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January 04, 2011

Tony Blair: Building the "Nuts and Bolts" for Governance

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is reflecting much these days on governing, especially in difficult environments. “Government is a race between expectations and capability,” he wrote in a recent essay on aid in Africa. “As a leader, you either reform government fast enough to deliver what people expect of it, or you lose the support to govern. I know from my own experience how demanding this can be.”

Last month, Blair, the patron of the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), delivered a major speech on improving government performance in Africa at a Center for Global Development event in Washington.

 “I am arguing that without building effective capacity, without governments capable of delivering practical things and on a path to release from dependency on aid, then aid can only ever be a palliative—vital to many, but not transformative of a nation,” he said.

Blair’s argument in pushing donors to focus more on building capacity in African country governments has not been fully embraced by many donor governments. But AGI, along with the Ministerial Leadership Initiative for Global Health (MLI), has started to build a record of success by building on leadership at the highest levels of government in developing countries and within senior technical ranks in government ministries, notably in areas of public health.

One prominent example has been Sierra Leone’s efforts in the last year to start free health care for all pregnant women, breast-feeding mothers, and children under the age of five. Blair’s group and MLI have both supported Sierra Leone’s government in helping plan and then sustaining the initiative, which has greatly increased the numbers of deliveries at government health facilities and children receiving life-saving medicines such as treatment for malaria.

Blair told the Washington audience that building capacity in governments requires a focus on the “nuts and bolts” of policy: strategy, performance management, delivery, expertise, focused leadership, organization and communication. Achieving those is difficult enough in developed countries, Blair said, but in sub-Saharan Africa, “there is simply not the capability, the people or the systems to make things happen.”

One key to increasing government effectiveness is building a solid core in and around the President or Prime Minister, Blair said. “To those who worry that this gives too much power into the hands of the leader and we cannot be sure of the consequences of such a concentration of power, I say if we’re unsure of the leader, we shouldn’t support them. But there is no case I know of where a government has changed a country for the better, without strong and effective leadership at the center.”

Another important step is prioritizing, he said, and keeping the priorities to a manageable number. “The minute I see a government plan for a ministry with 30 priorities in it, I know nothing will happen,” he said. “The political energy is too diffuse. And these priorities of course should be their priorities and not ours.”

Blair emphasized the importance of country ownership, which is strongly backed by MLI’s five countries – Senegal, Mali, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, and Nepal. “We have to work on the things the country judges to be vital, which are not always and necessarily the same things that get the biggest cheer back in our home legislatures,” he argued. He also encouraged support for private sector investment, the rule of law and a functioning judicial system.

Blair’s final points focused on building home-grown capacity for governance, starting first with effectively using practical experiences of wealthy nations and imparting skills to local personnel.

“Building capacity only works if those engaged are not fly in, fly out consultants but people willing to work alongside the locals and transfer know-how,” he said. “Of all the things we’ve done, this has been the most heartening aspect. In each case, as AGI has continued our work, there has been developed a really good team of people at the center who are nationals of the country. Some will come back from abroad, but others have grown up living and working there. And I think this is how capacity building has to work, training up those that when the outside workers move on, then retain the skills to carry on with the same level of expertise.”

With effective help in using existing capacity to better govern, Blair argued, “In my judgment this could be Africa’s century. It should be.”