Africa’s Problem Is Planning, Not Implementation – Dr Joe Abah

Everywhere you go in Africa, you are likely to hear people say “Our problem is not planning, but implementation.” People regale you with various examples of “beautiful plans” that were “technically perfect” but never made it to implementation. Indeed, the refrain “Our problem is not planning but implementation” receives knowing nods of approval from all and sundry and is generally taken as accepted wisdom. It is likely to win you loud ovation at any workshop or seminar in Africa. You could be forgiven for thinking that Africans are born with a deficiency of the implementation gene, if there was such a thing. The statement that planning is not our problem and the notion that Africans are unable to implement are two of the biggest fallacies there are.

For donors by donors

Let us start with planning. There are five main types of plan prevalent in Africa. The first type is “donor plans”: plans written for the benefit of donors. Actually, if the truth be told, they are usually plans written by donors for donors in the name of Africans. From Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, to Structural Adjustment Programmes, to Millennium Development Goals, even to the current Sustainable Development Goals – very few of these plans enjoy top-level government ownership or even, in some cases, awareness. There is often no link to government budgets; no consideration of implementation capacity; and no consideration of institutions and politics. Worse still, purist monitoring and evaluation practitioners virtually force people to promise things they know full well will not happen, just so that the logical framework can be technically perfect. Even the few plans that are “costed” are usually costed by people who do not have basic information about government fiscal policies, unit costs, availability of resources or workable sequence. Is it, therefore, any surprise that many of these plans are never implemented? Do we have an implementation problem or a planning problem?

World peace and goodwill to all

The second type of plan prevalent in Africa is what I would term the “advocacy plan”. These are plans that are intended to be used to put pressure on government to behave in a different way. Most of Africa’s sector plans fall into this category. Sector experts in areas like health and education are rightly passionate about improvements in their field, but are usually blissfully unaware of the pressures on other arms of government. They will write an education or health sector plan which cannot be fully funded even if a country was to spend its entire budget on it to the exclusion of everything else.

When you say to them: “We currently have 100 students to one teacher. Can we first plan to get to 85 students to one teacher over the next two years?” they will say “No! The ‘Education For All’ standard is 30 students to one teacher and we must maintain pressure on government to build more classrooms and engage more teachers.” I approximate with the figures, but you get the gist. When you then ask them where the money should come from to pay for it and still fund security, infrastructure and other priorities, they will usually say that those sectors too should fight for their own resources, as if the resource envelope is endlessly elastic. Do we have an implementation problem or a planning problem?

God forbid!

The third type of plan is the “Plan A Only” plan. The Twitter profile of one Charles Mwabili says “No Plan B – it distracts Plan A.” Yep! You guessed it. He’s African. We have several versions of this type of plan across Africa. Each is usually preceded by good analysis and has at least made an effort to be realistic. However, there is usually no risk analysis, no risk mitigation and no contingency planning. Any questions such as “What if something were to go wrong?” are often met with no more than “God will not let it happen.” Well, Murphy’s law is that whatever can go wrong will. And God lets earthquakes, tsunamis and famines happen. So, with these plans, the moment something does not happen as planned, or happens out of sequence (as life generally tends to do), the plan is immediately thrown into disarray. If you are lucky, aspects of it will be implemented but usually in a haphazard way. Instead of having a Plan B to build a smaller house, given a fall in revenue, the money for the roof of the planned big house gets cut. It never gets built and ends up as an abandoned project. Is not having a Plan B an implementation problem or a planning problem?

In the eye of the beholder

The fourth type of plan is the “beautiful plan”. This type of plan looks technically perfect and ticks all the boxes, but is completely unrealistic. It is hailed as the answer to all Africa’s problems and is the type of plan that evokes the most anger when it is not implemented. It plans to pave every street with gold, in a country that has no gold and no money to buy any. The beautiful plan will give everybody an immediate 1000% percent pay rise. It will turn the worst slums into Dubai or Singapore overnight, of course without the need for an autocratic ruler and other institutional conditions. It pretends that politics does not exist, that people do not have self-interest and that everyone’s priorities are uniform. Sometimes, the plan is prepared on a ceteris paribus – all other things being equal – basis and assumes that all projected revenue will come in, all budgeted funds will be fully released, and that the required human resource capacity and capability already exist in abundance. Indeed, it assumes that the common sense of it all should be so blindingly obvious that the plan should just deliver itself. After all, it has happened exactly as planned in other countries. Sorry to bastardise the phrase but ceteris is never paribus, particularly in Africa. Do we have an implementation problem or a planning problem?

