From Theory to Reality: South-South Cooperation in Africa

12/12/2012 16:56 GMT | Updated 10/02/2013 10:12 GMT

Earlier this year David Cameron held a high-level meeting in Downing Street with world leaders from Brazil and Liberia amongst others to begin the task of setting the world's future international development agenda as the Millennium Development Goals draw to a close in 2015.

The UK, along with other Western donors, has long played a central role in defining what should and shouldn't be the priorities for emerging countries in the developing world but today things are changing. Across Africa a growing number of stable governments with growing economies are looking at each other as well as London and Washington for tips on how to progress out of poverty.

I recently joined a delegation of senior officials of the Government of Sierra Leone on a visit to Kigali to meet with their Rwandan counterparts and exchange lessons in reforming their public sector. Both countries are experiencing strong economic growth following recent histories of conflict and political turmoil and both sides were keen to exchange views on how best to move their countries forward. Sierra Leone has also just successfully completed its third peaceful and democratic elections since its civil war, and is now setting its development priorities for the next 5 years.

While there can be no uniform approach to development because each country's development is based on its particular history, culture, and political circumstances, the conversations between Sierra Leone and Rwanda revealed three underlying principles that governments across Africa can apply to strengthen their capacity to deliver for their people.

First, the need for a common vision and motivation for change. The senior civil servants we met in Rwanda spoke with a common voice in describing where their country has come from, where it is going over the next decades, and why. But Rwanda's vision is not only articulated in words - through the Vision 2020 - but it is there in practice, in ministries' plans and targets and even in the names of restaurants. Young professionals we spoke to in the Ministry of Natural Resources or Ministry of Agriculture were visibly proud of being part of Rwanda's development.

Sierra Leone recently worked on its own development story, through a National Conference on Development and Transformation that brought together academics, civil society and other stakeholders to develop a story for what the President's vision of middle income country status by 2035 will look like, and how it will be achieved.

Other countries should look at this experience, and articulate their own compelling story for change - aimed at the man on the street, not technocrats or development partners. Any motivation for change, and the associated ambition and pride to be part of it, starts with a powerful story of why this change is needed.

The second principle was the emphasis on a need to nurture new leaders. The senior officials we encountered in Rwanda were young, often female, (more than 50% of Parliament are women) and impressive. Programmes such as the Strategic Capacity Building Initiative, which links capacity building efforts to the delivery of government priorities, reinforce this by investing in around 100 high achieving young graduates, Rwanda's future leaders. It tries to ensure that the most capable leaders in the civil service are also positioned to support the Government's most important delivery priorities.

Sierra Leone has also embarked on an effort to close critical capacity gaps in its Ministries. New multi-year programmes, supported by the World Bank and the EU, aim to implement reforms to pay, performance and training of civil servants, and a new graduate programme is being considered. Ministers are also increasingly vocal about the need to strengthen their organisations to have the staff capacity to deliver the Government's priorities. The Rwandan approach could be an interesting model to do this.

Political leaders often have little patience for systemic reforms that seem far removed from their priorities. So developing countries should look at ways to link such reforms to achieving their top delivery priorities (e.g. by piloting or accelerating changes in these sectors), to invest them with the much needed urgency for action.

Finally, our delegation observed how Rwanda has created a culture of performance and self-assessment that permeates its public institutions. From the top, where the Government submits to an annual national dialogue and national leadership retreat at which Ministers are appraised and citizens are given a stake in the process, to the bottom, where local leaders set annual targets and are appraised against these. One senior civil servant told us that 'performance management is the one thing that revolutionised our civil service delivery.'

Similarly, in Sierra Leone the President signs annual performance contracts with Ministers and similar contracts are being rolled out across other state organisations and local councils. He also regularly reviews the progress of top priorities like health, agriculture or energy in meetings with his Ministers. A Citizen's Scorecard has been introduced to ask the public for how it assesses progress.

One country's approach to performance management cannot simply be transplanted to another. For example, Rwanda benefits from a growing pool of skilled Rwandans pushing into the civil service. Some countries have already gone a long way, like Kenya. Others, like Liberia, have just introduced annual performance contracts for Ministers, following Sierra Leone's model. Important to all of these approaches is role modelling the system, and making it credible - for example, Kenya publishes an annual ranking of ministries. A comprehensive system will take several years to institutionalise, but the underlying culture can and has to be set from the very start.

South-south cooperation might be a buzzword in the development community but two months ago in a conference room with Sierra Leonean and Rwandan officials I was fortunate enough to see it first-hand. Progress in Africa is not uniform but Governments across the continent are increasingly learning from each other. Whether it is bilateral meetings or broader initiatives such as NEPAD, Africa's development is more and more driven from within the continent. This has to be a positive trend.