This interview is adapted from a segment in the Brookings Cafeteria podcast called “Coffee Break,” where a scholar at Brookings introduces their background, research interests, and offers book recommendations. The transcript has been slightly edited from the audio recording.
Hello. I’m Landry Signé, and I’m a David M. Rubenstein Fellow for the Brookings Institution Global Economy and Development program and Africa Growth Initiative. I work on bridging the world of ideas and actions.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I was born in Cameroon and grew up in Cameroon, France, and Canada, before coming to the United States. I also spent some time in the United Kingdom and have traveled all over the world, which let me explore many of the most innovative and diverse countries on six continents.
I was lucky to have understood the power of education quite young, with the encouragement of my family. I learned a lot from my parents’ tremendous work ethic and resilience, which helped them beat the odds to lift themselves out of poverty.
Starting from scratch, I worked hard to obtain my education on three continents—in Africa, Europe, and North America—in institutions such as the University of Lyon, Montreal, McGill, Stanford, Oxford, and Harvard. I was the first in my family to attend university and earn a doctorate, and received it with the award for the best international Ph.D. dissertation. After that, I achieved both the fastest tenure and promotion from an entry-level position to the highest rank of Full Professor of Political Science reported in the history of U.S. universities.
But I’m not just a scholar—I’m also bridging the world of preeminent ideas and impactful actions and ensure the successful delivery of innovative solutions. My commitment to society started quite early: when I was a young child, my mother Joséphine used to say, “Landry! Tu ne peux pas à toi tout seul porter tous les problèmes du monde entier sur ta tête” (“Landry! You cannot alone carry all the world’s problems on your head”). Since I was born in Cameroon, I quickly developed a consciousness about my environment and always tried to solve all the problems around me, giving everything of the very little I had. From this I became committed to serving society, whether organizationally, locally, nationally, or internationally, with excellence and high positive impact and outcome.
I’ve come a long way from my childhood, but I’ve still kept that commitment to service and “dream” to change the world. These days, I often fly around the world to help companies, governments, and international organizations adapt and improve their efficiency and performance in a fast-changing world. Sitting on boards and councils or offering policy and business options to top global leaders and chief executives, I facilitate high-level discussions and the creation of innovative, implementable strategies to advance important issues for Africa and other emerging economies. Using knowledge and know-how acquired along the way, I have been the curator for the World Economic Forum’s Transformation Map of Africa and the Chairman of the Global Network for Africa Prosperity, and have engaged with the foremost political, business, academic, and society leaders to accelerate the transformation of Africa and the emerging world.
My adventurous life experiences have also transcended into my love for thrill-seeking hobbies, from piloting planes to walking safaris with gorillas and cheetahs to skydiving, shark-diving, and more!
Q: What inspired you to become a scholar?
A: When growing up or traveling as an adult in Africa and other developing countries in Asia and Latin America, I was surrounded by many problems that either were effects of or worsened by poor economic performance and bad governance –including famine, hunger, political oppression, diseases, corruption, floods, and natural disasters. Through my travels, I’ve also seen the contrasts between developing countries and advanced economies in Europe and North America, as well as deep variations in wealth and inequality within each country.
As a child in Cameroon, I grew up dreaming big about how to generate economic opportunities and inclusive growth, bring about world peace, and end extreme poverty. Quite early, I have learned and developed small-scale initiatives to solve some of these challenges, including innovative agricultural and livestock practices and technologies, highly profitable trade, leadership in humanitarian organizations, and the organization of vaccination campaigns. But a more systematic and structural transformation was necessary. Nelson Mandela’s words resonated with me then and now: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I realized that quality education, science, technology, governance, and development strategies offer massive opportunities to address local and global challenges, but only if policy, business, and civil society leaders could make the right choices – together. So, I decided to devote my life to improving the state of the world through education, scholarship, policy and business engagements, and transformational leadership.
My mission since then has been to conduct cutting-edge, independent research to explain and contribute to the elimination of underdevelopment, ineffective governance, and limited continental integration in the developing world with innovative solutions and policy options. I also aspire to help least-developed and middle-income countries overcome barriers to sustainable economic growth, wealth creation, and inclusive development and shared prosperity.
In this process, I’ve received over sixty awards and distinctions. Among these, I’m humbled to have been named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader for finding “innovative solutions to the problems faced by humankind” and “positively impacting global challenges,” an Andrew Carnegie Fellow as part of the world’s “most creative thinkers,” a Tutu Fellow as representative of an “elite group of Africa’s highest potential” and of the “generation that drives the transformation of Africa,” and one of the JCI Ten Outstanding Young Persons in the World for Academic Accomplishments and Leadership. But more than awards, what makes me happiest is the smile I can see on the faces of students, mentees, colleagues, and leaders benefiting from the positive impact that came from my efforts to make their lives better. This sign of happiness is priceless.
