Meetings everywhere and not a drop of policy to make us think

Sunday August 09 2009

Smart policy is dead in East Africa. Make that Africa.

There have been many meetings in East Africa’s capitals in the past three months — from the big environmental meeting in Kigali to the US-sponsored Africa Growth and Opportunity Act Forum in Nairobi that ended a few days ago.

There is a lot of whining, lecturers, lobbying by civil societies, recriminations, declarations of good intentions and timetables to achieve goals that no one intends to keep at these meetings. You rarely hear anything spectacularly smart.

Policy has been replaced by deal-making. The progress of the EAC has been particularly bedevilled by this failure.

Everything in the Customs Union and the Common Market has been a bad compromise after protracted haggling between the partner states, not the best decision that could have been made.

Law-making in our parliaments, particularly in Kenya and Uganda, is always a package reached after endless committee meetings, negotiations in parliamentary group meetings, compromises reached with vocal lobby groups, threats by donors, and pork that governments throw in to bribe key constituencies.


To be fair, sometimes a government, as in Rwanda, still manages to announce something exciting on public health or on new technology, but these occasions are rare.

On the other hand, Kenya’s Safaricom, the region’s biggest cellphone operator, is being feted as the first mobile company in the world to launch the digital M-Pesa money transfer service as a mass product.

Even in something as basic as sport, the Kenyan and Ugandan rugby teams, for example, are both successful creatures of private business sponsorships and the kind of motivated leadership that is largely absent in politics.

A very good example is what happened to cement roads in East Africa.

There was talk of the countries in the region shifting to building cement roads.

The main reason for going to cement, the politicians said, was because it lasts longer and so would be cheaper.

I spoke to a consultant who demonstrated how limited the politician’s view of cement roads is.

He told me that the roads’ value was not in their durability, but the social and economic knock-on effects.

They had greater potential to employ many more small-time labourers and contractors in their building and maintenance, and could turn the cement companies into giant firms that create a lot of new opportunities around them.

But most importantly, he said, because the roads could make cement companies billion-dollar enterprises, for broader social and economic policy reasons, governments could stipulate that only firms that list on their stock exchanges be allowed to supply cement.

The effect, he said, would be “simply revolutionary” in terms of wider public ownership of public works, accountability, efficiency and so on.

This poverty of government policy is partly explained by the general brain drain, with some of the brightest young people leaving Africa for the West.

The main reason, however, is that even if there were no brain drain, there are very few bright young people going to work for government to replace the retiring group of aged bureaucrats who went into public service decades ago when the best still all went to work for the state. It was still honourable then. Not any more.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is executive editor of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Division