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Can Evidence Fix Africa’s Governance Challenges, Or Are We Flogging a Dead Horse?

Diana Warira
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African Women Leaders Network. Photo courtesy of the United Nations via Flickr Commons. 

Today, African leaders agree that Africa has a great opportunity to reap economic benefits from strategic investments made to the continent's current large youthful population. In the 2013 Sixth Joint African Union Commission (AUC) and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) Annual Conference of the African Ministers of Finance, Planning, and Economic Development, policymakers and experts recognized the potential of the demographic dividend to transform Africa by reducing poverty and spurring economic growth. Since then, as a result of continuous engagements between population and development experts and policymakers over the years, several other milestones have been achieved. These include the Addis Ababa Declaration on Population and Development in Africa Beyond 2014; the African Union (AU) Common African Position (CAP) on the Post 2015 Development Agenda; and the Africa Agenda 2063– The Africa We Want. These milestones culminated into the 2017 AU theme, where African leaders committed to investing in Africa's large youthful population to drive development. We can now say that there is a continental consensus between policymakers and experts on the potential the demographic dividend has to transform Africa.

A demographic dividend is the accelerated economic growth that can result from improved reproductive health, a rapid decline in fertility, and the subsequent shift in population age structure. With fewer births each year, a country's working-age population (15-64 years) grows larger relative to the young dependent population. With more people in the labor force and fewer children to support, a country has a window of opportunity for economic growth if the right social and economic investments and policies are made in health, education, governance, and the economy. However, if countries do not prioritize these investments at the right time, then the window will be missed and countries will have to wait several decades for another window to open. This means waiting until the current population of young dependents (0-14 years) move into the working ages (15-64 years). Good governance and accountability are one of the key investments African governments should make for countries to harness a demographic dividend. However, this element is not receiving as much attention in demographic dividend conversations between experts and African policymakers. This year, the AU theme is "Winning the Fight Against Corruption: A Sustainable Path to Africa's Transformation," an indication that African leaders are aware that corruption is a barrier to progress on the continent.

Despite this high-level interest, poor governance continues on much of the continent, including the loss of public funds meant to benefit citizens, weak accountability mechanisms, and poor coordination of management across various levels of government. The sticking point here is that these are challenges countries have struggled with for decades. The tools for improving governance are in place, both at continental and country level. But why are we not progressing? For instance, some AU member states have ascribed to the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), an instrument whose objective is to foster self-monitoring by governments in order to ensure the adoption of policies and standards of practice that enhance political and economic governance. At the country level, countries also acknowledge that without good governance they will not be able to achieve their medium and long-term development aspirations. For instance, the Sessional Paper No. 10 of 2012 on Kenya Vision 2030 emphasizes the determination of the Kenyan government to be "…accountable, transparent, and results-oriented." This is in addition to assuring that public service is well governed and delivers services to the public at the highest quality. I could dig up several other documents, including Kenya's Governance Strategy Paper of 2006, all illustrating the government's commitment to good governance across all sectors. However, like several other African countries, Kenya's governance indicators remain dismal. Despite being an economic powerhouse in the East African region, Kenya ranks among the most corrupt nations globally, recently placed at number 143 out of 180 countries in the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index.

No Dividend with Poor Governance

In the context of demographic dividend research, good governance is viewed as a cross-cutting issue. This means that every sector critical for a demographic dividend — health, education, economic reforms, and job creation, has a governance component — as the government needs to ensure that for each of these sectors, the resources allocated for public service delivery are put into good use, the accountability mechanisms for public funds are robust, and corrupt officials standing in the way of progress are dealt with swiftly. Therefore, beyond making initial investments in family planning to facilitate fertility decline and a demographic transition, African governments must uphold good governance. Kenya has had its fair share of scandals within public service in recent years, with the health and education sectors being the greatest casualties. In 2017, the health sector was brought to its knees when doctors and nurses went on strike (3 months and 5 months respectively), resulting in several deaths in public hospitals. These strikes are largely attributed to poor allocation and management of resources for the human resource needs of the health and education sectors. The current challenges facing these two sectors are just a small component in the iceberg of Kenya's governance issues. The government needs to fill the existing holes in its public funding, which have resulted in gross inefficiencies across the health, education, and economic sectors. Not only do these inefficiencies contribute to low standards of living among Kenyans, but also a loss of life.

The evidence from demographic dividend research shows that countries cannot reap economic benefits and steer their countries towards medium and long-term development goals without paying attention to investments in health, education, economic reforms and job creation, and good governance. Therefore, by ignoring investments in good governance and accountability, governments are curtailing the progress of their countries in all facets. Experts communicating demographic dividend research to policymakers should therefore not shy away from emphasizing this point. While policymakers agree that investments in the large youthful population are critical, these youth will not be healthy, they will neither have access to quality education, nor will they be gainfully employed if status quo remains. African governments should have the political will to translate their commitments into action. With poor governance, there will be no dividend for Africa.

Diana Warira is a Southern Voices Network Scholar for Peacebuilding for the Spring 2018 term. She is a Communications Officer for the African Institute for Development Policy in Nairobi, Kenya, which is a member organization of the Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding. 


About the Author

Diana Warira

Diana Warira

Former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar;
Communications Officer, African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP)
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