initiatives, but doubling down and doing more. The financial crisis is certain to curb investments in social change, at least, on the short term. Layoffs, demand is depressed, production has stalled, but there’s also an opportunity for companies to make their pivots to protect themselves.

And by themselves, I mean their employees and their consumers, and also protect the planet. So, there is an opportunity to be flexible, to pivot, to do what is necessary on the philanthropy side. There’s such a tremendous need right now, and there are less resources available. So, I do have a fear of an overburdening of that system, and we’ve seen it with food banks here and in the U.S., in the resources that they’re able to provide. However, there is opportunity for each of us to find ways to contribute in greater ways to these organizations. It could be financially, it could be with time, of course, doing it with and through the lens of social distancing, whatever it is that we can do, however we can push forward through this.

Yes, absolutely, there’s opportunity. It’s not exactly done yet. I don’t know if this is the absolute darkest before the dawn, but we’re definitely somewhere around, I don’t know, maybe 3:00 A.M., so, we still have a little while to go, but there is light at the end of this tunnel.

Rob Johnson:

And, how would I say? Do you think, when you look at Asia, do you see a new form of leadership, a new form related to governance emerging? People in America are always in dread that they’re losing their, what you might call a leadership role to the Chinese. On the other hand, when your model of organization is found wanting, if you’re fearful, you can double down on your mistakes, and if you’re inspired, you can evolve. Are you seeing, as you look at the United States and as you look at China, how do I say? The sound’s beginning to shift in a constructive direction or a destructive direction in either of those places?

Tolu Olubunmi:

I think when we look at what divides countries that have done well in this crisis versus those that haven’t, it really centers around governments that have depended on experts and acted swiftly, particularly in the East Asian countries. South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, have done incredibly well in this. And there is, at minimum, with scientists, clear global corporation, when it comes to addressing this. There are lessons learned that are being shared. Those lessons learned, in some cases, are translating to effective policies being put in place. And that is a good thing. There is no one at the top or at the bottom, there is, who is doing this effectively, and where can we learn? The usual structures, not just in business, but in governments, aren’t necessarily working as effectively as they have in the past.

Some would argue they’ve never worked as effectively as those leading the countries would say they have. But, relying on just solutions that have proven effective and looking at governments that have been able to do well, there are lessons that the United States is learning from these East Asian countries, that is translating to be extremely positive in how we address this crisis.

Rob Johnson:

As I listen to you, I remember a book I read years ago, and it’s called The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World. It’s by the Jungian psychologist named James Hillman, who’s written many great books. But it’s, I sense that you, what you call, you see, and I don’t mean this in a literal optic sense, you see the potential for the return of the soul to the world in this turmoil, this shaking off of habits, as the Chinese, crisis is opportunity. I said earlier. Do you have a vision of how you’re going to narrow your focus? And do you have a zoom lens of, where you’re told who’s going to make a difference in this next phase?

Tolu Olubunmi:

Oh, everywhere I possibly can. Opportunities are popping up every day. For me, my priority has always been people. I have a heart for people. And I’ll be perfectly honest with you, it wasn’t always that way. I grew up wanting to simply be an engineer. That was my dream since I was eight years old. Breaking the VCR, trying to figure out how it worked, where the credits at the end of movies went, that was my focus, that was all I wanted to do. And then life threw me a significant curve ball when I could not work in my own field, and I had to look beyond myself. And I really gained something incredibly valuable by learning to understand people in the world, to be gentler and more generous, to see the gray, and understand that people do not live in the black and white, they often do live in the gray. And leading with empathy is important.

It’s amazing what going through a struggle you never thought coming, does to change your view of the world, to change how you see your place in the world. I worked for free for many, many years, helping to advance a cause of young people that were struggling to make a life in the only home they’d ever known. And for me, that is what I want to continue to do. My work in U.S. immigration policy, global migration, my work at the United Nations on climate change, continues to center around people. There is an incredibly valuable opportunity right now for business to take a lead and filling the gap between what we have and what we lack. We’ve never needed social governance to be a more democratized entity than we do now. There’s an opportunity for businesses to do well, while making it a priority to build a more sustainable world, while making their consumers a priority, while making their employees a priority.

