Leaving a Legacy of Value: How Christian Dunbar, the City Treasurer of Philadelphia, Is Contributing to the Development of Africa’s Infrastructure and Living Up to the Legacy of His Ancestors

 

A descendant of Harriet Tubman and Liberian President William V.S. Tubman, Christian Dunbar is dedicated to using his professional talents to drive public good. He not only serves as treasurer for America’s sixth largest city but also works alongside USAID and MiDA Advisors to help develop Africa’s infrastructure.

By Emily Langhorne, INVEST Communications Specialist


Christian Dunbar with Senegalese President Macky Sall

As the grandson of Liberian President William V.S. Tubman and a descendant of Harriet Tubman, Christian Dunbar’s decision to go into public service was perhaps inevitable.

As the City Treasurer of Philadelphia, Dunbar is responsible for managing the capital market functions and the city’s $4-billion investment portfolio. He oversees debt issuances for the city’s general obligation fund, its airport, its gas works, and its water and wastewater systems.

Dunbar’s background is in finance: he worked as wealth manager at Wells Fargo before transitioning into public service. However, for Dunbar, being the treasurer of America’s sixth largest city is about much more than managing its finances — it’s about the impact that management has on the city’s citizens.

“I take being a public servant very seriously,” says Dunbar. “Some people may say too seriously, but I feel the weight of the office, and I believe, when you’re asked to be the treasurer, you should appreciate the weight of that request. I manage a significant amount of debt issuance and through that financing we work to improve the water systems and standards, public safety, road conditions, and other things that affect the daily lives of the city’s citizens.”


Dunbar presenting at the mid-Atlantic Municipal Market Conference

Dunbar’s commitment to public good isn’t limited to Philadelphia. He currently serves as Chairman of the Advisory Board for MiDA Advisors, a U.S.-based advisory firm that focuses on increasing U.S. institutional investments, such as pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, and insurance funds, in African markets to develop the continent’s infrastructure and economies.

MiDA — Mobilizing Institutional Investors to Develop Africa’s Infrastructure — began as a grant-funded program. A partnership between the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Association for Securities Professionals (NASP), the MiDA initiative encouraged U.S. institutional investments into African infrastructure projects. The program led annual investor delegations to Africa, which gave U.S. investors the opportunity to explore co-investment opportunities with their African counterparts and visit successful infrastructure project sites. When the program concluded in 2019, some of its principals transitioned the initiative into a commercial entity — MiDA Advisors — so that they could continue to build upon the success of the past three years.

Through his position as chairman, Dunbar educates U.S. institutional investors about opportunities on the continent and builds partnerships between representatives of the U.S. and African financial sectors.

“In the family that I come from, given who my grandfather was, there is a sense of responsibility to contribute value to the continent from a professional perspective,” says Dunbar. “I’ve always felt that sense of responsibility to do something that had a positive effect on the continent as a whole.”

An Intertwined Identity: Not Quite African, Not Quite American

In the early 1800s, Dunbar’s family, like many freed slaves in the United States, emigrated to settlements in West Africa as part of the Back-to-Africa movement. In 1838, these settlements came together to form the Commonwealth of Liberia, which declared independence from the United States in 1847.

In 1944, Dunbar’s grandfather William V.S. Tubman became the 19th president of Liberia. During his 27 years in office, the country prospered economically — the value of foreign investments increasing by 200 percent, and during the 1950s, Liberia had the second highest rate of economic growth in the world. The government constructed railways, paved roads in the capital, installed a public sanitation system, built hospitals, and launched a literacy program. Tubman’s administration also worked to reconcile relationships and reduce social tensions between the Americo-Liberians — Liberians descended from American slaves — and indigenous Liberians.


Former Liberian President Tubman with former U.S. President Kennedy


Former Liberian President Tubman with former U.S. President Kennedy

Tubman died in office in the early 1970s. In 1980, a coup resulted in military rule, and a civil war broke out in 1989. Dunbar’s family left Liberia shortly before the war, moving to Rhode Island when Dunbar was nine.

