Wednesday 4 September 2019

Peter da Costa: Teacher, mentor, visionary and friend

This morning I had the sad privilege of attending the memorial of Peter da Costa, along with some of his family and friends here in London. Taking place in the suitably grand surroundings of Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, we said goodbye to a teacher, a visionary and passionate advocate for the rise of Africa and all its people. With the word ‘all’ being the important one.

I’ve never written an obituary before, and by comparison to the heartfelt and beautiful contributions this morning it won’t compare. But many of you knew Peter as did I, as a co-conspirator, a colleague and a friend with whom we conjured up ideas and tried to find ways to bridge divides and try doing old things in new ways. For those of us trying to contribute to peace, to fairness and human progress he was in my view the sort of person humanity desperately needs more of, but of whom it has so few. Amid the sadness however, and Peter would be the first to say this, his ideas remain with us even if their progenitor does not. We can all build on them.

Peter was a man of amazing combinations. A fierce intellect, reflected in an academic record that broke new ground, combined with a deeply human, humble and empathetic approach. The happiest I ever saw Peter was when he was drawing ideas out of people who hadn’t had the chances he’d had, couldn’t articulate them in the same language, but did have the qualifications of experience and a willingness to share it.

A profound sense of pride, particularly in the younger people he worked with and whose potential he sought to bring out, particularly in the form of partners supported by the Hewlett Foundation, for whom he worked as an advisor. Yet this was often combined with a lack of tolerance for what he perceived as laziness, from whomsoever it came. I think in hindsight he couldn’t stand the idea of people not contributing what he could see they were able to, in the mission to which he was so committed.

But in that mission, which I would describe clumsily as Africa finally emerging as a continent among equals, with all of its people – women every bit as much as men – able to reach their potential, he exhibited another combination. A depth of kindness and non-judgmental empathy to those around him, together with a fierce lack of tolerance for corruption or the abuse of power, from whomsoever that emerged.

Peter understood and spoke the languages of different tribes in the development world. Technology. Political economy. Innovation. Data. Evidence. Power. Conflict & peacebuilding. That he could combine them and see new ways for them to work together was reflected in his many achievements. He broke boundaries and silos, persuaded governments, pushed through sheer stubbornness and supported initiatives that stood the test of time, such as the Africa Data Consensus. He was a revolutionary who sought to take people with him.

One of my last memories of Peter was standing in a Nairobi nightclub. Over the impossibly loud music, and thudding, floor shaking bass, Peter was trying to outline a thought on something to do with political economy. An absurd situation, and I’m afraid I moved the conversation on to football instead. He rolled his eyes, but with the familiar twitches of a wry smile. A microcosm of Peter – high expectations, a fearsome intellect, but all the while deeply human.

I thought of him earlier this week as I saw the sun come up over Hyde Park. It’s not enough to never forget Peter, he’d want more than that. Take his ideas and example forward. I know I’ll try to.

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