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African public services: not just a basket case

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

African countries celebrated Africa Public Service Day on 23 June, dedicated this year to ‘combating corruption in public institutions through stakeholder participation and promotion of ethical leadership to realise the objectives of Agenda 2063 and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’, in line with the African Union’s theme of the year for 2018.

Corruption is one of the key challenges identified by the 2018 Ibrahim Forum Report on Public Service in Africa, for African public services and beyond, impacting the quality of governance and leadership in the continent. The report findings show that corruption in the African public sector is the second highest globally, after South Asia. This is a widespread phenomenon, as 22% of Africa’s population who had contact with a public service in 2015 said they paid a bribe, mostly to the police and the courts. The most likely to pay a bribe for public services are young, poor, urban males. In terms of magnitude, just in Nigeria roughly 82.3 million bribes were paid in 2016, equivalent to 39% of the combined federal and state education budget.

The fight against corruption is a key step towards building independent and professional public services. Nonetheless, to celebrate Africa Public Service Day, we would like to move beyond this issue, which is not a unique feature of the continent – as recently highlighted by H.E. Paul Kagame in a conversation with Mo Ibrahim during the 2018 Ibrahim Forum. To rethink public service in Africa in a constructive and transformative way, the key is to focus on the challenges that are endemic to the continent, and besides these, highlight African success stories, as African public services are not just a basket case.

In terms of Africa-specific challenges, between now and 2050, Africa’s population will more than double from 1.2 billion to more than 2.5 billion. Africa’s young and urbanising demography will put significant strain on the delivery of traditional and new services. Piling up on these demands, the 21st century poses new multiple challenges to public services, from climate change to cyber security. More so than in any other part of the world, Africa is facing all these challenges simultaneously, in a context of widening inequalities and lack of job opportunities.

The first good news is that public services are not alone. The African Union and RECs are already partnering with countries towards these goals. Moreover, local authorities and cities are an increasingly reliable players in delivering services closer to citizens. In 2018, the 20 biggest cities of the continent currently manage populations bigger than many countries. In cities such as Kampala and Johannesburg, a new generation of mayors are an example of modernising public services, supported by teams of young and motivated Africans. Moreover, beyond the public sphere, civil society and the private sector offer avenues for cooperation.

Secondly, in terms of capacity, as the examples above show, African public services are not just about men in suits doing paperwork. The President’s Young Professionals Program of Liberia succeeds in 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 through the use of 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.

Last but not least, Africa has demonstrated a unique capacity to leapfrog applying innovation and technology to public service delivery. 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. In Kenya, through Huduma, public services are available electronically and offline communities are reached by mobile offices. In Nigeria, digital applications have been developed to monitor the implementation of government’s projects. Besides ensuring more effective services and work opportunities for young people, such positive stories also improve transparency and inclusivity.