Africa Has Too Many Pilots, None Of Them Taking Off! – by Joe Abah

No! Not aircraft pilots, donor pilot projects. The world of development is littered with “pilots.” Demonstration projects that show it can be done. We know that with donor funding, donor expertise, discrete initiatives and clearly defined “results” certain things can work in developing countries. We know that! Doing new pilots do not tell us anything new.

The question is: do donor pilot projects lead to “organic diffusion? Does doing demonstration projects lead to systemic changes in institutions. By Institutions, we mean the way that things are done in a society. This is to be distinguished from Organisations (groups of people intentionally put together to achieve a set purpose).

Institutions are conditioned by history, sociology, culture and politics. They are the socially accepted norms that are practiced by society and handed down to successive generations through education and socialization. These include marriage, tradition, morals and ethical values. Accepted wisdom is that institutions take a long time to shift, sometimes as long as a whole generation or 40 years. Of course, there are occasions where institutions have changed more quickly. This often happens through a process of dislocation, where the normal rhythm of institutions is upset for the greater good. How can we get more dislocation in areas where we urgently need it?

I argue that this tends to happen in cases where there is an imperative to bring about change; that imperative is backed by the power to make the necessary changes; and there is altruistic patriotism to bring about a new order.

You see, reformers generally tend to pursue three, often distinct, approaches to institutional change. The first approach can be loosely termed the “big bang” approach. With this approach, the reformer develops a plan to pursue change in the key areas of planning, budgeting and delivery in priority areas, and complements this with relentless monitoring and evaluation, using feedback from citizens to close the loop and recalibrate interventions. While this approach is holistic, it can often suffer from over-ambition and a loss of focus. It also requires very strong political will, which is often lacking in developing countries. This approach succeeded in the United Kingdom where Tony Blair became perhaps the only recent global politician to have campaigned, and won elections, on a manifesto of public service reforms.

The second main approach is what Professor Matt Andrews of Harvard University termed the “Problem-Driven Iterative Approach.” With this approach, you focus on one major problem at a time. You solve that problem (and all the problems embedded within it, with the expected back and forth) and move on to the next problem. This approach suffers the risk that you could be stuck on one seemingly intractable problem for ever and take your eyes off other balls. For instance, most people agree that stable electricity is a key catalyst for development. However, it is rather difficult and slow to change the institutions (the way things are done) around electricity, particularly where there are strong opposing interests and a consistent failure to productively invest in electricity infrastructure for generations.

The third main approach is pilots, the donor darlings. Pilots are usually demonstration projects that show “the natives” that things are possible, usually followed by an expectation that once this is made clear to them, they would simply adopt the lessons more widely and solve all remaining problems. Do donor demonstration projects have a track record of bringing about institutional change? I argue that they do not. Donor pilot projects tend to be advocacy projects. They tend to demonstrate that, given certain conditions, some things can work differently. We know that! What precisely is the point of doing more and more pilots? The danger with pilots is that they can often ignore the institutional factors that constrain change in the first place. They beg the question: why does it take donor funding and expertise (using locals) to make some things work? Why do they not work without donor involvement? For those that work, why do they stop working when donor involvement ends?

Africa is littered with several of these pilots and demonstration projects. From solar-powered boreholes, to rural electrification schemes, to skills acquisition schemes, to improved processes for licensing. I could go on and on. They often work for some time, achieve the “success” that donors can report to their funders back home and are them swiftly abandoned when the donor programme ends. Many are designed without much thought as to the recurrent implications of maintaining them and without regard to the institutional changes in planning, budgeting, project management, service delivery and personnel requirements needed to even maintain existing initiatives, not to talk of adopting them for wider use.

Unfortunately, the current literature on reforms is such that various scholars are firmly entrenched in each of the three ideological camps. However, reformers with real world experience will know these three key approaches are not mutually exclusive. The “big bang” approach is necessary in order to have a reform “movement” that is based on a clear plan. Within this plan, it is important to ensure that reforms are problem-driven, rather than generic, and there is a need to focus on “wicked” problems that are causing blockages in the system. Finally, demonstration projects are important to build confidence that change is indeed possible.

Therefore, rather than undertake more and more pilots that do not teach us anything new, I would argue that Africa should focus on the levers that can bring about its development. Unknown to many Africans, the African Union has developed an agenda for Africa called “Agenda 2063: The Africa we want.” This agenda is a strategic framework for the socio-economic development of Africa over the next 50 years. The Agenda has 7 main aspirations which I will briefly take in turn.

You see, Africa and/or its donors cannot “pilot” itself out of poverty. Therefore, the first aspiration of Agenda 2063 focuses on prosperity, inclusive growth and sustainable development. Africa must produce more. It must trade more. The African market of 1.1 billion people is enough to generate great wealth for the continent, even by just trading with itself.

This leads to the second aspiration which is for an integrated continent that is united on the basis of Pan Africanism. The European Union, despite Brexit, is one of the world’s most powerful trading blocks. The Asians and the South Americans have similar arrangements. Although southern and western Africa have taken some baby steps in this direction, Africa still does not have a truly integrated continental initiative. It does seem rather odd, for instance, that you can enter South Africa without a visa on a British passport but not on a Nigerian passport.

The third aspiration is good governance, democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. While these are all important, and is an area that donors favour, China and some other Asian countries have shown that you can have development without western-style “good governance.” Therefore, Africa must find what works for Africa in this regard, without constraining human freedoms. Unfortunately, Africa’s history of dictatorship has not had the same track record of “benevolence” as those in Asia. To convincingly argue for any sort of dictatorship as the solution to Africa’s problems is therefore a very difficult endeavor.

The fourth aspiration is peace and security. This is a given. Africa cannot grow without peace and security. The fifth is strong cultural identity, with good values and ethics. Therefore, Africa must eschew harmful traditional practices that constrain its growth. The sixth is to place people at the center of its development. Africa has had too much economic growth that is not people-driven and that merely widens the equality gap. Finally, Africa needs to be a strong, united global partner. The partnership approach is important. Partners are often equals, not donors and beneficiaries. Each partner supports the other for the overall benefit of the partnership enterprise. A poor, dependent Africa is of no benefit to an otherwise prosperous world.

In my opinion, Agenda 2063 provides the levers that can pull Africa out of poverty and into prosperity. Unfortunately, the African Union does not appear to have the convening power to facilitate a continental dialogue that can see this agenda influence the development plans of its constituent members. If this can somehow be done, donors and development partners will know exactly “The Africa We Want” and tailor their interventions accordingly. The era of donor-driven development, focused on pilots and demonstration projects will start to wane. Without pulling the necessary levers, pilots will never be able to take off, no matter how many you have.

*Dr Joe Abah is the 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.