Why should we worry about the capacity of public institutions in Africa and what can we do about it?

Prof. Emmanuel Nnadozie News & Analysis Public Administration & Governance

Africa has undoubtedly registered significant achievements since the turn of the century. Notwithstanding this success story, the continent still faces daunting economic, social, political, security and environmental challenges. Research shows that many African countries have for a long time had difficulties in quickly resolving these challenges, owing partly to the weak public institutions of the continent which have hampered development. Public institutions have often been unable to fully provide the legitimate rules and organizational capacity required to promote structural transformation, which is key to achieving the aspirations of Agenda 2063.

Furthermore, many public institutions in Africa continue to grapple with challenges relating to shortages of personnel with the qualitative skills required for their jobs, weak capacities to formulate and implement policies, unmotivated staff due to uncompetitive conditions of service, and slow diffusion of technology to improve productivity and competitiveness. This results in inefficient business procedures, weak intergovernmental relations leading to policy inconsistencies, weak interaction between public institutions and the private sector — which has partly stalled policy implementation — high levels of bureaucracy, weak governance and institutional arrangements.

The African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) has clearly shown through its work that capacity deficits are preventing Africa from effectively addressing these challenges. In addition, the challenge to public institutions, at all levels, mostly lies in their inability to harness strategic leadership at all levels; design hard and fast rules, transparent and unambiguous legal frameworks which bind the institutions’ agendas to the continent’s development frameworks; and facilitate inclusiveness and cater for the differentiated needs and aspirations of its current and future actors and beneficiaries.

Public institutions in Africa have serious capacity deficiencies across the board — human, institutional and “soft” capacities. The continent’s transformation strategy, Agenda 2063, singles out “capable institutions and good governance” as important elements for its implementation success and a priority for its First Ten Year Implementation Plan. Moreover, the global 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development also recognizes the importance of strong institutions for effective public service delivery.

This essay draws on ACBF’s 25 years of experience in supporting public institutions in Africa and argues that these institutions are important in meeting the continent’s socio-economic development goals. Therefore these institutions need to be capacitated for effective delivery of public services. In fact, experience has shown that capable and adequately resourced public institutions are key to the delivery of public services and form an essential part of the enabling environment for the successful implementation of Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This essay also looks at public institutions as organisations which shape the way public functions are carried out at the continental, regional and national levels. At the continental and regional levels are the Pan-African public insitutions, such as the African Union and Regional Economic Communities (RECs). On the other hand, critical at the country level are sinstitutions which provide public services such as health, education and transport, as well as institutions at the core of government decision-making, like cabinets and central government ministries coordinating finance and planning, as well as parliaments.

Role and importance of public institutions for development

Public institutions are key and central to the development of any economy because they are the conduits through which the state provides the necessary legal and regulatory framework for economies to function. It is also through these institutions that the state can provide an enabling environment for private sector participation and the necessary social and physical infrastructure for sustainable development.

In one of his essays, North, a pioneer who brought to the fore the role of public institutions in economic development, states that public institutions “are the underlying determinants of the long-run performance of economies… ”. In his view, developing “countries are poor because the institutional constraints define a set of pay-offs to political/economic activity that do not encourage productive activity”.

Effective public institutions are therefore a necessary condition for sustainable development. By lowering uncertainty and information costs, public institutions smooth the process of knowledge and innovation transfer within and across regions, and improve the conditions for the development of economic activities. Moreover, public institutions are believed to promote development and growth through creating the necessary adequate conditions for investment, economic interaction and trade, which, at the same time, reduce the risk of social and political instability and conflict.

In the context of Africa’s development agenda, public institutions are important for at least four reasons. First, the achievement of the objectives of Agenda 2063 and the SDGs is closely related to the effective delivery of public services. It is in this spirit that direct budget support by development partners is largely contingent upon African governments’ willingness to ensure the existence and strengthening of public sector service delivery capabilities.

Second, effective public service delivery is an engine of economic growth and a sign of well-performing economies. Nowadays, investors pay special attention to the efficiency of the public sector, which is considered as one of the key indicators for investment decisions. The cost of doing business is therefore scrutinized as a crucial measure of public sector efficiency.

