African Peer Review Mechanism: A Progress Report

Image: Flickr, GovernmentZA
Image: Flickr, GovernmentZA

eAfrica spoke to Dr Bernard Kouassi, who was appointed CE of the APRM in January.

Prior to his appointment, he was Executive Secretary and CEO of the food security organisation, Securité Alimentaire Durable en Afrique de l’Ouest Centrale based in Burkina Faso. He has served as Secretary-General of the Pan African Institute for Development in Cameroon and as a Specialist Manager of USAID assistance to the African Development Bank. He has a PhD in Business Administration from the University of Michigan and a Master of Business Admin from the University of Cincinnati and a Licence en Sciences Economique from the University of Abidjan.

Q: Why is Africa subjecting itself to peer review?

A: We need to put together a kind of permanent dialogue with all stakeholders. We need to get beyond the kind of politics in which we fear blame and don’t want to discuss problems openly. Peer review is a system for promoting an open national consultation about solving problems. With APRM we are trying to engineer a better public consultation without the acrimony. It is a cultural change so people have a platform to consult on issues that previously they weren’t consulted over. It is a way of educating people and involving them in decisions.

When you do research as an academic what do you do? You consult your peers. You call your colleagues with your idea and they give you its strengths and weaknesses. You sharpen your idea, revise it and then bring it to the professors. In Africa we are doing peer review because heads of state feel they need each other to improve governance in our continent. It does little good to impose conditions from outside and such conditions don’t help Africa learn for itself what works and doesn’t. There are areas where some countries have strengths and others have weaknesses. By sharing we can improve. The important thing to remember is that this is not a policing function but a peer learning function.

Q: How does APRM relate to countries experiencing active crises which refuse to participate?

A: If APRM were mandatory, it would no longer be a peer review. It would be a kind of scorecard approach that would make it a policing institution to reward and punish. If countries are not ready and not comfortable with peer review that is okay. For peer review to work, participants have to have the will to make it work. Without that it cannot succeed. For countries in crisis that are regularly blamed in the media, they won’t participate because they fear that they will just be attacked and made to look ridiculous. We need to help those countries see that they can get past the blame game and in countries that do peer review it is okay to lay problems out publicly and discuss solutions. If you force them, they would only participate reluctantly, not want to reveal the real issues and thus not get much out of it.

Q: How do you assess the progress with APRM to date?

A: Overall, we have made good progress and have built one of the most important and innovative systems to improve governance. Some have said that we are moving more slowly than we should, but when you build any new organisation it takes time to do it right. It must be funded. It must be staffed. It needs sensitization so that people understand the process. When we began we thought the whole process would take nine months per country. But it took more than a year because the process is so comprehensive and must involve all stakeholders. If countries do a household survey, as several have done, designing the sample set can take a long time and the questionnaire also takes time. To analyse areas like corporate governance, health policy and fiscal management take time to identify who the real experts are. In addition to issues at the secretariat, many countries themselves have not been ready. Self-assessment takes time. The country being reviewed must set up a focal point, decide on a governing council, work out ways of gathering input from experts and the public and they have to raise funds. Quite a number of countries thought that the whole peer review would be funded from the $100,000 that they gave to the secretariat, but the cost of the secretariat is far beyond that. To do the research, hold public meetings, verify results, conduct surveys and cost out an action plan takes money that countries have not anticipated. So far countries have spent $1 million to $2 million on their internal self-assessment. Because of such issues, countries have been slow to present themselves for review. Until they do, the secretariat cannot go in.

Q: Heads of state have asked the secretariat to accelerate the pace of reviews. How do you plan to do that?

A: We think we will have the ability to do 12 reviews a year but anticipate probably eight reviews in the next year, assuming the countries are ready and present themselves for review. We need to expand secretariat staff but don’t need all the expertise here. We are identifying outside experts who have knowledge of specific areas of governance and we utilise outside consultants, including from our partners in the African Development Bank, UN Development Programme and UN Economic Commission for Africa. But we think we are ready. The real hold up is in countries getting themselves organised and doing their self-assessments. One country was scheduled to be reviewed at this time and was to get started in February but still has not moved. That is something the secretariat can’t rush.

