Putting policy solutions in context

Since independence African countries have remained costly prisoners of foreign development paradigms. Clearly, there is need to moor development strategies to respond to the socio-economic and political realities of the continent if it is to achieve sustainable growth.

Agenda Setting and Public Policy in Africa provides an integrated account of the theoretical and practical aspects of public policy challenges in developing societies. It points toward the need to infuse novelty into public policy-making processes to reflect indigenous societal interests. Contributors to the book tackle critical policy issues that have emasculated the growth of policy objectives that are sensitive to African needs.

The book demonstrates that the lack of long-term strategic thinking and indigenous African inspiration are some of the factors that have stood counter to the continent’s development priorities. The text is a collaboration of African scholars who examine some of challenges that have compounded public policy engagements and they outline possible alternatives.

In terms of content, book is made up of a dozen chapters. Chapter One forms the introduction while Chapter Two to Six constitute section one and examine general theoretical and analytical issues in policy making and management in Africa. Chapter Seven to Twelve form section two and discuss specific country cases and issues of public policy. In the introduction, the author discusses the link between societal problems and the process of devising public policy to alleviate those problems. The central theme is that ideas are products of a given context in which the thinker finds himself/herself. Such ideas may therefore not necessarily berelevant to dealing with problems in a different environment.

“The continent persists on relying on development strategies and agendas from the West regardless of their relevance”

The wholesome adoption of western development paradigms by African countries clearly does not appreciate some of the disparities between the contexts. There is a need to anchor development approaches to African settings. It is this line of thought that runs through the entire book. The African continent continues to grapple with the question of why the continent cannot fashion solutions to its problems. There has been increased rhetoric in the recent past about ‘African solutions to African problems’ but in reality the continent persists on relying on development strategies and agendas from the West regardless of their relevance. It is essential for African policy makers to prioritise and focus Africa’s policy concerns on issues of education, empowerment and capacity building. If majority of the African people are empowered with capacity and knowledge, they can meaningfully participate in the process of agenda setting and public policy.

Development processes in Africa should harness well-planned strategies that entail an integration of any relevant ideas with an African vision, knowledge and interests. This is a prudent way of fashioning systematic and indigenous approaches to issues of development and growth and reduce the some of the increasingly threatening environmental problems. The major reason behind the poor state scenario in Africa is institutional inadequacies, most of which were inherited at independence. The quality of life in Africa has ever since, either not improved or done so minimally. Institutional structures adopted at independence have been lacking the capacity to constrain the state and its leadership. This has led to most governments degenerating into mismanagement and corruption. The remedy lies in reconstructing the state to provide constitutionally limited governments and economic systems that guarantee economic freedoms.

In Africa, the process of coalescing issues into the public policy milieu has often been determined by Western countries and other international institutions. Take the case of structural adjustment programmes, which depended on Western economic policies and which some analysts feel, perpetuated Western interests in Africa. Dominant political and economic forces in the world have certainly played a central role in influencing policy processes in developing countries. Most international organisations operate in western capitals and their policies are greatly influenced by those developed countries. It is also true that most African countries have weak constitutional frameworks and social movement structures. In the end, a combination of factors make it difficult for locally motivated concerns to evolve into public policy and this leaves the agenda setting to be externally derived. It is also plausible to argue that public sector organisations in Africa have contributed to the exacerbation of government inefficiency.

There are various administrative problems including bureaucracy and bloated government systems coupled with poor pay that compound the problem. These sectors obviously need reform to enhance efficiency and accountability. But these reforms need to be secured within the bounds of an African socio-cultural environment. Looking at the immediate past, western countries have often attached tough conditions on financial support to public service reforms such as retrenchment of civil servants without considering the African social context. In Africa, most families still practice the extended family system where individuals end up supporting many of the members of that extended system. Retrenching one person has a big and negative snowball effect and such situations should be considered when prescribing reforms.

The author of the book on the other hand observes that efficiency and accountability can be made possible by putting in place strategic and professional designs. He argues that for Africa to play a meaningful role in the 21st century, governments should aim to reform public institutions through professionalisation, decentralisation and embracing mechanisms for accountability in order to enhance efficiency and effectiveness and promote development.

