Dr. Inyang Ebong

access means opportunity | interview with dr. inyang ebong-harstrup

Former Deputy Director of the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation


Thank you for joining us for this interview series, we’ve been talking to experts in aging, mobility, technology, policy to uncover the business and social opportunities that inclusive and accessible products, services and experiences deliver.

Q. Could you share a little about your background?

I’m from Nigeria, of African and Caribbean descent With that mixture, Nigeria and St. Vincent, we don’t roll over and play dead. I grew up between Lagos and London and I went to school in England, to college in America, and I did my Ph.D. at Edinburgh. I grew up in a wide variety of contexts and understood very early on who’s in, who’s out and the difference that makes in access to opportunities and how sometimes not even being in gives you that access.

I was born in Canada, so I have dual nationality, Canadian and Nigerian, and my father  worked in the British Foreign Service. I grew up in a very cosmopolitan, highly political atmosphere, and that informed the way I look at life and the politics of living.

Professionally, I worked at the UN as Canadian JPO, and I stayed with them for 30 years. I’ve been working in development, I’m passionate about it, and a core concern of mine is access: who gets it, why and how.


Q. For someone who lives outside of the world of policy how would you describe access?

Access means having opportunities. You can go to the best colleges, and be in an environment that encourages performance and success, but if you don’t get access to opportunities, if you don’t get the help in reaching them, champions to push you forward, those opportunities are very difficult to obtain

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When I went back to Canada, having the right to reside, I begun reaching out to the networks because I wanted to work in development. The first thing I was told by Canadians, in Canadian CIDA and other establishments for development work, was I couldn’t have a position there because didn’t go to a Canadian University, such as Ottawa or Carleton. So immediately there was an exclusion. I couldn’t understand that because I’d gone to two very fine universities, Bryn Mawr College and Edinburgh University. Then, one day I went to see the head of Human Resources at Canadian CIDA and I showed the Director my CV. He said it was an excellent CV, and that I was highly qualified; and my answer was: “really, you think so?”  That’s how beaten down you get with exclusion. He said he would send it to you UNDP, because I would be an excellent addition there. That was somebody saying “come inside the tent”. I’m going to help you stay inside, and I’m going to push you forward”. That example stands out after all these years.


Q. What was it about that person that gave you access, that was different from the people that you’d spoken to before?

When people react like that, either they’ve had similar experiences or, maybe, they just understand that everybody deserves a chance and they help when they can. I don’t know what it was about him, except that he was an exceptionally humane and kind man, but it made the difference; and I’ve never forgotten. I’ve tried to be like that, especially in my professional life.

I have helped a broad range of people, with my emphasis and interest on those who are naturally excluded and aren’t able to get access, because of race/nationality, gender and cultural differences; I have used my positions and personal capacities to help other people get access and get moving.


Q. Can you talk about your experience at the UN and what you were doing regarding access?

I looked at access in two different ways. First, I would look at it from a professional point of view. One example is Trinidad and Tobago, where there’s an issue of ethnicity. There’s the Afro-Trinidadians, the Indo-Trinidadians, Chinese-Trinidadians, Syrian-Trinidadians, and caucasian-Trinidadians. Like in every Caribbean society, there’s a lot of racial mixtures with the main pillars being Indo and Afro- Caribbeans. The Afro-Caribbean always tended to be in government and in the civil service, and the Indians and Chinese went into the professions like medicine, law and the private sector.

In the early 2000s, a majority of doctors in the health system in Trinidad were of Indian descent and for a number of reasons they dominated the medical profession, and were in a position because of poor policies, to capture the health service, holding it as ransom and refusing to treat the poor people that were coming to the Government run hospitals; preferring to offer them treatment in their privately run clinics, where they would offer treatment at twice or three times the price which would normally be free or at minimal cost in the government hospitals. Poor people were excluded from health services in a very serious way.

