During the Labour era, Kate Gross advised both U.K. prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Today, as CEO of the Africa Governance Initiative, she is advising governments of Liberia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone on how to shape a better future for their people.
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We asked Gross about her leadership and vision for development cooperation in the years to come. Here’s what she said:
As an adviser to then-prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, how would you describe your influence on the U.K. development cooperation agenda?
I worked in Downing Street for nearly four years as private secretary to the prime minister. I was responsible for preparing the PM for all appearances in Parliament — most of my time was spent on the weekly Prime Ministers’ Questions, which I think every prime minister in history has dreaded. I also led on home affairs — difficult policy areas like crime, immigration and counterterrorism. I never worked on development policy, and so won’t claim any influence over what either Tony or Gordon did in that field, though I am very proud of their record, and of the U.K. approach to aid in general.
But my time in No. 10 has fundamentally shaped my approach to development. It left me with acute appreciation for how tough government is — and how tough it is for leaders in the UK, let alone the developing world where resources are so much more scarce and the capacity of government so low.
When I moved from domestic policy into development, I brought with me huge empathy for the governments AGI works with. It’s all too easy to look at government from the outside and bemoan the decisions taken, or the ineffective way in which government functions. But as a former insider, I know that making policy choices is hard, that it’s virtually impossible to please everyone, and that the right “technical” answer won’t always be politically or practically feasible. This understanding and humility about how hard government is to get right is a founding principle of AGI.
What advice did Tony Blair give you about leadership when you assumed the CEO post of the African Governance Initiative, which the two of you co-founded?
I’ve learnt a lot from Tony about leadership — and from the other leaders we work with in Africa. Tony has always stretched my horizons, asking me “how can we do it,” not telling me why something wasn’t possible. His ambition for Africa is limitless; he is a true optimist about the continent and its potential.
AGI have been working with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia for the past few years — Africa’s first female president. She is a personal heroine of mine. Working with people like her, I’ve learnt that anyone can make a difference if they dedicate themselves to what they believe in — and if they believe in themselves. This sense of hope and resilience is such a powerful combination, and inspiring to see in our African partners, and in AGI’s own staff, on a day to day basis.
In the coming years, how do you see yourself pushing investment and development in Africa?
We founded AGI nearly four years ago, and I’m so proud of the impact we’ve been able to have with our partners in Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Liberia since then. Our approach is to work side by side with national governments, and our role is to build their capability to implement the policies that will lift people out of poverty, enabling them to build power stations and roads, deliver healthcare, and improve the lives of subsistence farmers. So in Sierra Leone, AGI’s support to the Ministry of Health has helped them to treble the number of children being treated in hospital — vital in a country where, in 2005, 1 in 7 children died before their 5th birthday.
Africa has so much potential — I truly believe it will be the success story of the 21st century. But to make this a reality, the continent’s leaders have to kick-start their countries’ economies and ensure that the gains of growth are shared equitably among their people. Leaders need the support of the international community to do this, and the kind of support which keeps Africans in the driving seat. At AGI, we want to be part of this story, and I hope to lead the organisation to greater impact as we expand into new countries in Africa over the coming months and years.
Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.
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