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African Inspiration and Guidance for Overcoming America's Government Woes

It's time to take up the challenge

· Leadership

Since the beginning of the 21st century, and despite its consistently negative and discriminatory portrayal in the mainstream American press, the African continent has seen significant governance gains. Meanwhile, democratic government norms have waned in America and civic knowledge and awareness and public engagement have reached all-time lows.

The ideas expressed in this and subsequent articles on the subject of American government and governance are not intended to offend any individuals in any political party. They are offered in the hope of encouraging open and fresh discussion to help lead us prepare better for the 2020 presidential elections so that we can elect the candidate who can best lead us to a better future and to do so quickly.

Government is not governance

Government and governance are often confused. Government is the structure that governs, in other words, the body of representatives who run the administration of our country and hold the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct, to employ the power of the state and to run the affairs of the country and deliver, or not, political, social and economic goods to its citizens.

Governance refers to the activities of the government and the style in which government distinguishes (or blurs) the boundaries between and within public and private sectors; it is the process by which our government (i.e. our representatives) implements the set of rules and laws framed in our Constitution for the purpose of assuring good results for the country’s citizens.

Although governance is as old as human civilization, it is not a frequently heard term in relation to American government. Governance has become a crucial topic of debate in relation to the World Bank-linked theory and practice of efficient and effective government administration and management for developing countries, particularly Africa, for the purpose of pursuing development for the progress and well-being of their peoples by delivering policy objectives. In Western governments governance involves concern for sound administration within competitive democratic politics.

Good government is necessary for good governance. Without a good structure you can’t have a good process. Without effective leadership you can’t achieve good performance. Without trust and respect you can’t believe in your government and its ability to deliver high quality public goods and services to the nation.

The United States has generally been associated with good government and turned to as an example of good governance. However, after decades of imperceptibly sliding into a growingly chaotic political jungle swamp that undermines peaceful coexistence, personal development and enjoyment of life, our government today has hit rock-bottom in its failure to uphold and protect individual rights by endangering our national security on different fronts.

The American government has unfortunately become an example of how the policies of “one man’s gain is another man’s loss” and dog-eat-dog foreign relations have made peaceful coexistence at home and beyond impossible. It’s time to start talking about what good government and good governance look like and how to get them back in America.

Looking to Africa for inspiration

Based on decades of effort and experience in transforming bad governance into good governance practices, Africa provides a useful panoply of best practices that can be very useful for getting American government and governance back on track.

Africa has always been associated with bad or weak governance. Today it is still generally, although in many ways wrongly, characterized in the mainstream American press as a violent, chaotic continent overrun by poverty, hunger, corruption, terrorism, and civil war. What is seldom featured in the press is the remarkable progress made on the road to political stability and the gains made in improved governance.

Bad governance stems from an unfavorable or confrontational relationship between those who govern and those who are governed and is a consequence of opaque decision-making, arbitrary policy making and the cheating of Us, the People. It results in the violation of the central and acceptable norms inherent to good government, which Thomas Jefferson referred to as “that which most effectively secures the rights of the people and the rewards of their labor, which promotes their happiness, and also does their will.”

While American government has devolved into warring political "tribes", Africa has made significant gains in good governance, with advances across the continent in the main elements of good governance:

  • Active participation of all stakeholders in the process of development;
  • Rule of law, which ensures justice is based on objective laws and not beholden to the whims and fancies of anyone howsoever powerful and influential;
  • Transparency, which is built on the free flow of information and the openness of government action and decision-making and consultative processes;
  • Accountability, which means institutions and the personnel must be accountable for their failure and success;
  • Responsiveness, whereby requests and requirements of The People are addressed in a punctual and time-frame manner;
  • Consensus among the various stakeholders through collaboration, rather than compromise, to ensure convergence, not agreeableness, in decisions;  
  • Effectiveness and Efficiency, to ensure policy and programs meet the needs of stakeholders, while making the best use of resources;
  • Equity and Inclusiveness, which means that everyone has equal opportunities in a community, notwithstanding gender, color, race, religion or faith and social status, and that their interests, aspirations and opinions are taken into consideration while formulating policies.

Finding guidance in African best practices

The Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance has been tracking the quality of governance in African countries since 2007. Initially produced by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation in association with Harvard University, it assesses progress in four main areas: Safety and Rule of Law, Participation and Human Rights, Sustainable Economic Opportunity, and Human Development. Even if progress has been slow, the average governance score on the African continent, based on the average of 54 unique countries with different trends, has improved over the past 10 years.

According to a paper published by the Brookings Institution in January of 2019, “[A]cross Africa, governance has improved considerably since 2000. Thirty-four countries, home to 72 percent of Africa’s citizens, have improved their governance performance over the last 10 years, and significant advances have been seen in participation, rule of law, and rights, among other categories. Over the past five years, many countries have also shown improvements in transparency and accountability.”

Thanks to the important efforts of many African leaders and decision-makers to champion sound governance and better provision of political, social and economic public goods and services that citizens expect, 34 of the 54 African nations have made clear improvements in their overall governance score. Although it is true that 19 of those 34 are starting to lose momentum, with the rate of progress slowing over the last five years, it is important to remember that we are talking about the most diverse continent in the world, with at least 3,000 ethnic groups and 2,000 spoken languages, and one that is three times bigger and 4 times more populated than the United States.

The diversity and size of Africa are precisely what make it an excellent source of lessons learned about how the principles of good governance, when observed and implemented, can contribute effectively to the consolidation of democracy and success in the improvement of economic opportunities for shared prosperity.

It’s time to take up the challenge

America is at a critical turning point. Democratic good governance is tumbling down the ladder of basic government capacity. Public trust in our government is in the pits, and voter participation has reached its lowest point since 1996.

It’s time to take up the challenge of how best to improve our flagging trust in government and reverse retrogression in good governance. Africa can provide much needed inspiration and useful best practices.

Sub-Saharan Africa used to be the “lost continent” who sought inspiration in America for good leadership in government. Today this region, composed of 48 countries south of the Sahara Desert, is an opportunity for America to learn about how to find a renewed path to good government and good governance.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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