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Development Policy Review on "Efficiency, Accountability and Implementation: Public Sector Reform in East and Southern Africa" by Ole Therkildsen.

30 Mar 2004

  • Source
  • Title: Efficiency, Accountability and Implementation: Public Sector Reform in East and Southern Africa
  • Author(S): Fred Golooba-Mutebi
  • Date: 1 Nov 2003
  • Publication: Development Policy Review

This paper, an examination of 1980s/90s New Public Management (NPM)-inspired public sector reforms in Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, South Africa and Tanzania, reveals that, while internal factors were influential in all of them, donor influence was pivotal. As might be expected, outcomes varied from country to country, influenced by specific local circumstances and agendas. Nevertheless, Therkildsen found the official reform language markedly similar throughout, with illustrative examples calculated to ‘sell’ the reforms to external and domestic audiences using catchy positivist phraseology.

Four broad objectives underlay the reforms: to reduce the size of government; to (re)focus government functions on ‘core’ activities (health, education); to cut down real wage levels; to improve accountability. The paper assesses the degree to which these objectives have been achieved in the different countries. In addition, it examines support for, and opposition to, the reforms.

A 55-page document cannot give the reader more than a snapshot of the reforms’ outcomes. However, this is no shallow snapshot. Although in-depth research took place only in Uganda and Tanzania, the well-referenced paper is based on a solid literature review, interviews with civil servants, and country-specific knowledge backed up by useful statistics contained in several appendices. The overall approach may be inadequate, but it is well compensated for by the country-by-country methodology, free from the generalisations associated with large comparative studies. The reader is left feeling adequately informed.

Encompassing the four objectives were two broad areas the reform sought to boost: efficiency and accountability, the former by reducing and refocusing public sector activities on ‘core’ functions, the latter by performance-based management and empowerment of users. In general, the paper pronounces the actual outcomes of the NPM-inspired measures under-researched. In assessing efforts to boost accountability, the author is particularly scathing. Accountability is not to citizens, as democratic theory would have it, but to donors, as in aid expenditure. He sees current thinking as weakening already fragile institutional mechanisms, with donor competition leading to further deterioration. He sees no possibility of addressing accountability in highly aid-dependent countries without addressing the role of donors.

In assessing the support for and opposition to reform, Therkildsen presents the general public, particularly the poor, as ‘silent stakeholders’ of reform, their silence the product of the lack of active, organised interest groups. However, there were examples of popular protest and, in particular, intervention by trade unions influencing reform policies. State elites played an important role, especially in South Africa and Uganda; elsewhere technocrats had taken the lead. On the whole, though, political support for reform was fragile. Therkildsen argues that resistance was not merely the result of self-interest. Opponents were usually not convinced of the appropriateness of reform and worried about the negative, or absence of positive, impact on service delivery. He shows such concerns to be valid. Donors had been pivotal everywhere, except in South Africa which is not aid-dependent, and where conditionalities could not be imposed.

In summarising his findings, Therkildsen is cautious. Although he shows that the reforms had had mixed results up to the time of the research, he points out that it was still too early to carry out a definitive assessment of their outcomes and rightly shies away from making fast comparisons. On the role of donors, though, he throws caution to the winds. He portrays them, and rightly so if his findings are anything to go by, as lacking privileged knowledge on how to solve efficiency, accountability and service delivery problems in the region. Not only that. Their lack of attention to and understanding of the ‘ground level’ of the public sector meant they had no understanding of the problems of the lower levels of the political-administrative machinery and their relationships to urban, village and community-based groups, an understanding which he argues is particularly relevant from a broader efficiency, accountability and service delivery perspective.

It is a good review of controversies about the fundamentals of state activities as put forward by free marketeers and advocates of the developmental state in Africa. In addition, it provides evidence of broad agreement about the need to raise the capacity of the state. Of particular importance, it shows the dangers of policy change by extrapolation from one context to another. It is a paper well worth reading.

by Fred Golooba-Mutebi

Posted with the permission of Development Policy Review (Volume 21, Number 5-6, September / November 2003), Blackwell Publishing, and the author himself.