There is an opportunity for business to take a lead in shaping this next phase of our civilization in a sense, and center it around people, center it around progressive policies that is kind to our planet and to the people that whether work with them or are consumers of their products. As the world eagerly pursues a return to normal life, we absolutely should strive for a new normal that embraces a more balanced relationship with our planet and with each other. My goal is to continue to help find the gaps, the spaces where we can build that more balanced relationship between the work that businesses are doing, governments are doing, and civil society is building towards.

Rob Johnson:

And I guess there’s another dilemma in, I know you’ve lived right in the center of it, which is, does the pandemic, the disorientation it creates, and the fatigue, impede the momentum towards addressing the climate challenge? We’ve exhausted fiscal resources, et cetera, “We can’t afford it,” because of this, to transform our energy systems rapidly. Or, do you see that the, what you might call the ideology that was reluctant to embrace in collective action, is now shattered by the necessary response to the pandemic, and that we can essentially learn from this and move forward and accelerate the collective priority of climate change? Do you have a sense in that pendulum? Is it going to slow down, is it going to accelerate? Or what?

Tolu Olubunmi:

Well, the coronavirus pandemic, quite similarly to climate change, is partly a problem of our economic, our societal structures. While, on the surface, they are environmental problems, one can argue that they are socially driven and it is centered around our need to manage consumption. And addressing both, absolutely requires a rethinking of what we need, making adjustments to what we deem as necessary, and our priorities, our economic priorities or social priorities. And normal interventions for both can’t work. And oftentimes, there is this kind of, “All right, let’s produce our way out of this problem, let’s spend our way out of this problem.” But what we need with the coronavirus pandemic is the scale-back. Essential workers are out there doing everything to keep us safe, and the rest of us are asked to stay home and focus on what we absolutely need in terms of goods and services.

There has been a climate effect to all of this, where we’ve seen the clearing of air in so many spaces. In L.A., that the fog and the smog is lifted, the same in India. Pollution rates have dropped in so many areas around the world, but we have to, it would be easy to say, “Oh, this is fantastic for the climate.” Even as the sea turtles are playing and the waters have never been clear even in Venice. It would be easy to say, “Let’s keep this going,” but that’s not the perfect solution. The perfect solution isn’t shutting down everything, the perfect solution is finding a balance and a way to scale back production and the hustle and bustle of life. It does not mean the loss or the collapse of economies and our livelihood.

There is no reason for us to now think that addressing the climate crisis is impossible. It is clearly possible. And the climate crisis is as much a crisis, and will be as much a crisis for a generation to come, as is this pandemic. Climate change is disproportionately affecting folks in the Global South. It is disproportionately affecting those that are already facing significant inequities. As with the coronavirus, it has and will continue to expose the broken areas of our economic structures. And there is an opportunity for us, having pulled back now, not to say, “Well, let’s just go 200 times ahead, to replace all that was lost.” I think there has to be a rethinking of, again, what is necessary, and how do we build a new world? As we just push through what’s normal, how do we find this balance of a new normal, that allows us to prioritize effectively?

I worked on a World Economic Forum project and lots of World Economic Forum projects a few years ago, that focused on remote working as an alternative to physical migration. And I remember, all the problems that you faced when it came to taxation and not physical migration, but legally, how do you employ folks across borders? What are the infrastructures that need to be in place for people to work remotely? So much of that has gotten thrown out the window now, where it’s like, “Yeah, we’ll figure it out. Don’t worry about it, we’ll make it work.” Yes, there’re still gaps in infrastructure, but there’s an opportunity for us to build up resiliency in those areas. These things are possible. We understand now that the multiple trips every day to the same location, or grocery store, or a mall or whatever, is not necessary. You can actually do that in a more effective way.

There’re opportunities to look at new technologies, that allow the things that you need to be brought directly into your homes. And there is not necessarily the need for you to constantly be out in the world. I also recognize that staying home, for many people, is an absolute luxury, and there’s so much more that we need to do, to make sure that each and every person has everything that they need, to be able to live free of fear and lack. But, when it comes to climate, this is giving us a preview into what I pray not, but what could be our future, in the negative aspects. In the positive aspects as well, when you look at the decrease in pollution, et cetera. But in the negative aspects in terms of inequalities being magnified. We have to deal with this before it forces us to shut down the way we’ve had to, right now.