“Growing up, I felt very much like an outsider,” says Dunbar. “As an African kid, you’re not quite African-American. Even as a young man here, my household and the surrounding community were African. But as I grew up, I was also not quite African because I was removed from the continent. I think that there are a lot of Africans who live in America and have that experience. You end up feeling like an African in America as opposed to an African-American.”

For instance, while Dunbar always knew of his connection to Harriet Tubman, he didn’t realize the significance of that inheritance until he attended to school in the U.S. From the perspective of his family and the community in which they lived, the life of his mother’s father as a president had always been more noteworthy.

Dunbar attended Temple University for college. While there, he minored in African-American Studies.

“If you think about the African-American experience, it’s unique to America. My background was different, so I wanted to get a better understanding of the Black experience in America and of the historical context of that experience. I thought that would be helpful to have that perspective for whatever I was going to do professionally and as an African man living in America.”


While studying at Temple University, Dunbar was MVP and captain of the Temple Owls.

While at college, Dunbar also met his future wife, who is also from West Africa albeit from Senegal, a country that is geographical close to but culturally very different from Liberia.

“I knew I’d ask my wife to marry me within a day of meeting her, but it took me a few years to convince her of that,” Dunbar jokes. “She is and always has been very much a partner to me. Her encouragement allows me to serve and to chase my dreams, and I need to acknowledge that because it just wouldn’t happen without someone who is as supportive as she is.”

One of those dreams — being of value to the continent of Africa — came to fruition because of his NASP membership. When he heard that the organization was partnering with USAID to form the MiDA initiative, he knew he wanted to be involved.

“Given my background, I was really attracted to the idea,” he says. “As I continued down that path of trying to be of value, I became involved in the leadership of the effort and to help to educate institutional investors about investing in Africa and African fund managers and to assist African governments on the opportunities that come with putting in place governance structures and oversight that would attract U.S. capital.”


Former Liberian President Tubman with former U.S. President Eisenhower

Before joining the initiative, Dunbar had already spent a lot of time on the continent, but, since Africa has 54 countries, the program gave him the chance to learn about economies and opportunities beyond those familiar to him in West Africa, and he evaluated investment opportunities in South Africa, Kenya, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

Africa has many investment opportunities, but its infrastructure investment gap presents a particular opportunity for institutional investors seeking long-dated assets to match their long-dated liabilities. In other words, because these funds must pay out their obligations over decades, they need assets that will deliver steady returns over a long period of time. The persistently low interest rates of developed markets have made it difficult for institutional investors to meet these obligations, especially U.S. pension funds which are vastly underfunded. African infrastructure projects have the potential to deliver outsized returns, and they have lower default rates than similar projects in all other regions, including North America.

While Dunbar acknowledges that investing in Africa does have real risks and challenges, he also believes the duty of a fiduciary requires the considering of potential investment opportunities across the globe.

“Africa will have nearly two billion people by 2050,” he says. “It has a growing middle class, and 60 percent of the population is under 25. From an investment perspective, it’s hard to ignore an entire continent, especially one that’s growing like Africa is. We should educate ourselves to understand the risks associated with Africa and the risk mitigation tools we can put in place. As an institutional investor, I look at investing in Africa as an opportunity to invest in one of the last frontier markets.”

Educating Institutional Investors About Africa’s Opportunities

Many U.S. institutional investors have preconceived and outdated narratives about Africa — influenced by the media and other external factors — that distort their perception of the continent’s risks. Traveling to Africa is hugely beneficial for aligning the perception of the continent’s risk with the reality of risk.

From 2017 to 2019, the MiDA program organized annual delegations of U.S. asset owners and managers to Senegal, South Africa, and Kenya. Participants met with African fund managers, explored co-investment opportunities, and visited infrastructure investment sites. At the end of 2019, to continue this promising work, some of the program principals transitioned the initiative into a private entity, MiDA Advisors.