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I went to the Prime Minister and I said to him “I can help you with this; people are not getting access to healthcare and it’s a very serious issue. You made a promise politically to reverse this”. We launched a UNV Doctor’s program and bringing in, at the behest of the government, a hundred doctors of different skills and nationalities, and they opened Government run primary, secondary and tertiary health clinics and hospitals. We reduced the backlogs for poor people of all groups: Indians, blacks, mixed, and they got access to excellent healthcare. We reduced backlogs in hospitals for urology, orthopedics, ophthalmology, etc.

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My emphasis was on access, and for people to get their right to good healthcare. But it was very political. I was verbally attacked by the Medical Union, where the leader was of Indian descent and in the four and a half years I was head of the UN in Trinidad he refused to meet with me, because I broke the stranglehold that the medical profession had over the poorer citizens of the country . That’s an example of a professional situation in terms of inclusion.

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Q. Inclusion isn’t just helping an underserved market; an inclusive strategy or solution benefits everybody. How would you say providing access to an underserved market benefits everybody outside of the social value?

There have been a lot of changes in terms of outreach to populations, influencing their actions and promoting projects that can now reach a much broader audience than one had intended because of the use of technology. I’ve been trying to work with Blockchain because of the potential that technology has, but even that can be limited depending on it’s application.

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What I’ve tried to do, workwise, is to affect and improve policy formulation and implementation. Having entry into a healthcare system that works properly benefits society as a whole; there’s no need to go to the private market to be treated, a person should be able to come to a general hospital and have their health properly taken care of.


Q. Something that interested me was your work with the South-South Cooperation. Is it also possible for countries to be excluded and not get access to opportunities?

Definitely. That’s what I’ve been working on with the oil and gas sectors. Along with Vivian Nabeta, a colleague of mine at the UN Office for South-South Cooperqtion, we’ve worked on the South-South Energy Initiative (SSEI). Small countries like Sierra Leone and Madagascar, that are finding potentialities in the oil sector usually don’t stand a chance against the more powerful competitors. That’s why we founded with the support of the Government of Ghana, the SSEI: to give countries who are just being exposed to the energy sector access to knowledge, information, experience and data provided by other, larger, southern countries that have been oil and gas producers for much longer.

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Because of the shared political, economic, social and cultural understanding between southern countries, it’s an opportunity for those more experienced in the south to help those smaller countries that don’t have the necessary capacities, without being batted about by the big global companies that have been known to take advantage of countries in this type of situation.


Q. Did other regions underestimate either Africa or Latin America and then discovered that there was something that they could get back from cooperation? One of the ideas behind the South-South Cooperation is that you’re not just giving access to a country or a region but you’re also hoping to get something in exchange, like knowledge or experience, or there’s some type of business transaction.

Yes, in the context of South-South you see it all the time. For example, Africa has just launched an intercontinental trade access agreement so there can be free passage and movement of people, goods and services across the continent. There was a period of horrible xenophobia in South Africa when citizens of other smaller countries came in to work, to look for opportunities; now there is a new codified norm which allows Africans to be able to move freely. That exchange of knowledge, capacities, etc. can only make us grow stronger.

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Also, it’s about how you use that opportunity for access. When you enter the space, the people or group that you’re trying to help may have a lot more ideas on where they need access, and to what level they want to take that access, but even in the context of South-South Cooperation the relationships between the bigger Southern countries and the smaller ones, can be as asymmetrical as those we have often seen in International Development Cooperation over the years, and if it is not managed well, could be just as detrimental over the long run.


Q. Are there other examples of access or inclusion that have sparked your interest, in your work or with other organizations?

Right now I’m in a transition period, looking at what my next chapters should be. One area that interests me and I think could make a huge difference in access, but also needs to be managed carefully, is technology, and within it Blockchain and the potential it holds to be transformative in the development sector.  This technology demands and will promote both increased access as well as transparency.

