Reforming the public sector in sub-Saharan Africa

Reforming the public sector in sub-Saharan Africa

Though the New Public Sector Management (NPM) concept offers attractive public sector reform strategies, it has failed to nurture efficiency, transparency and accountability in Africa. To address the problems bedevilling sub-Saharan Africa, public sector reform strategies should be homegrown and mitigate against existential local problems, rather than a top-down reform strategy adopted from international institutions. 

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By Langton Moyo and Phillip Nyasha Fungurai

This century has witnessed the emergence of the “New Public Sector Management” (NPM) as a proposition for enhancing public sector efficiency and effectiveness in responding to dynamic public demands. NPM evolved as a public sector reform strategy that influenced the adoption of privatization, decentralization, strengthening governance, structural devolution, coupled with civil service and administrative reform. This is best typified by case examples of privatization in Zambia and decentralization in Uganda.

Though the NPM concept offers attractive public sector reform strategies, it has failed to nurture efficiency, transparency and accountability in Africa. This can be attributed to, in part, a lack of strong institutions, the Rule of Law, democracy, constitutionalism and strict adherence to standard international practices and protocols of public sector management. This paper analyses the efficacy, relevance and gaps hindering these reform strategies, particularly in the sub-Saharan Africa region, as characterized by failed states such as Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and low income countries like Malawi and Mozambique.

To address the problems bedevilling sub-Saharan Africa, public sector reform strategies should be homegrown and mitigate against existential local problems, rather than a top-down reform strategy adopted from international institutions. The greatest question of the day is how reform strategies can be contextualized as domestic panaceas to various problems hindering growth and development. Successful public sector reform depends upon mitigating corruption, adopting participatory models of public sector reform, and stirring ownership of the reform by locals and multiple-stakeholders (the state, civil society, and the private sector).

Public Sector Reform is the holistic, positive re-arrangement or re-organization of structures and change processes of the public sector machinery, with the overriding intent of entrenching efficiency, accessibility and effectiveness. The logic behind public sector reform by the Bretton Woods Institutions (the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) is that efficiency and effectiveness are key to the success of development initiatives. Sound public sectors form the bedrock of a governance configurations that fuel economic growth. NPM, on the hand, can be defined as the factoring in of new institutional economics to public management; characterized by market solutions, deregulation, and structural devolution leaning towards enhancing the efficient operation of government.

Public sector reform has fallen short in sub-Saharan Africa because it has not been context sensitive. This implies that all public sector reform strategies (i.e. structural adjustment programmes, privatization, and decentralization) failed to adopt a contextual home-grown approaches with active participation by citizens and stakeholders. In the Zimbabwean, South African and Congolese context, political commitment has been circumscribed by clientelist politics, which is responsible for distracting the political leadership from embarking on comprehensive reform programs. Most proposed public sector reform strategies do not take into cognizance this important factor and are not designed to stimulate the political will of political elites. This indicates that public sector reform – if imposed by third parties without active genuine consultation with recipient governments and rights holders – can be fruitless.

Further, the practical efficacy of public sector reform strategies in sub-Saharan Africa is cast into doubt by rampant corruption, which has become a way of life in countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Corruption has particular implications for both public sector and NPM-style reforms. While NPM’s prescriptions of contracting-out and privatization are designed to curb corruption, it is argued that a system already affected by over-politicization and corrupt practices create increased opportunities for private accumulation and patronage. Signs are already evident in the privatization of state enterprises and contracting out of tenders by the State. Hence this leads us to the proposition that public sector reform should be preceded by concerted efforts to mitigate corruption lest the fruits of the reforms get diluted. A starting point will be coordinated lifestyle audits of public office holders, coupled with independent anti-corruption with judicial and security clearance guaranteeing protection of the corruption police, as well as introducing capital punishment to corruption perpetrators. Introducing such measures will not only demonstrate commitment to reform but will make sub-Saharan Africa to be viewed in good faith by international players and proponents of public sector reform like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Africa Development Bank and the United Nations.

It is not a public secret that sub-Saharan African countries governments have no state capacity to roll out, implement and oversee effective public sector reform, let alone NPM and all its delicate intricacies. By state capacity, we mean fiscal capability, utilitarian stamina, practical oversight, administrative potency, and institutional aptitude. Africa needs strong institutions – even if established by strong men – to promulgate regulations and promote strict adherence to them. Governments need capacity and political will to build social accountability between rights holders and duty bearers. Further judicial capacity is needed to ensure an ethical and transparent approach, where there is clear separation of powers. This should be accompanied with human resources capacity to maximize the production of public goods and services, and deliver basic social services.

Analysis of public sector reform in sub-Saharan Africa would be inadequate without looking at the Brotherhood mentality amongst the liberation war parties that has crippled democratic elections and development. Most governments are led by ruling parties who assisted each other at great lengths in the fight against colonialism. This common ground has led to a brotherhood mentality in which the governments look out for each other even in cases where a fellow brother is wrong. Cases in point include the silence of SADC regarding the dictatorial tendencies of the Robert Mugabe regime and political violence in Zimbabwe in 2008; the silence of SADC to the gross human rights violations and blood diamonds conflicts in the Democratic republic of Congo; the silence of SADC and the South African government when former first lady of Zimbabwe Grace Mugabe broke the law and beat a local south African citizen with an electricity cable; and the silence of SADC to election irregularities concerns of Zimbabweans since 2002 to date. Lack of decisive responsive action by SADC owing to the big brother mentality in Southern Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, also explains why public sector reform has failed in the region. The net effect of this has been crippling of democratic elections, which are the heart-beat of political legitimacy.

After all public sector reforms are complete, it is always important to accompany the reforms with monitoring and evaluation to ensure the setting of practical targets; indicators to help measure and show progress towards of reforms as well as means of verification and allocating responsibilities. This helps ultimately in guaranteeing reforms are achieved effectively with minimal use of resources.

From this analysis, we can conclude that there tends to be a consensus that Public Sector Reform is an important driver of development. It not only enhances social service delivery but improves the standard of living of general populations. For sub-Saharan Africa to fully realize the benefits of public sector reform and ensure its effectiveness; there is a need to insulate political will; unlearn the liberation war brotherhood mentality, reduce corruption, invest in monitoring and evaluation; foster a separation of powers; favour cooperation over competition between the private and public sector; foster dialogue over between civil society and governments; as well as encouraging public sector reforms that are context specific and harmonized with home-grown solutions to African problems.

Phillip Nyasha Fungurai and Langton Moyo are independent governance, development and democracy researchers. They are currently based in Bochum, Germany pursuing further post graduate studies in Development Management at Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany in partnership with the University of Western Cape, South Africa. Both scholars are funded by the German Academic Exchange Services (DAAD). Phillip Nyasha Fungurai and Langton Moyo, work extensively with civil society organizations and research think tanks in South Africa, Germany, Zimbabwe and others across Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. All arguments and opinions in the above analysis are strictly the authors and should not be associated with institutions they work and interact with.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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