Governance and service delivery in sub-Saharan Africa: Eight reflections from a recent landscape scan

8 October 2021

Several actors within the global development sector have assumed that better governed states would lead to improved service delivery and better social development indicators.  Is this the case in sub-Saharan Africa? What explains this? And which actors have the capacity to influence the current state of affairs?

Here I offer some reflections on these questions, drawing on snapshots from five countries in sub-Saharan Africa: Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania. The research formed one part of a scan of the transparency, participation and accountability (TPA) landscape, undertaken by OTT Consulting to inform the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation’s new five-year TPA grantmaking strategy.

1. There’s no clear relationship between governance indicators and social development indicators

According to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance 2020, four of the five countries surveyed (Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and Tanzania) showed a deterioration in transparency and accountability ratings over the last nine years. Burkina Faso, meanwhile, showed a large increase (albeit from a low baseline).

Various indicators suggest improvements in public services and human development. For instance, Afrobarometer suggests advances in public service performance in Tanzania and Burkina Faso. Service provision has also improved in Kenya and Senegal (with the latter starting from a low baseline). Tanzania and Burkina Faso have also improved their performance on the United Nations’ Human Development Index.

However, all five countries have experienced economic growth to varying extents, even if economic transformation has remained elusive. For instance, Tanzania and Kenya, both lower-middle-income countries, have grown relatively quickly over the last decade. Senegal’s economy showed strong growth of an average 6%. And Burkina Faso has experienced low but steady growth.

This suggests that economic growth – not governance – might be correlated with improved service delivery.

2. Political competition has not always been beneficial

Most countries have adopted formal political competition through periodic elections. But this has had unintended consequences. For instance: in Kenya, elections have exacerbated conflict between groups with different identities, limited civic space, and not facilitated the redistribution of socio-economic resources. In Tanzania, Magufuli systematically repressed the opposition and the media, subsequently winning the presidential election by a large margin amid opposition allegations of fraud. In Ghana, with the two main parties evenly matched, elections have been closely fought resulting in heavy campaigning, polarising society and spilling over into spaces between elections.

Given that political change is emergent and often takes significant time, politicians are hesitant to take risks when the benefits aren’t likely to be obvious to voters within their term in office. At the same time, incumbents with access to state resources often make decisions that improve their public and political standing (and weaken their rivals) while not promoting substantive social change.

3. Decentralisation’s effects have been patchy

Decision making is formally decentralised in most countries, with elections having been introduced at sub-national level. This has the potential to drive improvements in services as elected officials are closer to service users and more able to deliver relevant services. In practice, however, the executive remains powerful, with resources and capacity varying significantly at a sub-national level. For instance, in Burkina Faso, decision-making authority is in practice largely concentrated within the executive and at the centre. Limited financial and technical resources have severely limited the extent to which any local autonomy could be exercised. In Kenya, only a handful of entrepreneurial county governors have been able to drive improvements in service provision. And in Tanzania, Magufuli has overseen an increasing centralisation of power over the past six or so years.

4. There are lots of domestic rules but few actual improvements in governance practice

If policy is what policy does, there has been little movement in promoting better governance and improved service delivery, despite the raft of laws and regulations that have been drafted and passed.

For instance, in Ghana, bodies have been established to investigate political corruption but the lack of government funding stifles their operations. And in Senegal, democracy is entrenched in several laws, regulations and reforms to the constitution, but opposition parties, civil society and interest groups have criticised the deteriorating state of democratic institutions.

Oversight institutions face significant challenges in holding powerful groups to account. For instance, the Kenyan government has established independent oversight bodies such as the ethics and anti-corruption commissions, but, from a citizen perspective, formal establishments appear to be having little impact. Moreover, in Tanzania, the National Assembly is more than a rubber-stamping institution, but deliberation and oversight are weak since the dominant party holds the most seats. The judiciary is formally and politically weak. And an overlap between party and state structures from the national to the district and village levels has weakened political accountability.