Throughout my education and professional life, I’ve been fortunate to be inspired by extraordinary scholars and mentors such as Larry Diamond and Francis Fukuyama from Stanford University, Paul Collier from the University of Oxford, Nicolas van de Walle and Muna B. Ndulo from Cornell University, and Mamadou Gazibo from the University of Montreal. They have, with many others, made a difference in my trajectory.
Q: What do you think is the most important issue that we’re facing today?
A: The Fourth Industrial Revolution offers unprecedented opportunities to solve many of the world’s most critical issues, but also tremendous challenges, especially between the haves and the have-nots.
I am concerned by the recession of economic freedom, of multilateralism, and of democratic values, as well as cyber threats, poverty, inequality, fragility, and insecurity, all of which will be affected by the Fourth Industrial Revolution in ways that are difficult to predict. Never in history has humankind been able to influence its own destiny at the intensity of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Discussions about the Fourth Industrial Revolution tend to focus on advanced economies in the West, but the Fourth Industrial Revolution is not just sitting inside the start-ups of Silicon Valley: pockets of innovation are exploding across the globe and beginning to shake the foundation of states and markets, including on the African continent. A new era of technology will inevitably empower new players in the international political economy; firms, governments, and investors who can adapt to fast-paced disruptions may end up taking the reins of global leadership and prosperity. But appropriate action should be taken to make sure that no one or no country is left behind.
Let’s consider Africa as illustration: Africa has not only been home to many of the fastest-growing countries in the world for the last two decades, but it also resisted the global financial crisis better than most other regions, making the continent a place of tremendous economic opportunities and high returns. However, despite immense progress made during the past two decades, including with the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals, too many places in Africa need to fix structural and fragility challenges such as violent extremism and terrorism, persistent insecurity, conflicts, democratic backsliding, and state fragility.
It is therefore critical to generate—through rigorous, innovative, and evidence-based research—new thinking and innovative policy options to unlock Africa’s tremendous potential and improve its relations with the rest of the world, while addressing its most pressing structural and governance challenges. This could include fixing fragility given the next wave of economic development, security, and humanitarian issues and providing solutions to reverse illicit capital flows and generate better revenues from natural resources, thus increasing domestic resource mobilization.
Q: What are you working on right now?
A: My broader research agenda focuses on the political economy of global development, Africa, governance, fragility, business, and emerging markets. In essence, I try to understand why some countries succeed while others fail, and how to fix them. I compare and contrast outcomes in terms of economic growth, development, regional integration, governance, state fragility, security, democracy, public service delivery, business, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. I also analyze the relations between the North and South, including between Africa and the rest of the world, with a focus on economic, security, diplomatic, and development dimensions. For example, I explore the competition between great powers and emerging countries in their quest for geopolitical influence, energy, arable land, food, and business opportunities in the newly rising Africa.
Since my arrival at Brookings, I have launched a couple of books, both published by Cambridge University Press.
- Innovating Development Strategies in Africa: The Role of International, Regional, and National Actors (October 2017, Cambridge University Press) which explores the key drivers of policy innovation and economic transformation in Africa, analyzing the role of national, regional, and international actors in such processes.
- African Development, African Transformation: How Institutions Shape Development Strategy (December 2018, Cambridge University Press) which studies how institutions—including continental institutions—evolve and shape development outcomes and interstate cooperation, including the newly created African Continental Free Trade Area.
My next upcoming book (to be published in 2019 with the Brookings Institution Press) is about unlocking Africa’s untapped business potential. The book covers eight sectors, trends through 2030, and opportunities, challenges, and strategies for doing business on the continent. The book reflects my deep belief that private sector development is one of the keys to unlocking Africa’s economic potential. Another forthcoming book is about the origins, trajectories, and performance of governance systems and state capacity to deliver public goods and services in Africa.
Besides books, reports and op-ed, Acha Leke and I have just released a leading essay for the Foresight Africa chapter entitled Africa’s Untapped Business Potential: Countries, Sectors, and Strategies. We focus on spotlighting the opportunities for business in Africa to succeed in the world’s next big growth markets. I’m also finalizing a few reports on Africa’s role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, fixing fragility and the security-development-humanitarian nexus, and the key components needed for successful implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area.
Q: If you could recommend any books for our listeners, what would it be?
A: The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama. It is simply the most enlightening book presenting the evolution of human societies and organizations across millennia. It provides unique insights on the successes and failures of nation building, quality institutions, state rule of law, and accountable government, and also explains the variations of outcomes between countries which are more prosperous, peaceful, and democratic compared to others.
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