More than aid: Why governance matters in Africa

12 Mar 12
Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative is designed to governments develop the capacity to meet the rising expectations of their citizens. Here, its chief executive, Kate Gross, tells us about their work and ambitions for the future

By Kate Gross | 12 March 2012

Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative is designed to governments develop the capacity to meet the rising expectations of their citizens. Here, its chief executive, Kate Gross, tells us about their work and ambitions for the future


London’s credentials as a global city are not in question, but few parts of the UK’s capital pulse with such international flavor as Grosvenor Square, located at the heart of the borough of Westminster. One side is taken up in its entirety by the looming US Embassy, while it is home, too, to the Canadian High Commission and the Italian Embassy. So, perhaps it’s fitting that Tony Blair, Britain’s former Prime Minister who has filled his post-Downing Street life with an array of domestic and international commitments, has also based his offices in this corner of London.

His new place of work, though, is the very definition of discreet. No signage here. And certainly nothing to suggest that the building — which was once home to John Adams, second president of the US — serves as the global hub for a number of organizations focused on an eclectic array of public policy challenges. For, in addition to his role as the Quartet Representative, where he works for the US, UN, Russia and EU to the Palestinians prepare for statehood, much of Blair’s time is taken up by his Sports and Faith Foundations, a global climate initiative, and his Africa Governance Initiative (AGI).

The AGI, some three years young, is making good progress, according to Kate Gross, its chief executive. “The first thing about AGI is that we are led by the countries we work with,” she explains. “So this really means that we go only where we are asked, as we were asked in by the heads of state of Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Liberia. The other thing we look for, is the possibility of transformation in countries that are at a turning point. And each of these three countries has come out of a very difficult past, but now there is leadership in place, which means they can move forward into a better future.”

The AGI’s approach is somewhat unique. Its teams are deployed to work side by-side with counterparts in Presidential Offices, ministries, investment promotion agencies and think tanks, to provide strategic advice and support and to develop capacity among the next generation of public service leaders. The idea is to build the capacity for effective governance that will allow those governments to drive their own development, while at the same time ing them generate sustainable private sector development that can develop and grow their economies away from aid dependence.

“A number of factors have shaped the approach we have taken,” adds Gross. “But really, it’s all about implementation. In the countries we work in, there isn’t always time to do whole civil service reform. You’ve got to start with priorities, and the things that you’ve got to get delivered. And there will be more momentum for reform if you focus on change around those, rather than change in the abstract.”

The teams themselves are quite small, and come from a diverse range of backgrounds. “We have really, really excellent people,” she says proudly. “They are best in class from the public and private sectors. They also come from the voluntary sector and the development world as well. AGI teams are usually between 5 and 10 people and are often secondees from other organizations. They tend to come from a mix of sectors; a third with experience of government somewhere around the world, a third from the private sector often with experience of looking at public sector reform, and then a third from the development world. People use AGI often as a bridge to get into development, or to move out of it. So people use us as a stepping stone.”

Gross is herself a former senior civil servant in the UK. In addition to roles in a variety of government departments and the European Commission, she was private secretary to both Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown. Asked whether she misses the civil services, she clearly has no regrets about moving on. “I’ve taken the things that I enjoyed most about the civil service and transplanted them here,” she says.

And indeed it does feel like Blair has set up something of a surrogate Downing Street operation; teams of staff working away in what was a residential building to fulfill his policy ambitions. “It was a really brilliant job, and I loved the breadth of the different issues that come across your desk, as well as the intellectual and practical challenges,” she adds. “But for me the bit that is interesting is being about to transfer that knowledge and experience into the new challenge of Africa.”

One other significant benefit of having worked at the top end of government is the empathy she has for her colleagues in Africa. “If I talk to a President’s special assistant, for example, I know what it’s like and I know that in Downing Street I would not have put up with someone coming in and telling me how to do my job,” she admits. “It’s not that I didn’t need any — I did — but because I was just so busy; there was always too much going on and I was always trying to keep my head above water. So I can really understand that questions about how they structure themselves, and how they might change the way they view government, is quite often the last thing you care about as you just want to get through each day.”

Having worked closely with Blair in Number 10, Gross saw first-hand how Africa, and its vast possibilities, really captured his imagination. “He is a very optimistic person and he really saw the potential in Africa,” she says. “And he saw the injustice. All the leaders we work with he treats as individuals — as peers. And he sees in what they do a lot of the challenges he himself faced.

“He’s much more than a figurehead to AGI. The relationship he has with a leader is a pivot for the whole project. Their mutual trust enables us to get behind closed doors. He understands the challenges they face and that making change is always difficult. He visits each country a couple of times a year, he speaks to the leaders on the phone, he writes to them; he’s very active.”

This activity has contributed much toward AGI’s early raft of successes. While only in existence for a relatively short period of time, Gross takes clear satisfaction in being able to cite clear examples of the organization’s positive impact.

“In Sierra Leone, we’ve worked with the Government on implementing a free health care policy,” she says. “And over the course of the year the work we did on the nuts and bolts of delivery inside government led to massive change, with three times as many kids now being treated in hospital as before the new policy was launched. Another big success is going to Rwanda and hearing its civil service say that the way we do capacity building is the right model for them, and the one they want others to emulate. They have designed a big program around the approach that we have taken. So seeing our work leveraged like this is very exciting.”

