This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on March 24, 2019
As African publics become more educated about their governments, how they are supposed to function and the services that ought to be rendered to them, a sense of dissatisfaction is clear. In some cases the issue is more about the quality of service/action taken by government with the feeling that it could have been done better. In other cases, the issue is corruption where funds intended for certain projects and services are stolen, leaving millions with inadequate facilities, care and services from government. Thus there are two core challenges most African governments face when delivering on their mandate and responsibility: capacity and corruption.
The African Union released the Africa Capacity Report 2019 which focused on the role of capacity building in creating transformative leadership in Africa. With regards to government, the report points out that there is a clear need for increased investment in leadership capacity development at all levels and that special attention ought to be paid to strengthening the capacity of accountability and compliance entities, such as ombudspersons and anti-corruption and audit units of African governments. In many cases, the inability of African governments to deliver on their mandates has to do with a lack of technical and leadership capacity. Even in cases where leadership capacity is present, translating clear strategy into action is compromised by the lack of capacity at the grassroots levels. Civil servants charged with delivering on government mandates on the ground are often not well supported in terms of the number of people assigned to the task, inadequate financing of their tasks, as well as a lack of support in updating their own skills and abilities.
The second factor is corruption; and while this may be informed by capacity constraints as alluded to in the AU report, often it is not. The problem is usually government officials willingly breaking the law and using the finances and privileges of their office for personal gain. The scale and variants of corruption are staggering. Some government officials blatantly steal public funds, others ask for payments during tendering processes while others roll kickbacks into tenders awarded; the list goes on. What happens at the end of the day from the African public perspective, is that we either overpay for the project/service due to corruption inflating the bill, or we get basically no services at all.
The reality of how these two factors interplay is complex as capacity and corruption problems operate almost on a sliding scale. In some African governments capacity gaps preponderate and compromise the ability of the government to effectively deliver on their mandate. With other African governments corruption is the issue and the moral bankruptcy of some government officials lead them to deliberately negotiate subpar deals for their countries because of the individual kickbacks they have built into the deals they make. And in some cases it’s both, where corrupt government officials take advantage of the lack of capacity in key areas to steal public finances.
At the end of the day, while efforts to address capacity gaps should continue, corruption must be addressed with more vigour. Because you can have the most competent government team in the world, but as long as some African government officials continue to be aggressively corrupt, Africans will continue to be robbed of what is due to them from government.
Anzetse Were is a development economist