International Women’s Day Spotlight: Chinemelu Okafor

As part of our International Women’s Day campaign, we interviewed Chinemelu Okafor, PhD candidate at Harvard University, and research collaborator with the Wheeler Institute.

As a Nigerian American woman, Chinemelu Okafor’s journey has been marked by the convergence of multiple identities – her womanhood, race, and ethnicity. With an unwavering determination to unraveling the intricacies of communities across the African context, she stressed her commitment to delve into the works of economists, historians, political scientists, and anthropologists to question the voices that often shape our collective understanding of these communities. Chinemelu urges researchers to embrace the richness of diverse perspectives while amplifying voices from these communities to help redefine societal narratives.

Through this interview, Chinemelu shares her vision for unveiling the nuances overlooked in conventional thoughts and ideas concerning communities we seek to better understand and uplift and, encouraging researchers to rethink the general narratives that they encounter.

What inspired you to focus your research on confronting economic policy challenges in West Africa?

“My research inspiration stems from familial influences, particularly my late uncle Ambassador Chiedu Osakwe, former Director of Accessions at the World Trade Organisation, who emphasised the importance of economics in addressing societal issues. Through my work, I wish to emulate figures like him and Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, current Director-general of the World Trade Organization, and a fellow Igbo woman, in recognising the power of economics in influencing various policy domains such as healthcare, criminal justice, labour, housing, education, and so many other sectors in West Africa, and particularly Nigeria,” she expressed.

How do you believe your work can contribute to solving these issues?

Chinemelu emphasised the way in which personal beliefs, societal structures and political choices play a significant role in shaping economic and political outcomes, and that a more nuanced approach to research is needed to solve complex issues that may arise in these contexts.

“I think one important thing that scholars miss is how heterogeneous societies that we look at across Africa are. So, my work is driven by wanting to better understand what is driving behaviour; what is shaping political outcomes at a more granular level? Instead of taking a paintbrush to label an the entire continent of people, I want to understand the rich variation in cultural norms, traditions, and institutions in communities I study, and how they influence policy outcomes.”

Your work involves understanding institutional and structural factors that influence political behaviour within weak institutions. What has been your biggest lesson thus far?

Though still early in her research career, Chinemelu stressed that a key lesson from her research was “the importance of not just asking why, but more importantly asking how.” She shared the way in which this approach necessitates meticulousness and introspection in navigating the intricate landscape of political and social research.

“There is so much variation in what drives people. To comprehend what motivates individuals, we must study how norms, traditions, and culture can potentially shape either cooperation, working as substitutes to formal institutions or also potentially sew discord across society. Asking ‘how’ requires a very deep understanding of the logical processes that are at play, which requires careful research. I am currently working with Professors Elias Papaioannou at London Business School, Nathan Nunn of University of British Columbia, and Stelios Michalopoulos of Brown University on the Wheeler Institute’s African Research Councillors. This work is trying to better address the question of how processes are working and motivations are being catalysed, and to understand where variation across communities comes from, and how they affect political and economic outcomes. This data then allows us to unravel the complexities of human behaviour and identify variations across ethnic groups, religions, and more.”

“I would advise researchers to incorporate intersectionality into their work and encourage them to recognise the diverse perspectives that influence societal dynamics. We all need to engage with literature that embodies various intersections and listen to the voices on the ground to ensure a nuanced understanding of the contexts that are being studied.”

As a female researcher from Nigeria, how do you navigate and overcome potential barriers or biases in academia and research, and what advice would you offer to other women pursuing similar paths?

“Finding solidarity among peers,” was Chinemelu’s immediate answer.

Chinemelu expressed the value of having mentors, advisors and peers who understand the challenges of academia whilst also providing support throughout a researcher’s academic journey. “It is not just about having a mentor, or an advisor, but also peers who are going through the same thing. Building a supportive community to navigate potential barriers and biases in academic and research is incredibly important – particularly for women from backgrounds that are historically excluded in academia.”

“My own experience with my writing group ‘the Nite Writers’ has shown me the true power of community in alleviating the isolation often felt in PhD programmes. I am a firm believer that community is key to overcoming systemic obstacles and thriving in academia.”

“The question is ‘are the economists and policy makers who are shaping policies for societies actually reflective of the general population, or the communities which they are trying to improve?’ Economics influences policy in so many ways, but there are real barriers to information access. Lack of mentorship and implicit discrimination inhibit the retention of individuals in historically excluded circles and their advancement within economics.”

