Posted by: davidjolson | 12/17/2010

Tony Blair and his quest to improve African government

Although Tony Blair moved out of 10 Downing Street three years ago, you wouldn’t have known it Thursday as the dapper ex-British prime minister set forth his mission of changing African governments so they work for their people in an elegant ballroom of The Fairfax Hotel on Massachusetts Avenue’s Embassy Row to a group of international development professionals. The lecture was  organized by the Center for Global Development.

While Mr. Blair did not reject traditional aid in the speech “Not Just Aid: How Making Government Work Can Transform Africa,” he did concede that the first term of his administration “was all about aid, not partnership,” something he said he corrected in his second. He also said that the “Dead Aid” argument (referring to the 2008 book by Dambisa Moyo entitled “Dead Aid: Destroying the Biggest Global Myth of Our Time”) makes valid points, but shouldn’t define development.

Mr. Blair hailed the arrival of a new generation of development leaders such as Robert Zoellick of the World Bank, Helen Clark of the U.N. Development Programme, Rajiv Shah of the U.S. Agency for International Development and even Andrew Mitchell, the new British secretary of state for international development, who, Mr. Blair impishly hastened to add, “is building on an extremely strong record by the previous administration.”

Moreover, Mr. Blair said this is matched by new African leaders who want partnership, not a donor-beneficiary relationship (though he did not name any of them).

“There is a lot to be optimistic about in Africa, but to realize Africa’s potential the answer has to be about more than aid, said Mr. Blair. “A new partnership has to emerge between the international community and Africa – one in which country ownership is more than a convenient slogan. Country ownership has to start with supporting governments – and leaders.”

To that end, Mr. Blair has created the Africa Governance Initiative which is pioneering a new way of working with African countries, “equipping committed African leaders with the capacity to deliver the public services which their citizens have a right to expect, to tackle deep-rooted poverty, and to attract the sustainable investment to build strong economies for the future.”

Mr. Blair is drawing on his 10 years as prime minister to share the lessons he learned — and the mistakes he made — with leaders in Liberia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, the first three countries where the Africa Governance Initiative has launched activities.

He gave one example which he said may sound trivial but is actually critical — scheduling for the head of state. In one country, he found that the head of state was spending 90% of his time on non-priorities. The reasons for that? The lack of proper scheduling and too many priorities; Mr. Blair recommends no more than four. “The minute I see a government plan with 30 priorities, I know nothing will get done,” he said.

As a professional communicator, I appreciated that Mr. Blair also considered strategic communications as one of the critical things that needs to be mastered to run a country. “Communications has got to be organized,” he said. “It doesn’t just happen.”

He also told a story from Sierra Leone that illustrates that money alone is not the problem. There, the minister of health was trying to deliver maternal and child health services. “The money was there,” Mr. Blair said. “The system to deliver services was not. Our sister blog, Global Health Magazine, first recounted this situation in this look inside African health ministries by John Donnelly in August 2009.

“Africa doesn’t just need game-changing technologies,” said Mr. Blair. “It needs game-changing leadership, and we need to support it.” What would that support look like? Mr. Blair characterized it in seven points:

  • It has to be aligned with the leaders’ priorities.
  • It has to have the right scope, and help countries prioritize.
  • It has to provide practical support to leaders themselves. In his experience, he said, a strong center of government improved, not weakened, the capability of the rest of the government.
  • It needs to champion the quality of private sector investment
  • It needs to enjoy minimum levels of support from the justice system and the rule of order.
  • Capacity development requires technical expertise. More often than one would think, that expertise is available in country.
  • If the expertise is not available locally, the country should not hesitate to call on the African diaspora and retired people from abroad but only if they are not fly-In, fly-out consultants but rather, people willing to work alongside the nationals for one or two years.

He was asked for his views on USAID becoming independent of the State Department, with cabinet rank. Though he has been out of office for three years now, Mr. Blair said, he still knows when to not answer a question. However, that is exactly what he did with Britain’s own aid agency DFID when he was prime minister.

When asked what he regretted or wished he had done more on in international development, he immediately said that early on, he was all about aid, and not partnership. He also said he wished he could have done more about Zimbabwe, though it was a difficult situation.

Here’s a video of the event on the Center for Global Development website.

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