Third, these institutions are an indicator of a credible fiscal pact between citizens and the state. Given that part of public services is delivered based on the collection of taxes, citizens as taxpayers have to be engaged. This is important to foster a culture in which taxpayers are aware of their rights and obligations, and understand that their taxes are used for building state or local capacity for better service delivery. Such an undertaking represents a clear signal of transparency and accountability, which is an important element of good governance and effective service delivery.

Fourth, effective public institutions provide an efficient way to maximize domestic resources. Building public institutional capacities to enhance public service delivery will help countries to mobilize more domestic resources. In fact, through better tax administration and sound public financial management, Africa will be able to strengthen its domestic resource mobilization capacities, allowing governments to function efficiently and finance their development objectives sustainably.

Critical public institutions for Africa’s development and their capacity imperatives

ACBF’s work around the ‘Capacity requirements for implementing Agenda 2063’s First Ten Years Implementation Plan’ is a good reference on the critical institutions and capacities required for Africa’s structural transformation. Done through extensive consultations with key stakeholders on the continent, the study shows, among other important issues, that emphasis must be placed on the critical institutions required to successfully implement the development agendas. In the interest of economy, efficiency and effectiveness, existing institutions and systems at the national, regional and continental levels should be strengthened. The following institutions have been found to be very critical at the continental, regional and country levels:

Continental level: The AU Commission and its organs and institutions are critical for effective oversight and resource mobilisation towards implementation of flagship projects and programmes. Also, the African Development Bank (AfDB) has a critical role of financing the flagship projects and programmes. The Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) has the role to provide technical support for the domestication of continental agendas, including sharing what works and does not work, in development programmes. The ACBF, on the other hand, has the exclusive role of developing capacity for designing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating projects and programmes, as well as coordination of interventions.

Regional level: : At the regional level, the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) need to be capacitated to be the effective regional sources for information and technical support for regional integration. This entails strengthening their capacity in supporting countries to build domestic resource mobilization capacities and implementation of regional projects and programmes.

National level: At the national level, governments, including public agencies and ministries, need to have their capacities enhanced in policy formulation, development plan preparation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the various projects and programmes at the local level. Along with this is the need to capacitate public research units/think tanks and universities so they can support evidence-based policy and development planning, as well as develop continental educational curriculum that instills a spirit of Pan-Africanism.

The bottom line in this discourse is that better institutional capacities are a building block for effective planning, implementation and monitoring/evaluation of development projects and programmes at all levels (continental, regional and country level). Building capacity of public institutions has proved to be an engine and backbone of sustainable economic growth because they shape the incentives of key economic actors in society — influencing investments in physical and human capital and technology, and the organization of production.

Lessons learnt from ACBF’s experience in building the capacity of public institutions in Africa

In its 25 years of supporting capacity building of public institutions on the continent, ACBF has learnt a number of lessons. First, the need to engage and get buy-in of governments on the need for considering capacity as an integral part of development planning and devoting adequate resources towards developing such capacity is very critical. A good example has been ACBF’s support to the government of Rwanda since 1994 after the genocide. Rwanda has since recognized the critical nature of capacity building as a pre-requisite to any meaningful development. Government has since streamlined capacity building as a cross-cutting issue in all ministries and sectors. In 2010, the government established a Capacity Building Fund and later created a national secretariat for capacity building (NCBS). NCBS has developed common tools, instruments and formats for identification of capacity building needs across ministries, as well as common monitoring and reporting formats. These have since been adopted by all government ministries, institutions and cooperating partners. The National Capacity Building Plan, which summarizes all sectoral plans, is now one of the appendices to the country’s National Annual Budget. Consequently notable benefits — including reduction in transaction costs arising from harmonization of M&E systems, reporting formats, procurement and budgeting formats, to mention but a few — have been attained. The improved performance levels emanating from the human resource being capacity-built is positively impacting the country’s economy through effective delivery of public services.

