Five years. Is that a long period of time, or short? The world was certainly very different in summer 2008: the financial crisis raging, President Obama yet to enter the White House, no sign of the Arab Spring. Imagine though that you’re a President, at the start of your term, expected to transform the economy, reform the health sector, improve education, all through a public service you neither trust nor understand. In those shoes, five years doesn’t feel long at all to get things done.
When I think about our work, in our fifth year, I also feel like “the days last forever but the years fly by”. It was June 2008 when I received a call from a friend, asking if I wanted to move to Freetown, Sierra Leone where President Koroma was in his first year and already feeling the pressure of time. Exactly five years on, after that friend, Kate Gross, had stepped down for health reasons, I succeeded her as CEO of the organisation we had built in the meantime, the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, AGI. Reaching five years old once felt an impossible goal to us, but as we complete our equivalent of a first term, just as President Koroma starts his second, it’s timely to reflect on where we’ve come from, what we’ve achieved and learned and where we’re heading. This isn’t an organisational history (too boring) or catalogue of successes and failures (too long) but it is unashamedly about us, and for those interested in our story I hope it provides some personal reflections as we celebrate our fifth anniversary and start the next stage of our development. To misquote our Patron, Tony Blair, there is much done, but much still to do.
You probably know a bit about our model – if not, there is more here. In a nutshell, we were founded on the simple idea that the hardest part of government is not working out what to do but making it happen. We knew from experience – Tony’s and our own – that getting things done in government is about aligning policy process with political momentum, and that this requires effective systems of management and leaders to breathe life into those systems. And we shared the “Africa rising” optimism – we believed in and wanted to support the new generation of leaders we met across the continent.
We started in Sierra Leone and Rwanda, and now also work in Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, South Sudan and Malawi. We focus on the very heart of government as a critical part of complex systems; strengthening prioritisation, planning and performance management as the functions necessary to get things done; and supporting both leadership and management systems as the cornerstones of effective governance. We combine small teams of professionals working day-to-day with counterparts with a relationship between Tony and the Presidents of the sort only those who have led a country can have.
We have achieved much along the way. We have recruited nearly 100 brilliant people from over 15 countries and across the public, private and third sectors – some still with us, building careers, many going on to leading roles elsewhere. We have become an independent charity. And we have found ourselves a place in the development landscape.
But that’s not the point – the point is supporting change in our partner governments and equipping them to deliver the policies their people expect. Because ultimately that’s what will turn Africa’s economic potential into real progress: underpinning democracy and moving towards independence from aid.
That’s the argument, but it’s the stories of change that bring it to life – and in complex environments like those we work in, stories matter. When I look back over the five years there are many, but though we’ve told it before the one that stands out for me is still free healthcare in Sierra Leone. It was when we are at our best, bringing process to political momentum – the President had announced the policy must be delivered within 6 months. We found a catalytic sweetspot alongside the donors who paid for it and the inspirational officials like Dr Kargbo who made it happen. And it had real impact “beyond the Ministry door”: trebling access to healthcare by women and young children in the following year. This case study on it by the Innovations for Successful Societies team at Princeton is worth a read.
But it also resonates still because of the lessons we learned that continue to shape our work today. We learned to start with a problem. Frankly, our work in the Ministry was failing before the President’s announcement, and free healthcare provided the impetus for improving systems – you can’t build the system without a clear focus on the thing it is for. We learned that leadership matters at all levels. It is a privilege to work with Presidents, but some of our most inspiring stories are from the public servants who have chosen to lead a new culture of achievement, and those working for them who have responded – to Dr Kargbo I could add Stella Mugabo and the impressive cadre of women leaders in Rwanda, Gyude Moore, Head of the Programme Delivery Unit in Liberia, and many other colleagues too numerous to mention. And we saw clearly that those leaders will only step forward with real ownership. The priorities we work on are not ours, but those of the governments we work with. Supporting the process of prioritisation, rather than advising on what the priorities should be, is actually a profound and difficult shift, but one all outsiders should ponder.
Underlying all of this we learned the critical importance of local context. There really is no one size fits all, and to have a chance of success you need a deep understanding of the local environment, formal and informal, and the ability to adapt to it. When we struggle today, the most important questions are still: even if our ideas are perfectly sensible, are they really what matters most to our partner governments, and have we really understood the context? There is a new debate in development around “problem driven iterative adaptation” – see this fascinating blog by Duncan Green, itself on a book by Matt Andrews. PDIA isn’t a phrase we use in AGI but I hope it is a strand of thinking we can bring to and learn from.
So what’s next? The most important thing to me, to us, is to support change in our partner governments, delivering results for the 250m people they serve. That is our mission and our passion. And with the lessons and experience of the last five years we can look to the future with confidence and ambition. We are being invited to more places and plan to grow to meet that demand – adding five countries in the next couple of years is possible, whilst taking on the hardest question of “exiting” well. We also plan to work in different ways, with new partnerships and a desire to keep testing and innovating (and, inevitably, making some mistakes). We will continue to learn from others whilst aiming to leave a lasting impression on development thinking by making more of our own work public – having the confidence and humility to put our own lessons alongside those with different approaches and experiences. And we will do so, I hope, growing our organisation whilst remaining niche and nimble and maintaining the values and culture that make us an exciting place to be.
If you’ve read this far, you must be interested in what we do. So whether you’re a thinker, a funder, a critic or a potential recruit, old hand or new to development, we’d love to hear from you.
The next five years will be very exciting for us – I bet they will fly by.