Mentorship and financial support are important in fostering diversity and inclusion in economics, and related fields because they help address the problem of low levels of marginalised scholars in these spaces and the retention of these scholars respectively. Further, representation in policymaking ensures that the viewpoints and identities of historically excluded scholars are reflected in the decision-making process.

Research in Color Foundation’s (RIC) mentorship programme aims to increase the number and improve the retention of underrepresented scholars in economics by providing personalised support and resources, which include one-on-one mentorship, skill-building workshops, and financial assistance of $1000 for costs incidental to the PhD application process. RIC also provides $2500 first-year fellowships for mentees who go on to start a PhD. We intervene in the pipeline where a lot of attrition happens, and since we started, 21 out of the 80 mentees (net attrition of 15 mentees) we’ve supported through our programme have gotten into a PhD.”

Chinemelu’s ultimate goal is to help transform the profession by nurturing diverse voices and perspectives, thus improving the validity of research findings and policy outcomes. She envisions a future where initiatives like the Research in Color Foundation are no longer necessary as academia becomes truly inclusive and equitable. 

“Through Research in Color, if we can continue to see at least one person go through our programme and be successfully impacted by it, then we have done our job.”

Chinemelu Okafor.

Given your experience collaborating with institutions like the World Bank Group and the United Nations, what advice would you give to young female researchers aspiring to make a meaningful impact in international development and policy spheres?

“First and foremost, remember that you belong in these spaces.”

Imposter syndrome can be debilitating, but one has to remember the “unique contributions [they] have to offer.” Chinemelu goes on to stress that “it is important to understand that every single person has their own journey, and that you are where you are for a reason.”

“Young female researchers who are aspiring to make a meaningful impact in the international development and policy spheres must also prioritise building a supportive community and finding mentorship,” she added. “There are such brilliant scholars in these spaces who can provide a range of interesting responses to questions of how to make a meaningful impact in these spheres. They can offer you insights to the unwritten and unspoken rules of the game. Seeking guidance from seasoned professionals to navigate the hidden rules and nuances of these environments is critical. You really must forge your community.”

From confronting economic policy challenges in West Africa to advocating for diversity and inclusion in economics, Chinemelu Okafor’s journey is one of navigating the complexities of societal narratives with unwavering determination and insight. With mentorship, community, and resilience, a future can be forged where varied voices and perspectives are valued in shaping businesses, policy, and economics.

About Chinemelu

Chinemelu Okafor is a Harvard PhD student, Graduate Prize Fellow, Karl Deutsch Fellow, and 2023-24 Weatherhead Center Graduate Student Affiliate. Chinemelu’s research aims to address what drives progress towards African economic development through a normative lens. Namely, she seeks to understand how the origins and evolution of collective political and social behaviors, as well as how the structure of society, can help inform contemporary development outcomes in Nigeria. In 2023 Chinemelu was recognized as a Forbes 30 under 30 awardee in education for her work as the founder and president of the Research in Color Foundation — an organization dedicated to increasing the representation and retention of underrepresented minorities and historically excluded scholars in economics through mentorship and financial support. In the past, Chinemelu has worked with institutions such as the World Bank Group, the United Nations, and the Royal African Society, among others. Chinemelu holds a Bachelor’s in Economics and International Studies from the University of Michigan and a Master’s in Applied Economics from the George Washington University. For the 2023-2024 school year, Chinemelu will be on leave from her PhD program and working as a staff economist with the White House Council of Economics Advisers on topics related to international economics and international trade.

Collaboration with the Wheeler Institute

Chinemelu is collaborating with Elias Papaioannou, Professor of Economics, London Business School and Co-Academic Director of the Wheeler Institute, Nathan Nunn, Professor of Economics at University of British Columbia, and Stelios Michalopoulos, Professor of Political Economy at Brown University on the Wheeler Institute’s African Research Councillors Program.

Chinemelu was part of the Wheeler Institute’s African History through the Lens of Economics series. The open-access, interdisciplinary lecture series was aimed at studying the impact of Africa’s history on contemporary development. Chinemelu and Professor Nathan Nunn of University of British Columbia discussed Africa’s social structure (kinship, family, social relations), and the full recording is available here.

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