Impact, Young African Leaders Initiative

Over the six weeks I spent in the United States at the Presidential Precinct as a Fellow of the Mandela Washington Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), I gained invaluable knowledge in different subjects.

In Uganda, I manage a project on extractives governance that seeks to create opportunities for communities in mining and oil bearing areas to allow them to claim some sustainable benefits from the sector. The project also provides information to the public on the sector, to empower them to hold the government and extractive companies accountable.

With this sort of background, I came to America with the ambition of linking up with fellow governance activists to learn how I could deepen my work and make it more impactful. Little did I know that the most important learnings I would later receive would not even be from civil society types, but top executives of a Fortune 500 company I must confess I had never heard of — AECOM!

Before any AECOM staff set foot in our class, we had been introduced to an alien topic, but one that kept ringing in my head up to this day: Design Thinking. I got obsessed with the five-step design thinking process, i.e., Emphathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.

I sadly realised that I had somehow managed to go through many projects in the course of my 14-year working life without systematically thinking through my planning processes, and couldn’t help thinking about how differently and better I could have done some things. Like my colleagues, I wondered how I could now deploy Design Thinking to become a more efficient manager.

But when Gary Lawrence, AECOM’S VP and Chief Sustainability Officer delivered a lecture on sustainability, particularly the political, cultural, technological and environmental aspects of it as well as what role leaders can play in harmonising this mix, it all started to fall in line.


Then came Timothy McManus’ talk on the economics of development and infrastructure financing that finally sealed it. Just being able to learn about delivering excellence from AECOM’s Senior VP and Director of Global Program Management was an awesome experience considering that, well, the company has actually delivered excellence for a long time.

Like Gary, he too emphasised the role of proper planning in the development and implementation of huge infrastructural projects. ‘Tim’, like we called him in class, mesmerised us with projections about the future of Africa’s population, state of infrastructure and growth trends that we, Africans, had never been exposed to. He demonstrated why AECOM is likely to remain in business for a long time to come because the world’s population is generally getting bigger and bigger, creating demand for better planned social infrastructure projects.

These lectures got me reflecting about my own work back home in Uganda. Being in the business of informing the public on development issues even beyond the extractives sector, I felt a little guilty for those few times I may have been unfair to my fellow citizens by publishing articles that lacked depth in analysis.

By listening to Tim and Gary, I learnt that rushing into projects without the proper planning is tantamount to suicide. I also learnt that sustainability, no matter the cost, has to be a key consideration in any project. Many times, I have accused the government of being slow on getting infrastructural projects completed but I now realise why that may have been.

Joe Wambia too, AECOM’s Managing Director for Finance, Global Programs and Africa, was a regular visitor to the programme and became a sort of mentor to many of the Fellows. He later chaired a panel discussion on development paradigms that got the whole class polarised on the “bottom-up” and “top-down” development paradigms. “I want you to be able to have an intelligent discussion about these issues back home,” he repeatedly urged us.

Now I am back home, in my own ‘reality’, like we used to say, ruminating about those wonderful times. I feel more learned and able to have an “intelligent” discussion on the development future of my country and continent, one in which I will argue that mega-projects are important for the developing world, but their design should incorporate sustainability, thanks to AECOM and the Presidential Precinct.

Chris_YALI_89x100Byaruhanga Chris ( has spearheaded an Extractives Governance Project at ActionAid Uganda, an anti-poverty non-governmental organisation, for three years, and manages the Oil in Uganda website and newsletter. Upon returning home from YALI, Chris has been working to mobilise local communities in oil-producing areas to defend their rights to land and property, and to improve their access to opportunities available in the oil and gas sector.
Twitter: @MusiimeChris

Originally published Sep 3, 2014

Author: Byaruhanga Chris