The question of information and communication technology (ICT) as an instrument for development is another policy concern for Africa. Africa has been seeking to utilise ICT to transform its development fortunes. Few policymakers, however, ever question the suitability of ICT in meeting Africa’s development needs. ICTs are a western-oriented means which African countries should unpack and figure out how it can be fashioned to address local peoples’ needs and concerns. The continent should also seek to develop and manufacture easily accessible spare parts for such technology.

The continent has continuously faced the problem of maternal mortality. Most of the social factors that lead to this can be easily overcome. Africa has witnessed widespread maternal deaths resulting from unsafe abortions, inadequate diet, multiple pregnancies and lack of information. African governments generally need to prioritise provision of healthcare. If governments were able to stem corruption and mismanagement, they could easily make medical facilities available, provide qualified personnel and enhance access to information and awareness on maternal and child healthcare to women.

There has also been a long-running debate on integrating women into development programmes in Africa. Many people in Africa are increasingly realising that women are capable of participating effectively in areas that were traditionally regarded as the domain of men. African countries can facilitate an all-inclusive societal development by empowering women and all disadvantaged groups to contribute toward poverty reduction.

On privatisation, African governments can spur economic growth by revitalising both the public sector, non-profit organisations and the private sector. These are the crucial dimensions to realising sustainable development. Most African governments on the other hand, have been reluctant to let go their political and economic patronage.

Africa has also grappled with the policy of environmental degradation. Economic strategies and public policies play a significant role in deforestation practises. Economic activities such as timber harvesting and human habitation often take precedence over forest preservation. It essential for countries to put in place institutional structures to deal with issues of human demography and socio-economic and cultural activities that are responsible for forest depletion and environmental degradation.

On the role of non-governmental organisation in policy-making in Africa, the proliferation of NGOs on the continent has not only paved the way for increased governmental responsiveness and accountability but also enhanced civil society’s institutional capacity to intervene between governments and their citizens. Most local NGOs, however, depend on foreign funding to run their operations. Foreign funding institutions on the other hand prescribe particular programmes that they fund. This restricts the local organisations to programme choices that are already determined by the funding institutions. Local NGOs need to overcome their dependency on external donor funding. They need to find innovative ways of generating revenues for carrying out their operations. This will help them develop their own original approaches and present courses of action for influencing policy matters in their respective countries.

The other contemporary policy concern for Africa, especially after the end of the Cold War has been the issue of constitutionalism. A participatory approach to constitution making and the continuous observance of the constitution can be a good strategy in reconstructing the state and public policy institutions. Participatory constitutionalism helps build strong institutions with new values and establishes those relationships that promote democracy, social justice and the rule of law. Constitutionalism can be a viable way of constructing effective public policy. Constitutionalism is, however, a process and not an event. It calls for a great deal of political goodwill, especially in Africa where the absolute power syndrome has afflicted most African leaders.

In a nutshell, Agenda Setting and Public Policy in Africa categorises Africa’s problems to principally include the absence of people-driven participatory institutions that should prioritize public policy from the context of African interests and setting. The book’s stimulating lesson is that agenda setting and public policy in developing countries are far more subtle than has generally been accepted. Most authors of the various chapters agree that viable alternatives will involve sound discussions of ideas and an appreciation of issues and goals based on a vision that is informed by, and relevant to the specific African environment.

The text provides an up to date account of public policy issues through provoking chapters that are carefully edited. The strong interface of contemporary topics across the major aspects of public policy presents good material on theory and current research. Case studies have highlighted problems, as well as remedy measures. The underlying principles are well prepared and demonstrate the need for caution and relevance in formulating government development strategies and agendas in the face of dynamic and complex settings.

I would have liked the case studies to be distributed geographically to capture the breadth and width of the continent’s diversity. The way it is, several authors focus continually on one country and thereby fail to give the broader picture of Africa as suggested in the title. But on the whole the authors bring together quite interesting and insightful accounts with concise and accurate summaries. The chapters need not be read in sequence in order to be followed. This is a very important book not only for what it tells readers but can also be used as a relevant model for guiding the actual agenda setting and policy by African governments. It is a careful and knowledgeable exploration of the field of public policy that I would recommend to policy makers on the African continent and scholars of public policy.