She is keen to stress, though, that the work is continually challenging, adding that the biggest test will come when AGI exits one of the three countries it is working in. “The biggest issue is sustainability — just as it is with any development work,” she says. “We’ve exited some institutions — and we’ve had some good signs that what we have done has been continued — but leaving a country will be a big challenge.”

Looking to the future, though, Gross’s buoyancy mirrors that of her boss. “We are big Africa optimists — and I think you have to be in our line of work,” she says. “The two biggest factors shaping Africa’s future are governance and the development of the private sector. Governance matters because until it is improved, aid will bypass government, reinforcing dependency on outsiders and preventing African countries from deciding their own destiny. We believe that the relationship between donors and Africa needs to change, and it will only change if Africa develops greater capacity.

“The private sector is the other most important factor and it is extremely encouraging seeing how it is growing, especially in a country like Sierra Leone where, when we started in 2008, there wasn’t much interest from foreign investors, and now there is massive interest and some genuine opportunities. But it’s still a challenge and we need to make sure that the gains from foreign investment are used effectively and steered toward the development of public services.”

And as for AGI — which is already planning to expand its activities into other countries over the next year or so — Gross says that their work has only just begun. “I would like to say that in a generation we won’t be needed,” she says. “I think Africa could be a totally different continent in a generation. If you look at Africa, two-thirds of the world’s fragile states are there — affecting millions of people — but if you get the right leadership there is such huge potential for transformation, and we would like to play our part.”


AGI Sierra Leone project


In 1991, Sierra Leone plunged into a 10-year civil war notorious for its brutality. Rape and amputation became weapons of war, children its footsoldiers. Yet, just a decade after Tony Blair sent in British troops to restore peace, Sierra Leone is a country on the move. Elected President in 2007 after one of the fastest improvements in political stability of any country in the world, Ernest Bai Koroma has pledged to run his government like a business.

AGI’s work, which began in 2008, has focused on improving the tracking and implementation of Koroma’s top priorities. Take health. The war left Sierra Leone with some of the worst maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. Little wonder Koroma made his free health care initiative for pregnant women and children an early priority. AGI’s team in the Ministry of Health ed Koroma’s government to develop a clear plan for abolishing user fees, to align donors behind it, and to make sure the necessary reforms to drug supply, hospital infrastructure and health workers’ salaries were undertaken.

Launched in April 2010, the program has doubled the number of women giving birth in hospital, and seen recorded deaths among children treated for malaria fall by more than 80%. Results like these show why improving government effectiveness can have such an impact on people’s lives.


AGI Liberia project


“I have been one of the lucky ones,” writes President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in her memoir. It’s easy to see why. Minister of Finance during the 1980 coup, she was 1 of only 4 Cabinet ministers to survive; 14 others, including then President Tolbert, were murdered. The coup marked the beginning of two decades of confl ict that would cost 250,000 lives and leave the social and economic fabric of Liberia in tatters.

Elected as Africa’s first female head of state in 2005, Johnson Sirleaf is widely regarded as one of the continent’s most inspirational leaders. Her Lift Liberia program has seen school enrolment climb 40% and external debt slashed. The early years of Johnson Sirleaf’s term convinced her that a strong presidency would be critical in driving through her agenda. In 2009, she invited AGI to support wideranging reforms to the Office of the President to improve government coordination and the tracking and communication of her top priorities: roads and electricity.

One area of focus has been the Cabinet process. Dr. Momo K. Rogers, Director General of Cabinet, believes the partnership with AGI has enabled him to develop tools to make Cabinet more effective. “Working with the AGI Governance Advisor,” he says, “we have managed to prepare a Cabinet Manual and tracking templates specific to the Liberian Cabinet.” Johnson Sirleaf rejects the idea that a stronger center undermines capacity elsewhere in government; on the contrary, she argues, “a well performing Presidency enhances the work of all of our other sector ministries.”


AGI Rwanda project


The horror of the 1994 Rwandan genocide defied comprehension: 800,000 people killed in 100 days. Few countries have been through what Rwanda has and come out the other side — which makes the recovery under way in Rwanda all the more remarkable. What sets Rwanda apart, is the scale of its ambition. Setting its sights on becoming a middle-income country by 2020, it has achieved one of the fastest growth rates in the world.

But the Government of Rwanda knows that to sustain this progress, it needs to unlock the potential in agriculture, energy and other sectors that could drive Rwanda’s economy for a generation. That’s why, with support from AGI, it has developed the Strategic Capacity Building Initiative (SCBI). This innovative program began with the Government defi ning a game-changing goal for each sector, and then identifying the capacity needs that stand in the way of achieving it. Long-term capacity assistance will now address the gaps the Government has identifi ed while training 150 young Rwandans to do the job — and preparing them for future leadership roles. For example, SCBI will the Ministry of Infrastructure implement a program to double the number of households with mains electricity.

Building on AGI’s successful partnership with the Government to date, the SCBI will, uniquely for an initiative of its type, include support to the center of government institutions responsible for setting priorities and coordinating delivery.


This article first appeared in the September edition of Dynamics

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