Why African countries should strengthen their public service



Public Service in Africa. This is a topic that, despite its fundamental role in governance and leadership, is seldom discussed. In this Q&A the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s research team explains  why African countries should strengthen their public services.

Why should African countries strengthen their public services?

Public service plays a fundamental role in governance in any country, however, public service in Africa is seldom part of the discussion on the future of the continent. Strengthening public services in Africa is critical. When reinforced they facilitate healthy communities, parameters of accountability and citizen engagement, job creation, and frameworks for development and growth. On the other hand, weak public services result in health shortages, education gaps, citizen distrust and a lack of government transparency.

Present and future challenges can only be addressed if this pillar of governance is secured across the continent. This was affirmed by Mo Ibrahim when he stated, “without strong public services and committed public servants there can be no efficient delivery of expected public goods and services, nor implementation of any political commitment, however strongly voiced.”

How effectively are African public services delivering for their citizens? Are public services meeting citizen needs and demands?

Simply put, no. Our research shows that African citizens’ satisfaction with the provision of basic public services appears to have diminished over the last decade. This indicates that governments are not meeting public demand in areas such as health, education, justice, safety and security.

The Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) indicates progress in overall governance on average in Africa, but a decline in the provision of core public services. Education, for instance, shows a concerning trajectory.

For example, the Ibrahim Forum Report found an increase in citizens’ dissatisfaction with government provision of education. According to report contributor Afrobarometer, 12.7% of people surveyed in 2014/2015 considered that it was “very difficult” or “difficult” to obtain the services needed from teachers or school officials.

With Africa’s population set to double by 2050, efficient public service delivery in this area is vital to the continent’s ability to deal with new challenges in the future.

What do you mean by new challenges?

The 21st century poses new and multiple challenges to public services, including an increased number of poor people, widening inequality, jobless economic growth, multi-dimensional security threats, persistent food insecurity and the irreversible impact of climate change.

More so than in any other part of the world, Africa is facing all these challenges simultaneously 2 and they are amplified by the continent’s young and urbanising demography. As a result, these young citizens are making new demands beyond the delivery of traditional public services, including, but not limited to, solidarity, culture, and business-enabling environments.

How can Africa ensure that its young population does not become a lost opportunity for the continent?

There are many reasons to focus on the needs of Africa’s youth, but first and foremost is the fact that more than 60.0% of Africa’s population is below the age of 25. Any improvements to public service provision across the continent will benefit these citizens most.

Youth also constitutes a specific category that requires ad hoc measures. African leaders declared 2009-18 the “African Youth Decade”, putting in place a plan to safeguard opportunities for young people. Several countries have made efforts to this end but stronger action is needed.

The 2018 Ibrahim Forum Report shows that youth unemployment is on average more than twice that of adults. Therefore, Africa finds itself at a crossroads. The continent’s youth could be its greatest opportunity or, as some describe it, a ticking time bomb.

To safeguard Africa’s growth and facilitate opportunities for the next generation, public services should ensure that initiatives, programmes and policies harness the potential of the world’s youngest population and prioritise the issues such as the continent’s widening inequalities and lack of prospects. In addition, young people need to regard a career in public service as an attractive option.

What does Africa’s next generation want from its states?

At the Foundation’s annual Ibrahim Governance Weekend in Kigali last April, we put the spotlight on African emerging leaders. This gave young people from across Africa the opportunity to express their demands and aspirations for the future of their continent.

Several interesting themes came to the fore. Firstly, young people expect governments and public services to operate professionally across the continent. Secondly, young people want to feel a sense of community within the countries and societies they live in based on stronger relationships with the state. Finally, they expect their governments to develop robust participatory processes that involve youth.

If states can meet these demands, then this new generation of vibrant young Africans are committed and interested in joining public service and contributing to the future of the continent.

The African Union has declared 2018 as the year of fighting corruption across the continent and transparency has played a big part in governance debates. Where do governments and public servants need to focus their attention to address this?

The Ibrahim Forum Report identified transparency and accountability as key challenges. They 3 are central to public services in Africa and to the quality of governance and leadership across the continent.

The report findings showed that public sector corruption in sub-Saharan Africa is the second highest globally, after South Asia. This is a widespread phenomenon with 22% of Africans who had contact with public services in 2015 saying they paid a bribe – mostly to the police and legal courts and the scale of this issue is vast. In Nigeria alone, roughly 82.3 million bribes were paid in 2016, equivalent to 39% of the combined federal and state education budget.

Any solution must see corruption as both a potential loss of resources and as an obstacle to accessing public services. This calls for policies against bribes and money laundering, the benefits of which are already being seen across Africa. For example, earlier this month the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, expressed satisfaction with anti-money laundering efforts taking place in Nigeria and Tunisia.

What are some of the positive stories and opportunities for Africa’s public services?

Africa’s public services are not just a basket case.