I have a colleague who wants to work with the Bangladeshi Government and Civil Society to bring 5% of the population that’s unbanked into a financial system through Blockchain, allowing them to access all sorts of assets and opportunities. I’ve been working with colleagues to have a serious and sober discussion about that technology in Africa, and how we could use it to create paths to access, assets and opportunities.

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Q. Among the unbanked there’s a group who are that way on purpose, like the Gen Z and millennials. Coming up with a solution that works for underserved countries could also be good for the more affluent people.

Are we talking about those generations in developing or developed country contexts? Actually, I don’t like those definitions of developing and developed, because even in the United States there’s a lot of under development. That aside, in developing contexts the use of technology is absolutely critical, and countries like Kenya have made huge advances. They are really keen on technological advancement and in fact they have set up a hub for technological development among other things, and you can see it benefiting young people, who are also very entrepreneurial.

 


Q. Is there anything else that you’d want to add in the topic of inclusion or access? Where do you see opportunities for policy makers?

The area that I’m most interested in is South-South Cooperation. That way of implementing development programmes and projects offer a lot of opportunities to share information, knowledge and to attain access, and we should use it to build the necessary capacities in smaller and struggling African countries. If some of the richer southern countries enter into that domain in a sensible way, not duping the smaller countries out of their assets but really engaging with them in the development journey, it could make a huge difference.

To continue the discussion of access I would use South-South Cooperation as a model, to see how we can increase access and opportunities in certain streams; Education, Research and Development in technology, and Energy would be a big part of that.

Dr .Inyang Ebong


Q. You talk about how access requires mutual interest and that’s a characteristic of inclusion: where someone is not only invited but it’s on their terms, and they can accept the invitation or not.

Also, it’s about how you use that opportunity for access. When you enter the space, the people or group that you’re trying to help may have a lot more ideas on where they need access, and to what level they want to take that access, but even in the context of South-South Cooperation the relationships between the bigger Southern countries and the smaller ones, can be as asymmetrical as those we have often seen in International Development Cooperation over the years, and if it is not managed well, could be just as detrimental over the long run.


Q. You mentioned that it isn’t about providing access so you can take from somebody; you have to keep on feeding that person or region.

It has to start with a mutual interest, with an understanding that both sides have something to offer. If we’re not careful, even South-South Cooperation could become a new form of colonialism, with the richer countries larger Southern Countries such as India, China, and Brazil, can enter in a way that doesn’t allow the other side to really maximize it’s assets, to compete and have access in a way that is mutually beneficial.


Q. Is there an example where a region brought new ideas that hadn’t been considered?

South-South Cooperation (SSC), and what my colleague and I did with the SSEI was an effort to offer to southern emerging oil and gas producing governments new ways of working using the tools of SSC to partner with long established southern oil and gas producing governments to manage their resources and address environmental concerns. While SSC tools may not be new, how they were to be applied was. And it was clear to us that SSC would work better when an understanding that both sides have something to bring to the table was foundational. Allied to that was the notion that the global south in the area of energy had access, assets and the capacity to support each other in the successful growth of the industry, while also being able to address and manage environmental concerns and alternative energy sources.

To continue the discussion of access I would use South-South Cooperation as a model, to see how we can increase access and opportunities in certain streams; Education, Research and Development in technology, and Energy would be a big part of that.

About Inyang

Inyang concluded her 30-year career with the United Nations Development Programme as the Deputy Director of the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC/ UNDP New York) in October 2017.  During those years she held a variety of positions both at headquarters and in the field. Her positions included Deputy Resident Representative and Acting Resident Representative (Tanzania) Resident Representative and UN Resident Coordinator (Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, Netherlands Antilles and Aruba) and Deputy Director for the UN Development Operations Coordination Office (New York).  Dr. Ebong-Harstrup currently resides in Chevy Chase MD.   Dr. Ebong-Harstrup holds dual citizenship of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Canada.


LinkedIn

Sonia Nabeta Foundation SNF focuses on TD1 in Children and uses South-South Cooperation as its vehicle for fighting this problem

Dress for Success which focuses on Women and their economic empowerment.

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