5. International governance initiatives have had little uptake, especially in the extractives industry

The extractives industry is characterised by weak transparency and accountability, corruption and mistrust. In Tanzania, President Kikwete’s personal commitment to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) was not matched by transformational achievements, with Tanzania withdrawing from the Open Government Partnership (OGP) under Magufuli’s presidency in 2017. And in Burkina Faso, membership of EITI has had little impact on practices in the mining sector.

Kenya is participating in the OGP at both the national and local levels, mainly due to the influence of civil society organisations. At the sub-national level, Elgeyo Marakwet county government joined the sub-national OGP pilot programme in 2016 and is in 2021 being joined by two other counties – Makueni and Nairobi. However, this is out of a total of 47 county governments, which suggests poor uptake overall.

And across the five countries, corporate entities often wield significant power, encouraging governments to, for instance, reduce tax rates.

6. Civil society is under threat, but continues to play an important role

Civil society has seen a reduction in its space to engage with its respective governments in recent years.

All five countries have strong traditions in associational life that pre-date colonial rule. The emergence of professionalised non-governmental organisations and media houses are a more recent phenomenon driven by economic and political liberalisation between the 1980s and 2000s. Most civil society organisations (CSOs) enjoy freedoms in a formal sense, through relevant laws and regulations, and have over the years been invited to contribute to formal policy processes. However, CSOs have encountered limits to their influence and the space for them to engage with government has reduced.  For example, in Tanzania, reforms to open up space for civil society have been reversed in response to the exposure of grand corruption, while in Ghana CSOs have been instrumentalised by political parties in the context of high levels of polarisation.

Governments draw on professional civil society expertise and resources, especially around public service delivery, yet actively prevent them from expressing dissent on sensitive issues (such as political processes and the extractives industry). For instance, in Tanzania and Senegal, CSOs and governments need each other as it is rare for either sector to have a monopoly on human and financial resources. Nevertheless, in Tanzania civil society is more restrained and has a fear of overstepping boundaries. It is faced with either avoiding potentially controversial issues or taking a more technocratic approach in support of public services. In Burkina Faso, civil society’s political influence is limited, with CSOs tending to play an advisory role in relation to the government, addressing problems and mediating conflict rather than challenging them.

7. People are increasingly taking direct action

Given the barriers faced by civil society, citizens, especially young people, are increasingly resorting to direct action. However, this has on occasion incurred the wrath of the armed forces. For instance, in 2014 students in Senegal demonstrated over the problems in the education sector – exacerbated by high youth unemployment – while in 2018, the opposition movement Front de Resistance Nationale, made up of largely young people, organised rallies protesting the lack of transparency in the electoral process and the exclusion of Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall. And in Burkina Faso, more informal youth organisations have effectively mobilised young people to take part in protests through social media. For instance, young people rose up to overthrow the long-time ruler Blaise Compaore. However, 14 people were shot dead in protests against the presidential guard’s coup, and many of those who participated in protests were arrested – illustrating the high costs of taking direct action.

8. There are several actors beyond the state and professional civil society that can shape development outcomes

Self-help and community groups are prevalent in all contexts but lack political influence, while labour organisation is weak and has been in decline over the past 30 years or so.

In Burkina Faso, religious actors, namely the Catholic Church and, increasingly, Islamic groups, are particularly influential. In Ghana, religious organisations, especially Christian churches, play an important role in providing essential social services, while people engage through their chiefs, with the National House of Chiefs being key in promoting peaceful elections. And in Tanzania, the private sector, despite persistent mistrust between them and government, has become a key part of the political settlement.

The extent to which international and regional institutions can influence policy nationally depends on the relative economic power and authority of the national government in question.

At one end of the influence spectrum is Burkina Faso, an economically small country, whose monetary and fiscal policies are constrained by, for instance, regional institutions such as BCEAO and ECOWAS. At the other end is Kenya, where influence flows in the opposite direction: the Kenyan government is actively spearheading the East African Community towards a common currency and economic community. And then there are countries such as Tanzania, which has chosen to take a more bilateral approach to advancing its strategic interests and a cautious approach to regional institutions.