David Cameron recently became the first British Prime Minister to visit Liberia, where amidst a flurry of international attention he co-chaired a meeting of the High Level Panel advising on the global development agenda beyond 2015.
While Cameron received criticism from at least one commentator for his high profile engagement in Liberia, his predecessor Tony Blair, free from the responsibilities of office, has used numerous visits to Liberia to support change in a much more immediate and much less glamorous way. The hands-on efforts of his Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) provide an interesting example of how new approaches to governance support are being operationalized using small-scale strategic interventions to drive change.
The Africa Governance Initiative
Set up in 2007 by a fresh-out-of-Downing-Street Tony Blair as part of a package of ventures to keep him busy, AGI became an independent UK-registered charity in 2009. AGI’s goal – ‘to provide practical advice and support to help Africa’s leading reformers to bridge the gap between their vision for a better future and their government’s ability to achieve it’ – built on Blair’s view of government as ‘a race between expectations and capability’ and his role as Patron provides him with a platform for promoting his vision of leadership.
As a practical expression of this vision, AGI rests on the core idea that the twin elements of democracy and state capacity are inextricably interdependent – effectiveness matters. The ability to demonstrate returns from bureaucratic reform can work to build both political incentives for reform and the credibility of the political system as a whole.
The overt approach
In the AGI model, Blair enables highest-level access and provides political advice to African leaders while small teams of long-term expatriate advisors work alongside senior government officials to help them get things done. The idea is to support leaders in bridging the ‘implementation gap’; in order to do this the focus is on building skills, systems and structures to improve prioritisation, planning and performance management in key areas of the government system. The focus is on driving the system to implement a few clear priorities, building capacity for delivery along the way.
AGI embeds advisors in strategic positions along the government delivery chain, vertically arranged to support delivery at key stages of implementation. The intervention is designed top-down from the apex of the political pyramid; this is intended to maximise the leverage of the centre of government over the rest of the system, and to ensure that the numerous parts of the delivery chain pull in the same direction and there is alignment between political vision and practical delivery. This approach also achieves maximum advantage from the close communication and teamwork that characterise AGI teams, enabling them to plan strategic interventions and tackle the information monopolies that so frequently cause delivery blockages in dysfunctional systems.
AGI advisors have explicit capacity-building mandates, and are recruited primarily on the basis of their interpersonal and management skills rather than purely technical knowledge. Their day-to-day work involves coaching, advising, encouraging and enabling counterparts to make small changes to such basic things as meeting protocols, action logs and internal communication systems. The mundane nature of this work sharply contrasts with the glamour of Presidential audiences, and the flexibility and agility of interventions is enabled by the culture and approach of the organisation as much as by its small size and relatively unrestrictive philanthropic and institutional funder requirements.
The discreet approach
While AGI’s overt approach has begun to attract attention in the development industry, the organisation is more quietly attempting to find a workable path through some of the more contested issues surrounding the role of external actors in governance reform:
- Extending Western influence into the very heart of sovereign African states. Engaging closely with politics will always bring significant risk and uncertainty, especially in highly politicized contexts within often fragile political systems. Although bound by charity status to remain apolitical, AGI does not see politics as something to be avoided or ignored. Where the organisation differs from many others that espouse the importance of engaging with politics, though, is that AGI puts its money where its mouth is. Close association with ruling parties and clear influence with African leaders, for example Rwanda’s President Kagame, is not something that all Western NGOs would embrace. In reality AGI does more than just put weight behind national development agendas – the organisation works to create demand as well as simply respond to it.
- Returning to the old expert-counterpart model of assistance in which well-paid expatriate advisors are embedded alongside government counterparts. In doing this, AGI teams tread a careful line between the perspectives and languages of both host governments and the partner community.
- Resisting some, if not all, pressure to fill capacity gaps. AGI sidesteps the unresolvable tension between capacity building and delivery through de facto acknowledgement that the two are mutually reinforcing. In the absence of a consistent approach to this issue, AGI uses haziness to its advantage, enabling flexibility and responsiveness in their approach. This means that AGI advisers at times support counterparts as they ‘reinvent the wheel’ while bringing in ready-made solutions from elsewhere when this is more appropriate.
- Going against the strict results agenda. No one can say for certain whether AGI’s interventions work, or represent value for money. The results chain is by necessity unclear, as a successful AGI intervention is one in which the role of AGI is invisible or forgotten. These interventions also require significant investment in building relationships, understanding motivations and incentives and building influence to the point at which the reality of vested interests can be made part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The AGI approach requires significant investment without guaranteed return.
The potential approach
The AGI model is one worth watching. As the organisation continues to grow – at the time of writing they are active in 7 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa (Guinea, Liberia, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and South Sudan) – and as the approach matures, it will be interesting to see if it can continue to manage the tensions that it has embraced and if it can evolve to address some currently outstanding issues. One of these is the organisation’s frequent reliance on working with high calibre counterparts in temporary posts that are funded by donors and paid salaries commensurate with the dual economy created by the aid industry. Another is the reliance on personal networks, privileged access and dependency on centralized power that the AGI approach not only accepts but, arguably, reinforces.
Can AGI resolve these issues, build its momentum and continue to get things done? Time will tell… This is an approach that is being worked out on the ground, bit by bit, or ‘small small’, as Liberians would say.
* Josie Stewart is a student on the MA Governance and Development course at IDS, 2012 - 2013, and was formerly a Governance Advisor with AGI in Liberia.