The 2019 MiDA Initiative’s delegation to South Africa

“MiDA’s work, which began with the generosity of the U.S. taxpayer, has allowed asset managers to visit Africa, explore opportunities, and report back to their boards or investment staff about those opportunities that they may have otherwise missed out on,” says Dunbar. “Of course, visiting an infrastructure asset is far removed from running the numbers and determining if it’s a good investment, but I think that the delegates’ experiences led to the creation of mandates to actively explore African opportunities. The boards and investment staff are then responsible for evaluating and determining the investments that create the best returns and are most prudent relative to all other investments.”

While in Africa, delegates also have the chance to visit infrastructure investment sites. Rather than just tell investors about the transactions and potential assets, the MiDA experience offers them the chance to visit these infrastructure projects first-hand.

Infrastructure — the transportation, water, power, health, and education systems that affect every human development outcome — has a significant financing gap across Africa, a gap so large that all the world’s donor and government funding cannot fill it. Beyond having the potential to create returns, private investment in the continent’s infrastructure is essential for the sustainable development, prosperity, and self-reliance of Africa’s nations.

“I think when you put investment professionals in an area where the people have obvious needs, such as infrastructure needs, they’ll see an investment opportunity. They see the gaps, and they understand that the economy and the community would do much better if there was a waste water treatment facility, or a new road leading to the airport, or an airport altogether,” says Dunbar.

Dunbar acknowledges a connection between this work and the impact of his work as the City Treasurer of Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, the work of the Treasury results in financing that improves the city’s systems; however, in Africa, the financing from these institutional investors creates an entirely new system that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

“It’s honestly unbelievable,” he says. “The sense of pride you feel when you can advise on and get a transaction closed that will provide clean drinking water to an entire community, it’s a truly inspiring experience, and because we visit power plants and waste water systems and more on the delegation trips, a lot of our investors get to touch, feel, and see the impact that they are ultimately making.”

Dunbar describes the experience of one delegate on a tour of Old Johannesburg, a low-income community in South Africa. The area had several affordable housing projects, all of which were at full capacity. Because the delegate had a background in affordable housing, he understood the model and saw the potential investment opportunity.

“Of all the places we went, and we went to some very wealthy areas in Johannesburg and Nairobi, it was on a visit to a low-income neighborhood that this investment professional identified an opportunity he wanted to explore,” says Dunbar. “So, can investment happen without the travel? Absolutely. But, when you are trying to overcome a perception of risk that doesn’t match the risk-adjusted returns, I think that visiting a place is extremely helpful.”

NASP’s mission is to assist people of color and women in achieving inclusion in the financial services industry, so many of the delegations’ participants were African-American. For most, the trip was their first time visiting the continent.

“When we were in Senegal, we went to Gorée Island, which was a slave depot off the coast of Senegal,” says Dunbar. “Gorée Island is really heavy emotionally — the history, the culture, the experience of hearing the stories recounted — particularly for people of color. Afterwards, I hosted the group at my wife’s family’s house for dinner, so I had the opportunity to hear about their experience of that place first-hand. It was extremely emotional for a lot of people, and to have the chance to go, not to a hotel, but to a family home in Senegal and share those emotions with each other was a tremendous experience for a lot of people, including me. It added a human aspect to the history of a place and the type of impact some of these infrastructure investments will have.”


The Maison des Esclaves (“Slave House”) on Gorée Island (Photo: Seneplus Societe)

Private Sector Engagement: The Future of Development?

From 2017 to 2019, the MiDA program mobilized $1 billion in investment commitments with approximately $2 million in grant funding. For Dunbar, the transition of MiDA’s work from a publicly funded grant program to a commercial entity is an incredibly important evolution. Although MiDA Advisors is working as a subcontractor with USAID INVEST, an initiative that mobilizes private capital for better development results, the firm competitively bid on and won the contract, and they are gaining new clients as their business grows.

