Building Government Capacity Must Supplement the SDGs

Building Government Capacity Must Supplement the SDGs


4 min read

When people shriek that conventional politics doesn’t change anything, what has happened with the Millennium Development Goals set 15 years ago here in New York, is not a bad riposte. Not everything was accomplished; no fragile country will achieve completely any of the goals. But huge progress was made, with a bold and transformative agenda, under which hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty, maternal mortality has been reduced by almost half and millions more children are in school. And so as the world adopts the Sustainable Development Goals in New York it should do so with some confidence.

However there are ways we could make them much more effective, in part by learning the lessons of those 15 years.

The Africa Governance Initiative, now in 8 countries, – puts improved systems of delivery and implementation at the heart of the change needed to reduce poverty and promote development. The toughest thing about Government – even in the developed world – is getting things done. Political leaders run for office as great campaigners. Once in power they swiftly discover they have to become great CEOs.

This is deeply true in the developing world. Leaders struggle with a vast array of challenges. The reforms are large, necessary and unpopular; and often technically complex.

This is deeply true in the developing world. Leaders struggle with a vast array of challenges. The reforms are large, necessary and unpopular; and often technically complex. Leaders frequently waste time on outmoded ways of working, endless hours of protocol (the sign of a poor Government is a happy Protocol), and without access to the best advice on problems that are usually universal in developing nations, around everything from financing infrastructure to attracting global investment. 

So building capacity within Governments is an excellent supplement to the SDGs, but it should be done with a practical eye.

Firstly, we need to appreciate that there is a cost to multitasking in development. The SDGs puts forward 17 goals and 169 targets; all admirable in their own right. But governments must be given the flexibility to prioritise and focus on the rhythm of change that works best for them. In Sierra Leone, for instance, the government’s post-Ebola recovery plan emphasises energy, agriculture and, not surprisingly, health.  The international community should support the government in these areas rather than pressuring it to work on all 17 SDGs out of the gate.

Second, for Presidents and Prime Ministers simply having a great transformation agenda is not enough; they also need a way to turn goals into plans and to make sure those plans stay on course. This is often strangely absent from the debate. But unless you have a team working to give the ball to the striker, the ball is not going to hit the back of the net.  Take Guinea, where my foundation, the Africa Governance Initiative, works closely with the government’s major projects office.  The effective oversight from that team is producing results like the building of the Kaléta dam which by the end of the year will supply 240 MWs of power to Guinea’s grid.

Third, the scale of the goals also means that the financing need is significant: around $11.5 trillion per year. To put this in perspective: Sub-Saharan Africa’s current total GDP is around $2 trillion.  This means that we need a wider concept of finance and policies to support development. Aid is still important; it can reach places private finance alone cannot. But the developed world has a responsibility that goes beyond aid: it needs to reduce barriers to trade in goods, especially trade in services; reduce barriers to innovation and the spread of knowledge; and reduce barriers to migration. However, the real key is about increasing domestic revenues. That means things like attracting investment and stimulating growth so they can create jobs and income, and increase tax revenues. 

Lastly, all of this will require new partnerships, more collaboration across borders; sharing ideas, forming alliances and accepting that practicality should outdo ideology. Part of this will require new thinking, but there are an abundance of ideas in the global marketplace to tap into. On top of this, technology, in particular mobile – which even in the developing world is now simply a personal technology – has the potential to revolutionise the delivery of services. This has already begun to happen, as mobile health, in places including West Africa during the Ebola outbreak, or the mobile money service, M-Pesa, in Kenya, testify. But there is far greater potential; adoption rates are high – and they have the potential to be adapted to very specific purposes across very different communities. 

One of the great innovations of the 15 years has been the role private philanthropy has played in complementing development efforts. This too has much potential for the future if we can find the right way for Governments and philanthropists to cooperate in making change which is not palliative but transformative.

Since 2000 we have seen that the cause of defeating world poverty is not hopeless. The SDGs can help us but will do so better if a rigorous account of the MDGs informs them.   

The work described here was carried out by the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, it is now being continued by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Government, Globalisation and the Future


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