The fire brigade

The fifth type of plan is, of course, the “fire brigade plan.” This is the type that was written only to facilitate the theft of public funds from donors or the government itself. It is usually cobbled together shoddily and quickly at the eleventh hour, and only a little intellectual prodding is sufficient to expose its soft underbelly. Fire brigade plans see African countries unable to cater for their athletes during Olympic Games and World Cups. Although we have four years notice that these events will happen, we do not start to plan for them until a few months before the start date. There is little or no preparation, arrangements to take care of athletes at host cities are shoddy, and their allowances are not paid or have been misappropriated. In truth, it would appear that there was never at any time an intention that what was planned would be implemented. Do we have an implementation problem or a planning problem?

The good plan

A good plan is a plan that has a good chance of getting delivered. A plan that has no chance of getting delivered is a bad plan. There is, therefore, no such thing as a “beautiful plan” that does not get delivered. “Beautiful plans” are bad plans. A good plan will factor in resources (human and financial), in a realistic manner based on historical patterns. It will not be based on the pipe dream that internally generated revenue will somehow magically double overnight. Funds for Year 1 will not be based on income from a mining programme that hasn’t even been commissioned, let alone being at break even or making profit. A good plan will have a deep understanding of political economy: the way it is, not the way it ought to be. It will have a best case, middle case, and worst case scenario, based on realistic projections for policy, personnel and funds. It will identify a number of quick wins that are virtually cost-free to buy support and build confidence. Finally, a good plan will have an implementation plan that factors in all the risks to its own implementation! This will include rigorous analysis of risks that accepts some of the risks as unmanageable “show-stoppers”, but also identifies those that can be managed and mitigated (and sets out clear steps for doing so). How many of Africa’s plans are good plans?

The implementation gene

Let us now come to implementation. Are Africans born deficient of an “implementation gene”? Of course not; Africans can implement as well as everyone else. However, there is a science to implementation. One of the foremost advocates of what he calls “deliverology” is Sir Michael Barber, author of the book Instruction To Deliver. In essence, he talks about the need to set clear priorities and measurable goals, use data and trajectories to drive progress, build routines around priorities, focus on solving problems and build relentless persistence in tracking the priorities. He also suggests setting up a dedicated unit to manage delivery. Africans are quick to set up units and a number of countries have already set up delivery units. The extent to which these can function without better planning remains to be seen. Barber’s approach is actually not that difficult to follow, particularly if there is a plan and the political will to implement that plan. Often, the basic plan is missing.

Of course, corruption is an impediment to implementation, as are capacity constraints, politics, funding, geography, ethnicity and religion. I must give religion a special mention as a major impediment to implementation in Africa, given the number of tasks that we should ordinarily perform but would rather delegate upwards to God. In my view, it is possible to blame the high level of religiousness in Africa for a lot of the weak risk management. However, none of these is as big an impediment as poor planning and an absence of preparation. Why would God not let us fail at the Olympics if we are busy wrangling over ethnic issues when others are busy preparing for the Games?

Ready, steady, go!

The Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt made GBP£5 million per second at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Let that sink in, please. PER SECOND! But here’s what is important: in order to achieve that level of income he lifted weights for four hours every day and practised his sprinting every day for 15 years, BEFORE he arrived in Rio. He was not punishing himself in training in order to please donors. He was not punishing himself in order to make anyone else perform differently. As he prepared to be a sprinter, he also readied himself to be a footballer or a cricketer, in case he did not make it at sprinting. The good thing about sports is that it makes you be true to yourself. Your success as a competitor will often depend on whether or not you can overcome your own limitations. In the world of sports, you cannot have a “beautiful plan” to run the 100 metres in under 10 seconds within six months when your weak knees mean that you have never even walked 10 metres in your life without pain, and probably never will. Finally, Usain Bolt did not start preparing for Rio three months before the Games – he started 15 years ago. That is why he never had an implementation problem in Rio.

If we are going to get better at implementation, Africa really must get better at planning and preparation. Of course, Usain Bolt is also blessed with great natural attributes – but Africa is blessed with even more.

Dr Joe Abah is Director-General of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms, The Presidency, Nigeria, and a Visiting Lecturer at the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, Maastricht University, The Netherlands.