Time to Rethink Nepad

Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith
Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith

A talk shop that fails to drive implementation won't hold the world's attention much longer.

For five years, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, first floated in 1999 as the Millennium Africa Recovery Plan, has hummed along with little scrutiny of its organisational structure and methods. Its goals, laudable as they are, engendered much hope and international goodwill.

But Nepad’s promises remain largely unfulfilled, and half a decade on, it is time to ask some hard questions: If the present pace of Nepad activity continues for another five years, will Africa be significantly better off? Which Nepad activities can make real impact and which should be dropped? What is Nepad’s actual plan for effecting change where it counts?

From the outset, Nepad has focused on expanding partnership with donor nations. Its central premise was that Africa would clean up its governance, fight corruption, re-energise development and end conflict. In exchange, the developed world would expand the flow of aid, debt relief and access to its markets.

That premise was put to the test in the run-up to the G8 summit in Kananaskis, Canada, in 2002, where Nepad, in its current formulation, was due to be formally presented. Months of negotiations preceded the summit. Although a few G8 members were willing to boost aid on the promises contained in Nepad, the overall message from Kananaskis – despite all the supportive rhetoric – was simple: Africa must deliver on its governance pledges before the status quo will change significantly. Only token funds would flow to the Nepad Secretariat. In all other respects, existing aid systems would remain in place.

Such conditionalities left Nepad with several problems. The vast majority of Nepad staff time to date had gone into persuading donors and international bodies. Comparatively little went into examining how Nepad would achieve its other goal: changing the behaviour and direction of African government policy.

The plan’s unstated operational theory was that countries would be invited to conferences that would develop continental plans and, as a consequence of this participation, return home and change national policy. It is clear that a few people attending a conference do not have the clout to change the direction of the ship of state. Nepad needs a far more robust form of engagement at national level.

At Kananaskis, Nepad’s message was at least plausible: Africa will embark on reforms if given the funds from outside. But the summit turned that approach on its head, and without the sweetener of larger aid flows, Nepad has demonstrated little power to effect change beyond the soft tools of persuasion and facilitation. While several nations have designated a few officials to work on Nepad, they have done little beyond conducting awareness-raising conferences and drafting project wish-lists.

In assessing its success or failure, an important distinction must be made between Nepad as a reformist ideal and Nepad as an entity. Some individual leaders, notably the presidents of Nigeria and South Africa, have embraced the need for reform and poured personal energy into a variety of commendable causes. Both have pressed for greater trade access, debt relief and swifter action to end African conflicts. They have embraced the ideals of Nepad and helped secure the ratification of the African Peace and Security Council, which has commendably asserted itself on the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

While credit should go to these reformist individuals and the ideals that drive them, the Nepad Secretariat has played little role in these efforts.

Having a secretariat is necessary to maintain the notion that Nepad has tangible substance. That notion, in turn, keeps alive the international conversation about where and how Africa should reform. The value of Nepad as a forum for discussion among African leaders on matters of policy and previously forbidden topics of internal governance should not be underestimated. But there are signs that the international community’s patience is starting to wane; a secretariat that does little more than engender conversation isn’t likely to attract ongoing external funding.

In the wake of the Kananaskis summit, Nepad set about creating various broad sectoral strategies in areas such as health, education, and agriculture. It also sought a list of flagship infrastructure projects designed to show that something tangible was coming out of the initiative.

While commendable, many of these priority projects were extant and, like all major public works initiatives, will take years to negotiate plan, fund and build. Few, according to the African Development Bank, are currently ‘bankable.’ And even if all were complete tomorrow, they would only marginally change the deep economic and political problems impeding African development.

Nepad’s sectoral strategies have two problems. First, they do not offer any real innovation or clarity about how to manage problems more effectively. For example, Nepad suggests bridging the so-called digital divide by putting computers in schools. Yet it has done no feasibility study, has no funding for the effort and has not attempted to answer the vital question of whether money spent on computers and all that they require – security to prevent computers from being stolen, printers, printer ink, software maintenance, anti-virus software and electrification – would not be better spent on chalk, books and properly trained teachers.

Second, Nepad has been unable to get nations to take action on its plans because they tend to be too general to be implemented. Instead of directly pressing nations for action, Nepad has embraced the diplomatically easier but practically flawed notion that its programmes will be implemented by regional economic groupings like the Southern African Development Community. Nepad officials acknowledge that the regional groups lack capacity to do much of anything, but have stubbornly continued with the fiction that they are meaningful development players. In reality, they are, like Nepad itself, grossly understaffed and empowered only to engage in facilitation and conferences.

Nepad can no longer afford to maintain the pretence that regional bodies will deliver what the continental body cannot. The Secretariat needs to fundamentally rethink its activities and redesign itself to act not as a conference convenor but as a genuine, high-powered African think-tank that investigates what works and designs programmes to spread effective new ideas. At present, it has a few top managers and one or two expert advisers per sector who are collectively run off their feet by endless conference invitations and efforts to organise meetings.

The saving grace may be the African Peer Review Mechanism, which is by far the most innovative and important initiative from Nepad. Peer review offers a vehicle through which real pressure and influence can be applied to get countries to improve policies and adopt best practices.

The reviews, to be conducted every three to five years, are designed to engender broad public discussion of governance priorities and secure clear, time-bound commitments from governments on intended reforms. Each country is expected to involve civil-society groups in the assessment of four areas: political and democratic governance; economic and fiscal management; corporate governance; and socio-economic policy.

By including civil society and opening governance to detailed scrutiny by a panel of experts, peer review has the potential to create a new public conversation on reform and offers civil society a tool to press for more rapid change. It is also the vehicle through which Nepad can directly persuade nations to adopt its strategies.

But the APRM Secretariat is, like the Nepad Secretariat, far too small to achieve its mission. Only about half of its 20 intended staff jobs have been filled. A total of 23 countries have acceded to peer review and are scheduled for review between now and 2007. Just conducting the background research on governance issues for all those reviews is an enormous task.

Peer review is the most important and potentially effective instrument of Nepad. Instead of dedicating limited staff to doing a lot of tasks poorly, Nepad needs to quickly redirect resources and staff to ensure that peer review is done properly. That means transforming Nepad into a genuine research organisation capable of studying what works in Africa and feeding robust information on best practice through the APRM to participating countries.

And then, crucially, Nepad and participating African governments must rise to the critical test of peer review: They must be resolved to applying sufficient standards so that the process does not become an exercise in bland praise and tepid criticism. Real reform requires rigorous scrutiny.