What the Blocs are missing

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

Transparency, accountability, access to information and realistic management are essential.

Through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, peer review and its own declarations and standards, the African Union has embraced the principle that transparency, accountability and free speech are necessary to the proper functioning of national governments. If these things are essential to keep national governments effective, why do they not apply them to the design of multinational bodies? Africa has 14 regional economic communities. Many overlap. Several do little more than convene meetings. Others are moribund. All have declared grand ambitions. They variously aspire to forge free or preferential trade areas, create common currencies, harmonise policies and boost development. None, however, have the staff, funds, political commitment or organisational design needed to achieve their declared objectives.

The Southern African Development Community is illustrative. Its goals sound remarkably like the objectives of Nepad. The SADC Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan (RISDP) lists 12 ‘priority’ sectors, including gender equality, HIV, poverty eradication, science and technology, information and communication technology, the environment, private sector, trade, infrastructure, food security, human development and improved statistical systems.

To secure buy-in from members, SADC assigned responsibility for these to 19 ‘sector coordinating units’ or SCUs. Dissatisfaction with performance led to restructuring starting in 1999. The SCUs were collapsed into four directorates located in SADC headquarters.

Written by a consultant, the RISDP is supposed to be SADC’s guiding document. Its strategy sections are replete with words like ‘encourage’, ‘promote’, ‘cultivate’, ‘strengthen’, ‘increase’, ‘coordinate’, and ‘facilitate’. Nearly three centimetres thick, however, the RISDP fails to clarify who exactly would do this promotion, encouragement and cultivation. The document simply tasks states with implementing most of the action items.

Working as a bloc, nations can get together to remove barriers to trade, collaborate on cross-border police issues, and establish common transport and trade insurance policies so companies moving goods across borders need not have a different insurance policy for every territory through which they pass. Such policy reforms are basically diplomatic in character and add value because in certain areas nations benefit when neighbours follow common rules.

SADC implies but does not quite openly declare that it is involved in project management. The RISDP is candid in noting that it is ‘not a prescriptive or a command-type of plan.’ Rather, it employs the faddish tool of setting targets and asserts, somewhat confusingly, that it ‘sets up a logical and coherent implementation programme.’

If the UN is already engaged in extensive monitoring of poverty and development, why is SADC needed to repeat the same exercise? The operative rule for any regional body ought to be that if it cannot articulate exactly who will accomplish a task and how, it ought to conclude that the goal in question is not one appropriate for a regional body.

Why do bodies persist in pretending they will do far more than they reasonably can? One possible explanation is that heads of government find regional organisations useful in demonstrating goodwill toward neighbours. Participating in a regional body without demanding meaningful reform avoids antagonising other countries whose support may be needed in more sensitive matters. If this is so, it suggests that national leaders do not really want assertive regional bodies trying to budge stalled infrastructure projects. By its very nature, multilateralism is propelled by the lowest common denominator. Strong, decisive action more often than not undermines consensus-building.

Regional bodies are not subject to the same public scrutiny directed at national governments. Questioned about the status of SADC funding (what proportions of the budget originate from donors and members), the secretariat said that such information was confidential and only the executive secretary could release it. A search on SADC’s website revealed that its total budget is $16 million, but no specific budgetary breakdown is available. Operational information on the status and exact nature of SADC programmes, which would enable a SADC citizen or donor to determine if the body was delivering value for money, is extremely hard to find and seldom proffered.

It goes without saying that entities shielded from public scrutiny are prone to inefficiency, waste and corruption. The only way to get regional bodies to stop producing woolly plans and focus on delivery is to demand they follow the same principles of transparency, accountability and public access to in-formation that the AU requires effective national governments to follow.