‘Learning while doing’ in Rwanda: what we can learn from AGI (and what they missed)

9 May 2014
Articles and blogs
Whether they call it ‘best fit over best practice’, ‘problem-driven and iterative approaches’, or ‘learning while doing’, it is clear that more people are talking about streamlining and sequencing approaches to public sector or civil service reform programming. The Africa Governance Initiative’s latest case study provides some tangible examples to support these calls, taking the example of the Strategic Capacity Building Initiative in Rwanda, and making some important points based on it – but it left me wanting more, particularly some concrete examples of impact.

The case study comes at a timely moment, as recent reviews on public sector support and capacity building show something of a crisis for international policy and practice. Reviews of World Bank experience point to mixed results, and the need for greater realism about domestic political incentives and more ‘agile’ approaches; others have highlighted the ‘capability traps’ of public sector reforms that encourage mimicry rather than genuine internally driven change; while for capacity building, general disillusionment with the ‘training, training, training’ bandwagon is apparent.

The alternative is a more streamlined and sequenced approach – but what does this look like in practice, and how can it be achieved? Usefully for practitioners, this case study – charting the evolution of the four-year government and donor-funded programme – adds to an emerging body of evidence that tries to answer just those questions. It provides some solid reflections, focused not so much on the day-to-day activities of the capacity building initiative, but on the process and key components needed to make it successful.

  1. A key early step is to define a small number of tangible priorities. Rather than start with a long wish list of reforms, it emphasises identifying a small number of things that key players care about. In this case, the process was unsurprisingly led by the President of Rwanda, with suggestions of a nudge in the right direction from AGI’s patron, Tony Blair, and focused on priority areas in agriculture, energy and mining. These are known to be core priorities for Rwanda’s economic growth strategies; but they are also sectors that offer high ‘political returns’, not least because some – like energy – can really matter to citizens. While the international donor community still remains largely focused on basic services, we now have growing evidence that other sectors may matter more for citizens’ perceptions of the state, and that this will shape domestic incentives accordingly. Rather than coming in with expectations of which sectors matter and what should be prioritised, this provides a useful reminder to external actors to start with areas that have domestic demand and buy-in.
  2. It is important to put ‘flesh on the bones’ of what problem driven, iterative and adaptive approaches look like; something Matt Andrews’ commentary picks up on too. Here we get some very specific insights. In the Rwandan case, it required coordination across government (sector ministries, finance and the Office of President) – something already identified as a gap from early national leadership retreats in the early to mid 2000s. Rather than rejecting traditional forms of technical assistance, it sought to integrate external consultants and advisers with a growing cadre of young Rwandan graduates. Usefully the case study highlights what can go wrong too – from challenges in the ability to recruit the right skill sets to work in more flexible and adaptable ways, to recognition of who was missed out in initial efforts to improve coordination.
  3. It provides another useful contribution to debates on a ‘deliverology’ model or what has been referred to as the ‘science of delivery’. Critics have questioned an approach seen as overly focused on narrow technical failures, rather than the realities of politics and power or complexity. AGI’s report nicely side-steps these debates, but does provide some pragmatic and common sense advice: focus on prioritisation, link capacity building in concrete ways to planning and budgeting (including locating the programme in the Ministry of Finance) and try to focus on downstream delivery by mapping gaps in delivery chains.  This may not be rocket science but it should form some of the basics for any capacity building programme that is serious about linking to delivery.

So far so good, but as a reader, I was left wanting to know more in some places.

The report does highlight some areas of improvement – Rwanda becoming the first country to begin issuing mining certificates at the point of export (certifying due diligence in the supply chain) or the set up of the Energy Investment Unit. But the report lacks concrete, demonstrable impacts on development outcomes, and doesn’t yet say much about how core delivery chains have improved, and what results this had led to. The current climate means that international actors are under pressure to show results – and this is even more acute for areas that attempt to depart from ‘business as usual’ models. Starting with some concrete examples of impact would have really helped ensure people sit up and pay attention to this report.

It is also – perhaps not surprisingly – shy on some of the political dimensions to this story. Adopting a domestically led, adaptive, problem solving approach to capacity building sounds great – but it may be easier if it is led by a strong President like Kagame and a regime that has a demonstrated commitment to improving performance. It is likely to be much harder where some of these prior conditions are not in place – but the report is silent on reflections on this. What was it about Rwanda’s enabling environment that lent itself to this approach? It also avoids turning the lens onto donors and external actors in Rwanda too – beyond criticism of ‘fly by night’ international consultants. Given the recently documented frictions in donor-government relations, more attention to the role of external actors and funders would be useful. How easy is it for them to invest in this type of model in a context like Rwanda at present? Does it have to be implemented and supported by a ‘arms length’ organisation like AGI to gain traction, and to avoid political tensions or competing objectives? If do, how does AGI walk a line between being domestically led but externally facilitated?

This is one of a series of cases planned from AGI – I look forward to reading more, and I hope that in time their future analysis can turn to some of these more thorny issues too.