A few years ago I was part of a team working on an economic growth strategy for an African country. In a meeting with members of the business community I was asked what kinds of reforms the government should adopt. My answer seemed surprising to those present: 'There is nothing new the government should adopt', I said. 'It has adopted every best practice you can imagine, from results based management to multi-year budgeting. It has the best anti-corruption laws you can think of, and IT systems better than those in many developed countries. The problem is that the government has not gone beyond adopting these new laws, systems and procedures to actually implement them and make them functional. It looks like a state but it is not actually a state, and no easy reform will close the gap that exists between its form and its function'.
The gap between form and function is one that I see in many countries, particularly in Africa. For instance, my research shows that public financial management reforms lead to better looking budget preparation processes in most African governments, but the budget execution processes remain weak. This means that governments produce good looking budgets but actual spending results differ substantially from these budgets. Another example comes from reforms designed to tackle corruption. African countries have increasingly improved the laws addressing corruption (to the point, for example, where Uganda has the best-rated anticorruption laws in the world). There are typically huge gaps between the appearance of these laws and their implementation, however. The watchdog agency Global Integrity calculates this gap as 51 for Uganda (where laws score 100 out of 100 points but implementation garners only 49 out of 100 points). The average gap is about 35 for African countries, compared with less than 15 for the average OECD country. Germany scored 81 for the quality of its laws in 2011; nearly 20 points lower than Uganda and lower than countries like Ethiopia, Malawi, Liberia and Kenya. Germany scores 76 out of 100 when considering how well it implements these laws, however, which is over 20 points higher than the average implementation score for the African countries listed. Germany does not look as good on paper as Uganda or Malawi but 'what you see is what you get' in Germany (where the gap between laws on paper and practice on the ground is only 5). In contrast, the African examples just look like states-with impressive laws they do not actually implement and a degree of dysfunction that undermines growth and development.
In reviewing this kind of evidence it strikes me that many African governments are pursuing reforms as signals to ensure continued external support and not as real solutions to the problems they face. They adopt the best practice interventions proposed by international organisations and endorsed by the international business community, but ultimately find these best practices poorly fitted to their political realities and capacity constraints. As a result, the reforms are not implemented or diffused and do not yield the results some might expect. Uganda continues to experience deep corruption crises in spite of its fabulous laws, for example; and Mozambique still struggles to fund basic services even with its world class public financial management system and fine looking multi-year budget. When these kind of results show that past reforms did not work, governments start signaling again-often reproducing the same good looking interventions that did not work in the first place. Uganda is currently considering revising its anti-corruption laws in response to a corruption scandal in 2012, for instance, which is what it did in 2009 after a prior scandal. The repeat-reforms serve as new signals that make governments look the part and assuage concerns of outsiders in the short run, but have little chance of improving functionality in the medium to long run.
Beyond these disappointing stories, my research shows that some African governments-or parts thereof-are becoming more functional over time. An example is Rwanda, where the decentralisation and Imihigo initiative is helping to improve service delivery (with mayors and other representatives held accountable for the results they produce using block funds received from the central government). Another example is the better service delivery emanating from rapid results initiatives embedded in Sierra Leone's decentralisation reforms. These interventions (and others) materialised from processes that are quite different from the 'reforms as signals' tendency. First, they are problem driven-which means they don't start with someone identifying a 'best practice' reform that looks good on paper. Rather, they start by identifying sticky and often embarrassing problems. Second, they emerge through a step-by-step process of experimentation and learning, where groups try different potential solutions, learn what works, build capacity and political will to do more and ultimately generate hybrid solutions that may not look perfect but are politically accepted and implementable. Finally, the interventions are the product of broad engagement by a myriad of players, not just presidents and ministers, who ensure that the emergent solutions actually work and who ultimately own the results.
These kinds of processes-that generate real change and improved functionality-require hard work, not easy reforms. They demand that governments, international organisations and the business community engaging in African countries own up to, focus on, and address real problems; find patience to experiment with new ideas; allow and facilitate learning (often through failure); and stop accepting cheap 'reforms as signals'. In my work I call this hard work approach 'Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation' (or PDIA), and I propose that international organisations and the African business community embrace such when engaging with governments. It is the antidote to reforms as signals and is the only way that governments on the continent will graduate from adopting reforms that only make them look like states, to actually finding and fitting solutions that make them more functional over time.
Matt Andrews is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of 'The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development' (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
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