It has been widely viewed that reforming the public sector in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) holds great promise for socio-economic development and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s), when governments are more accountable, results oriented, efficient and responsive to the poor.
However, over the period, public sector reforms on the continent have had mixed results. On one hand, there are success stories in the design, content, commitment to implementation, pace and overall performance of the public sector reform (PSR) programs. On the other hand, some particularly poorly designed, uncoordinated and slowly implemented PSR programmes have led to inadequate public service delivery and popular cynicism about the public sector in general.
While it stands to reason that PSR has benefits to offer, these benefits have certainly not been fully realized across a number of countries in SSA. Worse still, there is insufficient documented evidence on the impact of PSR programs on sector performances, particularly in terms of output and outcome indicators, to make definitive judgment. Thus, this presents an opportunity to advocate for research on the link or lack thereof of PSRs and socio-economic development on the African continent.
The inadequacy of socio-economic development and worrying delays in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Sub-Saharan Africa can in part be attributed to the quality of public sector management, human and institutional capacity and non-results oriented culture in the public service. In particular, these features of the public sector explain why the levels of public expenditure and service delivery on average have had such a limited effect on human development outcomes especially in rural Africa, where the incidence of both human and income poverty is on the increase.
According to the Human Development Report (2010), over the past 40 years a quarter of the developing countries saw their Human Development Index (HDI) increase less than 20 percent, another quarter, more than 65 percent. Although the variations partly reflect different starting points, half the variation in HDI performance with countries with similar starting points, suggests that country factors such as policies, institutions and geography are important. In addition, the past 20 years have seen substantial progress in many aspects of human development, but not all sides of the story are positive. Not all countries have progressed rapidly and the variation is striking. For example, health advances have been large but are slowing. In nine countries, six of which are in Sub-Saharan Africa, the life expectancy has fallen below their 1970 levels- largely due to the HIV epidemic.
Progress in education on the other hand, has been substantial and widespread, reflecting improvements in the quantity of schooling and access to education for girls and boys. The HDR report further contends that, to a large extent, this progress reflects greater state involvement, which is often characterized more by enrolling children into school than by imparting a higher quality education.
Progress in incomes varies much more. Despite aggregate progress, there is no convergence in income-in contrast to education and health- because on average rich countries have grown faster than poor ones over the past 40 years.
Governments have addressed, in a range of ways, the tension between the need for markets to generate income and dynamism and the need to deal with market failures. Markets do not necessarily bring about progress in other dimensions of human development. On the whole, markets are very bad at ensuring the provision of public goods such as security, stability, health and education.
The HDR (2010) report asserts that regulation, however, requires capable state machinery as well as political commitment, and in most Sub-Saharan Africa countries, state capability is often in short supply. Should, can or has the public sector been held responsible for the socio-economic development of the respective Sub-Saharan Africa countries and what needs to be done? Answers to these salient questions in part, lies in implementing prudent PSR programs to improve and increase delivery of public services to the populace.
Many countries on the continent have embarked on PSRs since the 1960s as a means of achieving the single most goal of establishing a leaner, performance and results oriented, well-motivated, modern, professional, and efficient civil service for national socio-economic development. These tenets are common and resonate through all public/civil service reform strategy and programme documents for Sub-Saharan Africa countries. Following a perusal through a cross section of PSR programme documents (for example, Uganda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Botswana, Ethiopia and The Gambia).
The principle motivation for this article is the observation that over the period, PSRs have been implemented and still ongoing, but at the same time poverty and public service delivery levels remain unimpressive and largely unimproved on the continent. Therefore a quick inquiry into what PSR can offer or has offered so far, what has worked, what hasn’t worked, what are the lessons learnt and what needs to be improved.
The article is divided into five sections: section 2 outlines what PSR is about, with a focus on the characteristics of the public sector in Sub-Saharan Africa; builds a business case for public sector reforms; and summarizes the key elements in most PSR interventions. Section 3 presents some best practices on PSR in Sub-Saharan Africa. Section 4 discusses some emerging challenges and constraints in PSR implementation. Section 5 outlines key lessons learnt to ensure improvement and successful implementation of PSRs. Section 6 is the conclusion outlining some key messages and food for thought.