If we don’t deal with climate change incrementally, and we let it get out of control as we have been, then we will face the same crisis again. And as someone who’s already been through her fair share of crises, whether it’s recession or this, and who knows what else is to come? I’d rather not go through another. So, if, for nothing else, for me, can we try to find a solution that would be ideal?

Rob Johnson:

You had, just for the benefit of our listeners, you had mentioned to me that you were very inspired by the writings of Simon Sinek in his newest book called The Infinite Game. I remember you said something, the phrase you used was, it embraces an existential flexibility. Can you explain to me why his writing inspires you at this moment, and what is contained in that notion of existential flexibility?

Tolu Olubunmi:

Absolutely. I absolutely just adore and respect Simon Sinek. This is the idea that businesses should hone making 180 degree turn to take advantage of new technology or deal with a completely changed environment. This crisis we’re in feels unprecedented, but, for the corporate role, it’s not necessarily. Changing technology or cultural conditions is not something new and it’s been challenges that businesses have faced in the past and has challenged the current business model. Simon uses the example of the rise of the internet. Businesses were agile, and those that survived were able to pivot and incorporate those. Those that weren’t, were not able to. For example, you look at Blockbuster, Netflix and Blockbuster were alive at the same time, one continues, one is not around anymore. Businesses have to be agile enough to pivot.

When it comes to climate change, there’s always been that concern about us being able to do that, but it’s clearly possible. What needs work is scaling back in the areas that we must dial back for the effects of runaway climate change to not overwhelm our economies or collapse our economies in many situations. But, I absolutely love the idea of being flexible enough to be able to shift as conditions change.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I remember Sinek once said something to the effect that, when people are trying to deal in this chaotic circumstance, they’re not competing for a year-end bonus. He said something to the effect that we do these things because we think we’re contributing to something that’s bigger than ourselves. Something that will have value that will last long beyond our lifetimes. Well, I want to say to you, in listening you today, to you, and envisioning what kind of leaders we should have in this country, and on this planet, I was inspired by a song that came into my mind, by the rock and roll band, U2. And it’s written, it’s called 40, and it’s written like 40, the number. It’s written, where the singer, Bono, is appealing to God to turn the corner.

And then, at the beginning of the second verse, in talking, and this is an analogy to Psalm number 40 in the Bible, he says, “He set my feet upon a rock, and made my footsteps firm. Many will see, and many will see and hear. I will sing, sing a new song. I will sing, I will sing a new song.” The world needs a new song. And in these last 58 minutes, you’ve been one heck of a singer. I really enjoyed your observations and the inspiration that you provide, and I’m looking forward to watching your journey continue to unfold, and I hope you’ll come back and join me at various steps along the way. Thanks for being here today.

Tolu Olubunmi:

Thank you so much. This has been absolutely incredible. I’m truly honored for the opportunity. And thank you for sharing that song with me, that is incredibly inspirational. I think, for me, there is just this need to continue to yield to the call of better. And I am finding that in so many areas of life, so many people all around me are yielding to the call of better. Young people who are in their senior year and unable to go to a prom, or families that are in situations that are completely untenable, are finding ways to yield to better. And I’m grateful for that. I am grateful to be surrounded by people like you that are really helping to make this world just brighter.

Rob Johnson:

We will talk again soon. Thanks.

Tolu Olubunmi:

Thank you.

Rob Johnson:

And bye-bye.

Tolu Olubunmi:

Bye-bye.

About the Host

ROB JOHNSON serves as President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Johnson is an international investor and consultant to investment funds on issues of portfolio strategy. He recently served on the United Nations Commission of Experts on International Monetary Reform under the Chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.

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About the Guest

TOLU OLUBUNMI is an entrepreneur and global advocate for migrants, refugees, and internally displaced people. An innovative thinker and determined change-maker, Tolu has established and led several organizations and campaigns focused on education, migration, youth empowerment, employment, and climate change.

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