Not Just Aid: How making government work can transform Africa


This is absolutely the right moment for a debate about development and there is no organisation better than the Centre for Global Development to be doing it.

There are many reasons why the right time is now. There is a debate about virtually every other aspect of Government policy today in the developed world. We are all debating and re-analysing, often from first principles, traditional systems of welfare, education, healthcare and of course the economy. And we are debating them with many of the same themes recurring: a hand up not a hand out; public sector spending matched by reform; new ways of working, new frameworks of accountability and new ideas about how to make Government more effective, more strategic and more geared to getting things done.

It would be odd if development policy were excluded. And of course it shouldn’t be. It is just as much in need of intellectual spring cleaning.  Fortunately just at the appropriate moment there has arrived a great new batch of development leaders willing to break new ground: Bob Zoellick at the World Bank; Helen Clark at UNDP; Raj Shah at USAID; Cathy Ashton and Andris Piebalgs at the EU Commission and Andrew Mitchell at DFID. In all cases, they are prepared to think anew, to work with the private sector and to escape old bureaucratic mindsets. Then there are great actors like the CGI, the Gates Foundation, George Soros’ Open Society Institute and David Sainsbury’s Gatsby Foundation, and a host of eager private sector investors who want to do good business but in a proper way bringing real and enduring benefits to their host nations.

They are matched by a new generation of African leaders, in Government, in society, in business. My charity –AGI– works in three countries and will soon expand to more.  In all three, I notice a younger generation determined to take the country’s future into their own hands; impatient with those who blame the present on the past; and eager to learn and apply the lessons of others from around the world. They want a partnership, not a donor/recipient relationship.

Africa’s future is a strategic interest for us. The Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development and the new State Department Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review are emphatic on this point and rightly. Security, resources, food, water: you name it and we have an interest in how Africa develops.

AGI focuses on one thing: building effective systems of capacity to govern. A few preliminary points to clear away any misinterpretations are necessary. I am not arguing that capacity is more important that democracy. It isn’t. Indeed as I shall argue the two are linked. I am not arguing that aid doesn’t matter. It does. When British Prime Minister I trebled aid to Africa and made increases in aid and debt cancellation the centre piece of the 2005 G8 Summit. Aid does work. It has brought real and profound benefits to poor people and increasingly so in recent years.  The “Dead Aid” thesis makes some valid points; but it shouldn’t define how we view development. However I am arguing that without building effective capacity, without Governments capable of delivering practical things and on a path to release from dependency on aid, then aid can only ever be a palliative – vital to many, but not transformative of a nation.

It is precisely this thinking that has led to the idea of “cash on delivery” which I support. However it is crucial for another reason. As the 20th century clashes of fundamentalist political ideology recede, and as the post-war experiments in big government structures start to yield certain undeniable lessons, there really isn’t much doubt as to what works and what doesn’t.

The vision thing is often the easy part. Where you need to get to, is reasonably obvious. What is really hard is getting there and doing it. It is the nuts and bolts of policy. It is strategy. It is performance management. It is delivery.  It is the right expertise in the right place. It is ministers who can focus.  It is organising and communicating it.

This is, in fact, true for Governments in developed nations. So how much more is it true for Governments in Sub Saharan Africa? They have plenty of great reports setting out 2020 or 2030 visions. Read them and you will find 150 “priorities”. You will find bold imperatives to do this or do that, sometimes somewhat divorced from their political realities. However, you will find in the daily mechanisms of Government, there is simply not the capability, the people or the systems to make things happen.

This is where there is a big challenge for development policy, not just what we do to build capacity but how we do it: more innovative; more enterprising and more politically connected.

Here, briefly are seven areas to work on. First, we should help build a strong centre of Government in and around the President or Prime Minister. To those who worry that this gives too much power into the hands of the leader and we cannot be sure of the consequences of such a concentration of power, I say: if you are unsure of the leader, don’t support them. But there is no case I know of, where a Government has changed a country for the better, without strong and effective leadership at the centre. With such a centre built, you can then fan out the same lessons to the Ministries. But a President or Prime Minister without efficient capability on policy, strategy, delivery and communication, will not achieve much.  What’s more, the Ministries need that strong direction at the centre to be empowered to make changes themselves. Often the problem crosses departmental boundaries. The Agriculture Ministry depends on the Roads Ministry.  The Schools Ministry depends on the Energy Ministry.  Only the centre can drive such co-ordination properly.

Second, we have to help countries prioritise. This is correct for its own sake. 

So, for example, Nigeria is right to focus on the power sector. 