Second, economic policy management is a domain in which it is fundamental to build long-term capacities in Africa. The ability to design and maintain responsive economic policies relies on capacity within the core public sector, which is in short supply in many countries. This explains why ACBF has economic policy analysis and development management capacity building in the core public sector as the main focus of its mandate and interventions. So ACBF has been supporting regional Economic Policy Management Programmes (based in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Mozambique, Uganda and Zambia), covering a large part of the continent. These are particularly active and successful in equipping governments with the relevant skills for effective economic policy analysis and public sector management by training middle-level managers in the public sector. They have had a double effect: a direct impact on capacitating personnel and an indirect impact on the strengthening of institutions. Trained people improve the quality of public sector decisions, which in turn have an effect on the efficiency and effectiveness of the services delivered by the public sector.

Third, public-private sector interface is an important way of strengthening the role of the public sector in achieving sustainable development. Through ACBF supporting the public-private interface, public institutions have effectively engaged non-state actors through dialogue, smart partnership and constructive interfacing to reach a common understanding on development strategies, policies, and programmes, as well as implementation mechanisms with the aim of maximizing growth, reducing poverty and fulfilling social responsibility to society. This has also enhanced the capacity of civil society to impact positively on the effectiveness and quality of public policies and service delivery, promoting principles of accountability and transparency in the public sector. This has been the case with Zambia, where ACBF has supported the Zambia Chamber of Small and Medium Business Associations (ZCMBA) in facilitating public–private engagement. This has raised the competitiveness of Zambia’s private sector, increased small business owners’ access to local and international markets, and facilitated the delivery of development services to Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs).

Fourth, one of the clear messages emerging is that capacity building alone is not enough; strategies for retaining, harmonizing and utilizing capacity, using innovations in capacity building and sustaining the efforts must also be emphasized.
What can we do to build the capacities of public institutions?

In order to harness the benefits of effective public service delivery, both the human resource and institutional infrastructure (including the policy environment) need to be strengthened. The following measures, informed by the various volumes of ACBF’s flagship publication, the Africa Capacity Report, should be considered, among others:
(i) Establish capacity development units in African countries to allow for the coordination of capacity building efforts. In particular, the 2015 Africa Capacity Report shows that 42% of countries surveyed do not have units for coordinating capacity development. These, where they exist as in Rwanda , combined with the adequate funding of capacity-building interventions — especially in designing, implementing, and monitoring and evaluating continental, regional and national programmes and projects — have had lasting impacts on effective public service delivery.
(ii) Having an M&E framework imbedded in all programmes, projects and initiatives for all public institutions. Evidence from the 2015 Africa Capacity Report shows that 51% of the surveyed countries report not having an M&E framework or have inadequate M&E staff dedicated to assess progress against national development strategies.
(iii) Ensuring adequate administrative and financial resources, paying attention to domestic resource mobilization (DRM). Effective DRM ensures accountability, buy-in and ownership of development objectives and results, as well as sustaining the existence of effective public institutions.
(iv) Ensuring a culture of excellence driven by Science, Technology and Innovation (STI), along with high-quality education. This includes the development of public policies that put emphasis on the retention, harmonization and use of critical skills, not just their acquisition. In the same vein, strengthening research, knowledge and experience-sharing capabilities within public institutions is critical.
(v) Lastly, putting in place a coordinated institutional strengthening and capacity-building programme at the national, regional and continental level. The programme should aim at strengthening institutions and policies in a coordinated manner in order to better address Africa’s development challenges, taking into account Agenda 2063 and the SDGs.

In sum, in spite of the significant achievements recorded in Africa since the turn of the century, the capacity of public institutions to design, implement, manage policies and deliver development results still remains weak on the continent. The benefits of addressing these challenges with regard to the efficient delivery of public services for Africa’s socio-economic development are enormous. To effectively and efficiently tackle these capacity challenges, there is a need to provide political and financial support to institutions which have experience in capacity development, as well as solid understanding of the continent’s development architecture (which includes understanding the key players) so as to effectively coordinate capacity development efforts for Africa’s sustainable and inclusive development.

Written by

Prof. Emmanuel Nnadozie, an economist and development expert, became the Executive Secretary of the African Capacity Building Foundation in December 2013. He came from the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Addis Ababa, where he worked from 2004 to 2012. He joined the UN after a distinguished academic career. He was Professor of Economics at the Truman State University, Missouri, in the US from 2002 to 2004. He has published many books and also contributed to academic journals on topics ranging from trade to finance, African regional integration and economic development.