Q: In each of the countries so far, there has been some element of controversy over how civil society should be involved, with governments tempted to over-control the process. Shouldn’t there be clear guidance from the secretariat about the nature of civil society input and the composition of the governing council that conducts the self-assessment?

A: It is true in the base APRM document it says civil society must be involved but it does not come out very strongly. We intend to clarify and strengthen that section. But if you read all the APRM documents they are clear that civil society must be involved at every stage, and if government attempts to control the whole process, we will refuse to allow it. We say there must be equitable representation of civil society on the governing council and in the processes used to gather input for the report and in creation of the plan of action, which are the steps the country pledges to take to rectify the problems identified. The secretariat cannot force anyone to do anything, but if we look at the governing council and there is not equitable representation of civil society, we will not evaluate you. It must have broad based civil input.

Q: It seems in some of the early countries, the government began making plans for peer review without fully understanding the process and civil society also has not had enough understanding to know how to participate. What is being done to communicate more broadly and effectively about the process?

A: We would like national commissions or governing councils to do more to communicate with society. There are civil society representatives on the councils and they are responsible for reaching out to society. If they are not doing their job, we cannot do it for them. We expect every stakeholder to take information to their constituencies.

Q: But it takes a long time for civil society to organise itself to make an intelligent input and understand what it would like to ask of government in designing the APRM self-assessment. Don’t you agree there needs to be much more public communication well before a governing council is set up and a process put in place?

A: People should be consulted more. That is true. That is the culture we are trying to promote. As a secretariat we are too small to communicate directly with all the constituencies across Africa and we have to start our engagement with each country at some point. We write to the government to say we are ready and we bring a support mission to meet with government to outline the process and agree on a memorandum of understanding. After that support mission, if NGOs have been excluded or don’t like the process, they can tell us that. I would agree that it would be useful to have some news articles and opinion columns getting people aware of the process and letting them know the modalities of civil involvement.

Q: Nepad has had influence on the global level in winning aid and debt relief. But it has had significantly less success influencing what happens at the national level within Africa. It seems a missed opportunity to not use APRM to expressly ask countries what they are doing to advance the various Nepad infrastructure, agriculture and other plans. How do you deal with the Nepad agenda?

A: At the time the APRM was developed, the Nepad sectoral strategies were not in place. The questionnaire was designed with Nepad and AU staff. We are not assessing Nepad as such but we do assess, for example, poverty reduction and how people can govern better to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. There would be value in asking more about specific Nepad plans, such as agriculture and infrastructure. We have asked Nepad for suggestions on questions but until we get them, we must go with what we have. I should say that although there is an APRM questionnaire, it is not something that is to be applied dogmatically. It is suggestive and if other issues are relevant to a country, they are encouraged to express the issue and the solutions in ways that make sense. The countries so far have done that.

Q: What is the long-term value of APRM?

A: For once in our lives we as Africans get a chance to identify positive ideas on how to improve Africa and share them. Second, there is great value in instigating an ongoing public dialogue involving all stakeholders in a country. Third, peer review is about creating a culture of introspection, of self-assessment, of thinking where am I, how did I get here and how can I improve my condition. Fourth, APRM is an opportunity to share experiences among our people to learn new ways, especially among heads of state.

Q: What is the most important thing Africa needs to understand about peer review that perhaps it does not?

A: APRM is not a scorecard. Many people don’t see it as peer learning but as a scorecard used to blame people. This is an area where we need to do a lot of work. Its value is in promoting learning and conversation. The process is very expensive, but I am convinced that the return on that investment will be very high. Why do I say that? Once we identify our problems and do something about them through a programme of action, it is a signal to anyone wanting to invest that this continent is going to improve.

24 Apr 2008