Get that working and everything else has possibility. Fail on that and little moves. But it is also correct for another reason: The minute I see a government plan with 30 priorities in it, I know nothing will happen. The political energy is too diffuse. And these priorities should be their priorities not ours.

Which brings me to the third point: why China has had such an impact? Leave aside the debate about the effect of Chinese influence. But let us understand why they have the influence.  It is not only money. It is that they ask the country what the country needs and supply it. Usually it is infrastructure – roads, power, even functioning Government buildings. They do it. We can do it too. But we have to work on the things the country judges to be vital, not the things that we think back in our home legislature gets the biggest cheer.  None of that means we don’t push on the areas we sensibly think are crucial e.g. health and education in Sierra Leone and Liberia. But our priorities have to connect with theirs. This is what we mean by “country ownership”.

Fourth, we should be the champions of quality private sector investment. The work the World Bank and IFC are doing here is really important. When we got over 1000 people to come to Sierra Leone’s first ever London investment conference, I knew we were getting there; or when in 2010 Rwanda rose up the rankings more than any other nation in the place to do business league. Big respectable companies bring more than investment. They bring intellectual capital and they give confidence to others. They can also help spin off, smaller businesses.

Fifth, they will only come however, if minimum requirements on the judicial system and rule of law are in place. Here again, we need to step up our focus.  For many African countries, even the basics on law and order would do. There is a vast expertise internationally on what creates a functioning civil police force and at least a framework for commercial justice. For understandable reasons, some African countries, struggling to emerge from conflict, have put a major emphasis on building their army and security force. But for many ordinary citizens and for would-be expatriates working there, travelling the streets of the capital free from fear is a pre-requisite of a confident future.  It is a proper non-corrupt civic police they need.

Here is the sixth point. The capacity in all areas that we have to build requires a deep level of practical expertise. The good news is: this expertise exists. The challenge is we can do so much more to use it in the development field. What we have found in the AGI work is that there is this huge untapped resource out there in the wealthy nations, for precisely, the expertise the African countries need. There are analysts and experts from major private sector companies who eagerly accept the prospect of 1-2 years working in Africa with a level of responsibility they would never attain back home. They are well trained, smart and above all, well motivated. Then there is a legion of the retired who, may be in their sixties, have an enormous experience of practical problem-solving at the top ranks of business or Government. They would love a chance to be involved.

When we were helping one of our countries negotiate a tricky commercial resource contract, we came across a top London lawyer, partner at one of the best City firms, who agreed to come and help. The difference just one qualified person made was extraordinary. I bet there are large numbers of similar people out there. We should access them.

Which brinGs me to the seventh point: building capacity only works if those engaged are not fly in fly out consultants but people willing to work alongside the locals and transfer the know-how. This has been the most heartening aspect of the work we have done. In each case, as AGI has continued its work, there has been developed a really good team of people at the centre who are nationals of the country. This is how capacity building has to work, training up those that when the outside workers move on, have the skills to carry on with the same level of expertise.

This training, by the way, in my view works best when it is done ‘on the job’ so to speak, sitting alongside and working alongside each other. The aim is to build long-term, sustainable capacity. But this is often achieved best by working on specific priorities in the real life conditions of Government.

The skills audit need not stay with the technical expertise. There are also retired political leaders and Ministers – and I am one – who can help interact with the political leadership of the country and who, by virtue of a common experience have a different insight into how change can be brought about in the often harsh terrain of real politics.

I know many will say that all of this is fine; but it won’t make up for situations where there is a democratic or transparency deficit, where there is corruption or where there are tribal or ethnic tensions that can predominate. This is true. But I do think effective governance has a firm read-across to what we normally call ‘good’ governance. The problem for many struggling nations is that their people, after years of poor governance, no progress or, worse, regression, lose faith in the political process. Electing a government can be like a transaction because that’s how the system works, an interplay of tribal, ethnic, or just “vested interest” forces. This is what can change in Africa today, and is changing. When people see improvements taking place as a result of Government decisions, their sense that politics is about changing lives not simply changing rulers, takes root; and it is at that point that they see corruption not as an inevitable consequence of an inevitably broken system, but as a brake on their aspirations that is neither inevitable nor acceptable.

So I think this is an incredibly exciting time to be in the development field. There are great people like many here today with long experience and extraordinary commitment in this area. And there are new leaders; a new sense of purpose; new players in the NGO, charitable and private sector. All of this is creating a new sense of possibility and therefore hope.

None of this means the challenges aren’t enormous; or that there won’t be many setbacks. But the hope is real; the changes are tangible; and above all, the desire on the part of Africa for its destiny to be in African hands is palpable and invigorating. This could be Africa’s century. It should be. To play even a very small part in making that happen is a privilege.