Criticisms of Africa’s governance have long been a staple of many of the voices opposed to aid and debt relief. Africa, they say, is poor because it’s mismanaged. We shouldn’t throw any more good money after bad until they improve. So it’s interesting that the Report of the Commission for Africa, rather than simply leaping to the defence of African governments, acknowledges many of the problems. “One thing underlines all the difficulties caused by the interactions of Africa’s history over the past 40 years,” it notes: “the weakness of governance and the absence of an effective state” (p28). However, while Western commentators often present the road to better governance as purely a matter of willpower, the Commission lay out the various obstacles that actually make more effective government difficult to obtain.

A key distinction to make is between capacity and accountability. Capacity is the ability of states to do the things they aim to do; accountability is the systems states have to ensure they try to do the right things – e.g. Democracy, transparency, a free press etc. The debate over African governmental capacity tends to focus on accountability issues such as democracy, human rights, and corruption. And the commission is frank in its admission of problems with African governments: “Too often in the past,” they note, “African governments have responded not to the interests of all their people but to those of elites, parties, tribes or other particular groups” (p35). Which isn’t quite the same thing as “too much aid money has gone on buying private jets for dictators,” the traditional complaint of some Western critics. But it’s still a strongly worded admission. The Commission also notes a striking statistic, and one which would certainly raise a few eyebrows in some left-wing circles. They carried out a survey asking Africans who bore the primary responsibility for their problems. Only 11% blamed rich countries, and only 16% blamed the former colonial powers. A whopping 49% said primary responsibility lay with their government (p35).1

But in fact, great strides forward have been made by many countries on accountability in the last decade or so. The main force has been NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, a kind of good students’ club for African governments. Although its emphasis is on economic growth, the programme also emphasises certain commitments on transparency and democracy, and it features a Peer Review Mechanism whereby governments submit themselves to scrutiny and feedback from other nations. 24 of Africa’s 53 countries have joined the Mechanism. It’s only just getting going, and much more generally remains to be done on accountability. The commission outlines a few key steps:

  1. Offer African parliamentarians training from their rich-country counterparts, and develop systems to elect more women;
  2. Justice systems need strengthening, both in effectiveness and independence;
  3. African journalists need more independence and better training;
  4. Civil society groups, such as trade unions and business groups, need strengthening and training.

Particularly, the Commission focuses on corruption, acknowledging that it is “systemic in much of Africa today.” It notes that the African Peer Review Mechanism should provide a good basis for progress. African countries must, in particular, help prevent corruption by ensuring they clearly outlaw, and put controls in place to prevent, bribery and money laundering. But, the Commission argues, rich countries have their own responsibilities too:

  1. Rich countries should track down and repatriate the billions of dollars looted by corrupt African leaders that now sits in foreign [OK, Swiss] bank accounts. Incredibly, this amount is estimated to be equal to half Africa’s entire external debt. But it’s not just about the money – such action would “send out a clear message to current and future leaders that they will not be allowed to profit from such immoral behaviour” (p36).
  2. Rich countries must do more to prevent their own companies from offering bribes.
  3. Systems developed by rich countries to monitor banking for evidence of terrorism and drug money, should also be used to keep an eye out for stolen African money. African states should be notified when suspicious transactions take place.
  4. Banks and rich countries must also develop schemes for freezing, confiscating and repatriating stolen funds. This should be possible even when the holder of the money hasn’t been convicted of a crime.

So there’s much to be done to tackle large-scale, billion-dollar corruption. But the Commission notes, “what really matters to poor people is petty corruption” (p36). African governments must show a willingness to crack down on small bribes, but rich countries must too. The report notes that not one member of the G8 has signed the UN Convention Against Corruption.2 There’s a strong hint of annoyance here as the Commission notes, “it is pointless for the developed world to bemoan African corruption when it does not take the specific measures needed to counter it” (p37).

Particular efforts need to be made in countries with a lot of mineral wealth, which tends to go hand-in-hand with corruption: take, for example, the ongoing saga of Shell’s activity in Nigeria. Here again, there’s a need for African and rich-country governments to work together: African governments much commit to publish the details of the money that comes in from oil, diamonds and the like, and how it is spent; rich countries must push companies to adhere to tighter codes on their activity in developing countries.

So the Commission has a barrage of suggestions on issues of accountability. But it’s equally crucial, the commission argues, to address issues of capacity:

  1. Lack of money. Cue groaning by right-wing economists. But really, the reason why this is always at the top of lists of Africa’s woes is that it’s very, very serious and very, very important. Growth requires roads, telecoms and electricity; affordable housing and sanitation; public health and education systems that are widely accessible. These cost money African governments don’t have.
  2. Lack of information. Collecting the data that is vital to good policy requires systems of collection, surveys and so on; it also requires skilled, educated civil servants to process it.
  3. Lack of personnel. It’s not just civil servants who there aren’t enough of. AIDS has decimated the ranks of teachers and other public sector staff across Africa.

So what’s to be done? Aid has traditionally tried to fill at least the money gap, and the Commission is frank in its acknowledgement that the “results have been patchy” (p34). But it doesn’t conclude that aid doesn’t work. Rather, it notes, the short-term and single-project nature of aid tends to deal with particular problems without building capacity by training civil servants or strengthening institutions. Aid needs to be longer-term and governments given more power to use it, instead of external organisations such as NGOs managing it. Investment is also needed in University education, to allow more skilled civil servants and teachers to be trained. For their part, governments must improve management, improving incentives for people to become and remain public servants.

The Commission’s willingness to acknowledge problems of governance will be music to the ears of those who fear a new wave of aid money being wasted. “Until [good governance] is in place,” it tells us, “Africa will be doomed to continue its economic stagnation”(p29). But it’s clear that to acknowledge the need for change is not to let rich countries off the hook: indeed, the focus of the Commission’s recommendations on governance are strongly on the action needed from rich countries. Now, of course, that’s the point of the exercise, to a large extent: Tony Blair established the Commission to produce recommendations for the G8 summit and Britain’s European presidency, i.e. for rich countries. Nevertheless, I can’t shake the feeling that the Report doesn’t address the responsibilities of African countries nearly strongly enough. I’ll be reviewing some of the criticisms of the report, and the general literature on governance issues, later on.

The report has two sections addressing governance in detail: pages 15-37 of Part 1: The Argument, and Chapter 4 of Part 2: Evidence & Analysis. All page numbers are from the online version of the full report.

  1. I’ve looked through the full Commission Report a little and I’ve been unable to find the precise details of this survey, its sample size and so on. But apparently it’s “not yet published.” Citation: “GlobeScan (2005) Africa in the New Century 2005 Survey. Toronto: GlobeScan Inc. (not yet published).” See? So I can’t assess its accuracy. But GlobeScan is a highly-regarded research group, so it’s probably sound. And what’s more, this view chimes with African voices in the media, which tend to be surprisingly strong in their criticisms of African governments.
  2. France has since signed the Convention, and it has come into force, having been ratified by 30 countries. However, I believe it’s only binding on those who have signed it.