On the importance of getting things done

20 October 2011
Articles and blogs
Yesterday ODI and the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) hosted a meeting with former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair on the role of visionary African leaders in transforming government and achieving development. We could not have hoped for a better finale to ODI’s meeting series on Busan. Blair was in great form and delivered a convincing performance that was very personal in style, reflecting on his own experience in office and offering useful insights on what it feels like to be in the driving seat of government.

Most importantly, he had some relevant and not too obvious messages that the international community should not ignore, especially in the context of a renewed interest for the development agenda in the lead up to Busan and as the 2015 deadline looms for achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

Blair convinced me that there are good reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for African development. I took away two main messages from his speech and his very open discussion with the audience. I believe that they both have profound implications for the future of development:  

  • First, governance matters and democracy is a sign of progress in Africa. However, there is more to governance than a simple evaluation of transparency and accountability. To be effective, to work in practice, to convince voters, governance needs to be about the capability to get things done. In Blair’s views, many African leaders today have the vision and the good faith necessary to do the right thing. The challenge is, therefore, less about what to do and more about how to do it. This is also crucial for attracting very much needed private investments in Africa.  Resources are scarce, capacity is low, if not at the centre of government, certainly within ministries and beyond. The important thing about this message is that this is precisely where donors and the larger international community – including business – can help. The implication – and it is  potentially a far reaching one – is that aid should be less about the ‘what’ it can deliver, be it infrastructure or basic services, and much more about the ‘how – the process needed to get there. This is no easy message for politicians to sell to parliaments or voters in donor countries, and Blair acknowledged that.
  • Second, what we need are more politically realistic propositions on what aid can help to achieve, not the ambitious and all-encompassing narratives with which the international community has become so comfortable. Donors and non-governmental organisations alike are culpable here, a major re-think of the way we think and talk about development is needed. What is interesting about this message is that it stems from the idea that there are lessons to be learnt about how governments work that are broadly applicable to all countries across the world. Here Blair offered some very clear insights from his time in office. First, unless there is a clear vision and strategy at the centre of government, not much can get done. Second, doing fewer things, and doing them better, is key. This is all the more important when resources are scarce and capacity is low. Again, there are potentially profound implications for development policies and programmes here, especially at the time where the mood appears more favourable to doing more with less rather than the other way around.

I did share some concerns with others in the audience that such a strong focus on individual leaders could be at the expense of a more comprehensive approach to supporting and developing sustainable political systems. Nevertheless, I think his key messages were heard loud and clear. Time to take the implications for the development agenda seriously.

The text of the speech by Tony Blair and audio/video coverage of the event is now available on the ODI website.