[Tribune of Malado Kaba*] Covid-19 in Africa: an opportunity for progress?

For ancient Greeks, a crisis was not necessarily a dreadful event, but rather a moment for important decisions. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many lives to be lost and created dramatic socio-economic impact—it is a true humanitarian crisis. But, could it also be an opportunity for Africa? A defining moment that will allow us to call for bold actions in three independent, yet mutually reinforcing, areas.

 

Covid-19: A wake-up call for increasing digitization in the public sector

Our public sector has the potential to be a powerful tool for inclusion, if it undergoes a sweeping transformation underpinned by a digital administration. With many of us now working remotely, we are acknowledging the merits of using new technologies in a public sector too often marred by old, inefficient practices and corruption. This is an interesting, yet perhaps ironic, outcome. COVID-19 may be on the verge of achieving what our most resolute ministers, including myself, have fought for in office.

 

For a country like Guinea, a digital transformation of the public sector could bring both transparency and efficiency, as well as help curb pervasive corruption. It could provide new solutions at a time when some parts of the public sector are failing to deliver quality public services for their citizens and economy. Furthermore, a digitized administration has the potential to streamline processes, thereby increasing efficiency; enhancing coordination between departments; increasing transparency levels in public affairs; and improving accountability.

 

Better quality data is another positive outcome of digitization, contributing to evidence-based policy-making, and offering an expanded capacity to release accurate and timely figures. In a time of growing demand for transparency, this matters. In Guinea, recent digitizing of some budgeting and procurement processes proved successful: they resulted in increased and regular access by the public to a citizens’ budget handbook, and the regular publication of hitherto undisclosed procurement reports and new debt bulletins. These were positive developments.

 

Yet, much remains to be done. According to the 2018 UN report on the E-Government Development Index (EGDI), 14 of the 17 countries with an index below 0.25 are African. Africa’s average is a mere 0.34, well below the global average of 0.55. The pandemic should be a compelling wake up call for strategic, bold, and consistent actions to digitize the public sector to contribute to our continent’s socio-economic transformation.

 

Seizing the moment to walk the talk on local production

In 2014-2015, the Ebola epidemic provided us with a stark reminder of our economic vulnerability and dependency. In a context of increased isolation, we learned how it is important to promote local production to mitigate this dependency. Back then, we vowed to turn things around. In Guinea, some milestones were reached with the adoption of a local content policy in 2017, and the creation of a national subcontracting agency in 2018, that connects local SMEs to international contractors on large investment projects. But these initiatives only achieved limited impact, and today’s pandemic equally emphasizes these vulnerabilities for Africa—intra-African trade remains at just 15% of the continent’s total trade, compared to the European Union’s 62%.

 

Yet, local production, underpinned by local content can promote inclusive growth by creating both value and jobs. It contributes to domestic resource mobilization by widening the tax base. Additionally, it can trigger the development of local supply chains and industries. There is an interesting initiative currently ongoing in Guinea, which is “killing two birds with one stone”. Buying locally sourced staples such as rice for food donations, helping to generate revenue for many farmers, including women, who have seen their income drop due to closed borders. This is yielding results, but it must be scaled past the pandemic. Public procurement can greatly contribute to this, and be used as leverage to boost local. For instance, why not locally source rice for the army, one of the largest state consumers? We should not miss this opportunity to fundamentally rethink our procurement approach.

 

“P” is for pandemic and participation

Economic stimulus plans can help foster participation in public life by a wider range of stakeholders by both enhancing civic involvement in public budgeting, as well as tapping into the potential and diversity of stakeholders’ workforces, capacity, and creativity. Many African countries have developed their economic stimulus plans and involved civil society in a variety of ways. This further echoes the 2019 Open Budget Survey (OBS), released by International Budget Partnership (IBP), which highlights weak transparency and oversight of government spending as a “reason for concern.”

 

As governments worldwide implement vital fiscal packages, engaging a wide range of stakeholders in the process helps to ensure that public funds are used in a transparent and inclusive way to benefit the many. It is time for governments to make room for people to assert their rights and engage in how public resources are spent and shared.

 

Guinea is not one of the 117 countries surveyed in the OBS. But that shouldn’t prevent our government from using the findings to promote increased civic participation to build and strengthen trust with the private sector. With this pandemic, government is now engaging in wider consultations with the private sector in order to provide a bespoke response to their needs. This is positive and must continue.

 

This pandemic is a key moment which affords Africans an incredible opportunity to favor innovation and action over immobility and stagnation—to bring about the transformation our continent needs. Are we ready to seize the moment?


*About Malado Kaba

Malado Kaba served as the first female Economy and Finance Minister of the Republic of Guinea between 2016 and 2018. During that time she reached record macroeconomic records she also led actions to increase fiscal transparency, fight corruption and promote good governance and sound administration. Prior to her ministerial position, she was country head for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in Guinea, advising leaders and senior officials in government on both policy and program implementation. Before that, she worked as an economist for the European Commission in different countries. She also sits on the advisory board of the African Women Leadership Fund (AWLF) and is a board trustee at the International Budget Partnership. In 2018, she co-founded Falémé Conseil, a consultancy firm providing strategic advice to both private and public sectors and is a member of the Guinean private sector platform.

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