“The MiDA initiative required the generosity of the U.S. taxpayer, and sometimes, you do need that generosity to get started, but you don’t want the U.S. taxpayer to continue to carry that cost indefinitely. Using it to spark the creation of capital markets allows for the private sector to become the benefactors and move development forward through a commercial model,” explains Dunbar.


Dunbar (left) and other members of the MiDA Initiative with United States Ambassador to Kenya Kyle McCarter (center).

He also believes that private sector engagement is crucial to implementing international development activities that result in prosperity for developing countries.

“It’s easy to criticize a private sector engagement approach when you live in a country with the level of development that the U.S. has,” he says. “But the easiest thing to understand is that the private sector has more money — plain and simple — to put towards development, and there’s not a more efficient, meaningful, or impactful way to really develop a continent than creating an environment where the private sector can thrive.”

International development agencies can use a variety of interventions that help mitigate risks for private investors in emerging and frontier markets, and these interventions help mobilize investments into projects that produce positive social and environment results. For instance, when development finance institutions provide guarantees for infrastructure projects in Africa, they help these infrastructure firms to secure future private financing.

“Many folks in the finance world understand there isn’t enough guarantee capacity to meet the infrastructure gap and investment needs on the continent,” Dunbar says. “When guarantees are provided to infrastructure projections, and the firms handle them well, investors become more comfortable working with them as independent entities potentially without the need of guarantees.”

As these entities develop reputations of success, investors may be willing to consider investing in them, even if they have a lower credit quality rating.

“Here in the U.S., investors are used to working with entities that have a variety of credit qualities, from AAA risks all the way down to junk rating risks. We aren’t seeing that in Africa yet. Most investors are only willing to take low risks, AAA or AA quality ratings,” says Dunbar. “The goal is to use the guarantees to create investment in entities that investors may not otherwise invest in to help build a reputation so that the guarantees won’t always be necessary. Having previously worked with an entity with a lower credit quality under a guarantee, investors may again lend money to that entity without a guarantee, rather than pursuing a AAA opportunity. The risk is greater, but the potential return is also greater, and that experience with the entity may increase trust and led to future investment opportunities.”

Leaving a Legacy of Value

Dunbar has a busy schedule. He works long hours serving the city of Philadelphia, and he and his wife are raising two children, ages three and six. At the same time, because of his work with MiDA, he has traveled frequently to Africa over the past four years. However, he approaches all these commitments with tremendous energy and infectious smile.

“Life certainly has its challenges — and sometimes it’s tough to witness what the world is going through — but I believe you should try to find the positive aspect of everything that you do,” Dunbar says. “Being a public servant is something that I cherish. Leading the MiDA work is something that I deeply enjoy. It’s hard to look at so much of what I do as work because it’s so exciting. To be able to help provide the financing that will bring people clean drinking water, how can I look at that as work?”

Of all his responsibilities, however, Dunbar’s favorite is being a dad. “It’s the job that I appreciate the most and the one that brings me the most joy,” he says. “It makes it easy to do all the other jobs that I do because being a dad is the most fun.”

In addition, having children has made Dunbar even more aware of the importance of having a legacy that others can be proud of — whether it’s striving to be a good public servant, being a great dad, or contributing to public good in a faraway continent.

“First, my grandfather’s legacy influenced me. Then, I moved to the U.S. and learned more about Harriet Tubman, her story, the underground railroad, and what she meant to people of color.”


Harriet Tubman, 1868–1869 (Photo: Library of Congress)

“Being associated with a legacy like that, it created a sense responsibility for me to hopefully leave a legacy that people can be proud of, a legacy of being of value to the people that I interact with,” Dunbar says. “As a society, we focus on the grand legacies of important people, but all the things we do, no matter how small, in a sense become a part of our legacy. The legacy that each of us leaves for our children and will play a part in who they become and how they interact with the world. Without those legacies, who are we as human beings? So, for me, becoming a finance professional and then working with MiDA to help develop Africa — a continent that I’m from and a place that I love — in a way that creates stability and prosperity has been a tremendous opportunity and honor.” 

Written by INVEST, a USAID initiative. Published by Medium.com.