This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on May 19, 2019
There are several factors that inform the extent to which a government is able to develop a vision for the country’s development, and actually implement it consistently over time. One key factor is the seriousness with which qualified and experienced technocrats are taken. The emphasis is on qualified technocrats, not unqualified individuals who have been given technocratic positions.
Qualified, experienced and creative technocrats, when operating in an environment underpinned by transparency and accountability can play a crucial role in steering a country’s development towards more prosperity and equity. Sadly, many African countries have challenges with taking qualified technocrats seriously. There are several factors that inform why most African governments often underplay the extent to which technocrats can inform long-term, sustainable development.
The first is the simply how young African government institutions are. Most independent African governments are about fifty years old, and in reality they are much younger if you take out years of civil war, dictatorship and aggressive interference from foreign governments. The fact that government institutions are so young, often means that the institutional structures that would allow technocracy to flourish often do not exist. Institutional structures such as robust financing practices, performance based contracting, project management systems and result delivery structures are weak. As a result, in many government bodies, one will find that the institution is only as good as its leader. If a given government body has a motivated, accountable and effective leader, a great deal can be accomplished.
This is being seen in Kenya under devolution and the rise of county governments. It is often be easier to make development progress with governor who appoints qualified technocrats, and demands accountability and performance than with a governor who fills the cabinet with friends and relatives who have no technocratic capacity and facilitates a lack of accountability. The same can be said of National Government bodies. Thus, political processes aside, the fact that government bodies are so young, means that the leadership will often define the extent to which qualified technocrats will be able to steer the development of that government entity.
The second factor, is five year election cycles. When juxtaposed with young and often weak government institutions, what often happens is that the country’s development is politically driven, speaking to what is politically expedient during the election year. Yet politicians make election promises that require serious technocratic competence to achieve. But once a government is elected, what sometimes happens is that some technocratic appointments are made with political expediency in mind, not competence or implementation capacity. Further, five year election cycles often mean that top technocrats are replaced depending on which government is elected. As a result, there is often no consistency at the technocratic level, that allows a development plan and vision to be implemented through five year election cycles.
It is important that Africa begins to grapple with these serious issues. For as long as governments fail to deliberately build robust institutions, and continue to view technocratic positions through the lens of political expediency, it will be very difficult to tap into the considerable experience of African professionals, and develop the ability to not only create a credible vision for the continent, but implement it consistently over time.
Anzetse Were is a development economist