The first piece of good news is that public services do not need to work in isolation. The public and private sectors, together with civil society, are increasingly involved in delivering services to citizens In particular, we see a growing role of local authorities. Today, the 20 biggest cities on the continent manage populations larger than many countries. In cities such as Kampala and Johannesburg, a new generation of mayors supported by teams of young and motivated Africans, is offering examples of modernising public services that engage with cross sections of society.

African public services are not just about men in suits doing paperwork. African public services employ on average more women than the private sector, and public employees are on average better educated than private ones. The President’s Young Professionals Program of Liberia aims at attracting youth talent into public service and is currently being exported to other countries, such as Ghana, under the Emerging Public Leaders initiative. Since 2006, Rwanda has been at the forefront of ensuring performance in public service using performance contracts (Imihigo), rooted in the country’s cultural practice. More generally, the African Association for Public Service and Management (AAPAM), the African Training and Research Centre in Administration for Development (CAFRAD) and national institutions ensure exchanges and training to embed best practices across the continent.

Finally, the ability of Africa to “leapfrog” – the harnessing of technological innovation to make a quick jump in economic development – is often referred to. This application of innovation and technology to public service delivery is key. For example, in Rwanda, drones are used to deliver blood and medical supplies. Likewise, in Côte d’Ivoire, drones ensure the maintenance of the country’s electricity network.

These positive stories show Africa’s unique potential and ability to rethink traditional systems, building independent and professional public services that not only address the continent’s complexity, but also thrive within it. 4

The report showed that donors and the private sector play key roles in delivering security, education and health. What are the implications of this?

Foreign investments support Africa’s growing demand for public services, increasing the robustness of national services in areas like education, health and security. However, they can also fuel greater dependency on donors who may not always consider the needs of African citizens.

Private sector and foreign investors have become key providers of public goods and services in response to exponential demand and partly to substitute failing public supply. Their contributions to extending the networks of services and infrastructure in areas such as health and education are positive but cannot happen at the expense of the public interest. Private service provision often comes with additional access costs that risk creating inequalities.

Earlier this month, during the 2018 Forum on China Africa Cooperation, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a $60 billion investment package with eight core initiatives including investments in healthcare, education and security. This investment is a huge opportunity for Africa. Still, it should not lead to public policies that favour the interests of Chinese growth over the continent’s own. African countries can, and should, own their public policies.

How important is citizen ownership to public service in Africa?

Citizen ownership, the active participation of citizens in society through formal and informal social agreements or arrangements, is fundamental to ensuring an efficient match between a rising demand and a still weak supply.

A sense of belonging and community is central to this concept, built on a sound social contract between citizens and the state. Through the social contract, citizens consent to state authority in exchange for protection of universal human rights and security. Citizens also consent to pay taxes as a contribution to cover the cost of the delivery of public goods and services. The public authorities then commit to provide public services that meet the needs and demands of their citizens, and are accountable for these.

A social contract benefits ownership and accountability at both ends. Citizens assume responsibility for public policies by contributing taxes and becoming stakeholders, as electors do through the ballot, and public service providers become accountable to taxpayers as governments are to their electorate. Governments must respond to the need to strengthen trust and improve participatory processes that involve citizenry and the youth whilst preserving the identities, cultural values and heritage that form the basis of a stronger relationship between citizens and the state.

How can we keep the momentum going around public service in Africa?

A dysfunctional public sector should worry all parties because a functioning state brings out the 5 best in its people, resources and opportunities. Governments and organisations are waking up to this and to the critical importance of strengthening public services.

For example, this year the World Bank released the Worldwide Bureaucracy Indicators (WWBI), a new dataset which seeks to fill the gap in quantitative data on the characteristics of public sector employment and wages to monitor progress in this area.

The Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) is an important tool for maintaining the conversation around public services in Africa. In the coming weeks, the 2018 IIAG will provide data on the effectiveness of public services across Africa, capturing the capacity of governments to design and implement policy, deliver public services, and manage human resources.

You can find the Ibrahim Forum Report here.

About the Mo Ibrahim Foundation

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation (MIF) is an African foundation, established in 2006 with one focus: the critical importance of governance and leadership in Africa. The Foundation focuses on defining, assessing and enhancing governance and leadership in Africa through four main initiatives:

  • • Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG)
  • • Ibrahim Forum
  • • Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership
  • • Ibrahim Leadership Fellowships.

About the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s Research Team

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation Research Team is composed of six qualitative and quantitative researchers and analysts from different backgrounds including academia, think tanks, international organisations, NGOs and the private sector. The Research Team works on the Foundation’s two main annual publications, the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) and the Ibrahim Forum Report, dedicated each year to a topic of relevance to African governance and leadership – this year the focus was on public service in Africa. Alongside these, the Research Team publishes other research products and writes blogs and spotlights available on the Foundation’s website.


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