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The Innovation Coming Out of Africa

The Innovation Coming Out of Africa

Commentary

4 min read

Jim Murphy walks the new tracks connecting Nairobi and Mombasa (image courtesy Jennifer Huxta).

If you ask Mary Adeola Olererin, the Head of the Delivery Unit in Nigeria’s Kaduna State, why she thinks delivery matters, she will tell you that even a Rolls Royce needs engine oil. In other words, the best vehicles in the world won’t go anywhere if the little things are not taken care of. The same is true of government.

For most people, government business feels abstract. Committees, commissions, legislation and parliamentary votes are the staple diet of politicians and civil servants. I have my own experience from nearly two decades in the UK Parliament and I know that politics can sometimes be bureaucratic drudgery. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that government, when done well by people committed to positive change, remains one of the most potent forces society has at its disposal. It deserves our support.

This summer, the first new railway in Kenya for decades will open to the public. It connects Nairobi and Mombasa, two of the fastest-growing cities on the planet. Last week, I stood in the new multi-million dollar Nairobi terminus alongside a dedicated government team. Their persistence and vision had turned a project plan into over 600 kilometres of railway that will carry 22 million tonnes of freight a year. The economic impact can be huge – not just boosting trade but also helping to develop small towns along the route as they look to become commuter hubs.

The reason for mentioning a railway is to make a point not about trains or transport, but about government. This project is an example of effective government in action; and, put simply, effective government changes lives.

This project is an example of effective government in action; and, put simply, effective government changes lives.

resident Kenyatta will shortly stand on the platform and mark the occasion of the first train’s departure. It’s another reminder of the potential for growth and prosperity in a country where the economy needs to generate jobs for a population with an average age of just nineteen.

This project featured at the Africa Delivery Exchange – a showcase for innovation and best practice in government held in Nairobi on 21 and 22 March. There, we learned that it isn’t just in Kenya that government projects are changing lives. In the last 18 months, Guinea has doubled the supply of electricity to its capital Conakry through the completion of the Kaleta Dam – giving its 2m residents access to power. Addis Ababa has seen the opening of Ethiopia’s first public tram network, helping ease congestion throughout a city of over 3m people. Liberia has restored a major power plant looted during the civil war, adding 64 Megawatts to the national grid. And Nigeria’s new development bank will supply critical capital to an estimated 200,000 small businesses.

One of the other things that each of these governments have in common is that they all work with my employer, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. We have small teams of international staff working at the heart of governments to offer politically-savvy advice to leaders and civil servants. Some of these governments have taken the idea of a ‘Delivery Unit’, first modelled in Downing Street in the ‘90s, and adapted it for their own challenges. That’s why we took the opportunity to bring together ministers and government officials from across the continent for the inaugural Africa Delivery Exchange.

Our Institute doesn’t dictate to our partner governments. The idea behind the two day meeting was to support those working on the frontline of government.

Our Institute doesn’t dictate to our partner governments. The idea behind the two day meeting was to support those working on the frontline of government. Participants shared their successes, mistakes and tips for getting things done in the midst of the politics and bureaucracy that make up the centre of government.

The savviest delivery leaders can use a variety of tools to ensure government systems stay on track. These include routine check-ins on what has or has not been done, the deployment of hard and soft incentives, and the use of delegated authority – even public accountability mechanisms via radio and other media. In one country, a senior government official has to send a daily update on projects’ progress to the President via Whatsapp.

After two days of hearing from some of the brightest minds working on these issues, it is clear that there is a lot more to do. International aid is undoubtedly part of the solution to the challenges facing these governments – including the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on development policy. But what is really needed is systemic change of the type that only effective governments, working in the interests of their people, can achieve. Many countries are now on the right track, but it’s a difficult one; and there is a long way to go yet.

This article was originally published by the Global Government Forum. You can read it here.

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