Mary Robinson on 'worrying trends' in African governance

Mary Robinson, Mo Ibrahim Foundation board member and former president of Ireland. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

ABIDJAN — For roughly a decade, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation's Ibrahim index of African governance has served as a vital source of information on the progress — or stagnation — of rule of law, human rights, and sustainable development strategies pursued by African governments.

This year’s index, released last month, highlights commendable gains in some areas, such as health, while enumerating several points of concern in areas such as education and business environment. It also discussed decade-long trends revealed since the report’s inception in 2007.

“It's the trends that we need to pick up on and we need to really highlight when we are commenting on the index, not the fixed position of any particular year, because it is very much a tool to understanding how countries are making progress,” Mary Robinson, Mo Ibrahim Foundation board member and former president of Ireland, told Devex.

The report noted that the continent’s overall progress has been driven by 15 countries, including Ghana, South Africa, and Namibia, that continue to accelerate improvements over the past five years, “mask[ing] the fact that in other countries momentum continues to falter,” it said. But at the same time, an initial upward trend has reversed into decline in 27 countries, driven by a fall in education metrics and the question of whether education is meeting the needs of the economy, the report explained.

This is particularly concerning given the continent’s “youth bulge,” a population of young people expected to reach 1 billion by 2050. Substandard education outcomes exist against a backdrop of a sinking civil society space, Robinson said, at a time when educated citizens are needed to advance societies.

“I’m worried about freedom of expression and assembly combined with declined education. More educated local citizens are able to demand the services of government that they should be entitled to,” she said. “They should know through education what their rights are and how to ascertain and fight for those rights.”

Backsliding in civil society and freedom of expression could wind up reversing rule of law and safety improvements, Robinson warned, noting declines in overall participation indices.

“This is more of a global trend which has potential danger in Africa and is why we really need to be alert to … [this trend] that is not unique to Africa, unfortunately,” Robinson said, who is also a former United Nations commissioner for human rights.

The annual index also pointed out that, despite a near 40 percent leap in the region’s gross domestic product over the past decade, sustainable economic opportunity has barely improved overall, and has declined in 25 countries covering 43 percent of the continent’s population. African nations are falling short on the challenge of speeding up job creation, encouraging innovation and supporting entrepreneurs, the report said.

Somalia, South Sudan, and Libya ranked lowest in overall governance. Conflict-afflicted countries including Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Chad were also among the lowest in overall rankings. The report highlighted insecurity as a key constraint affecting governance across the continent, warning that some promising nations were “losing momentum, with the rate of progress slowing, or have even begun to register a recent downturn.”

Although overall progress on the continent remains bolstered by a handful of nations, human development was largely a success story of the 2018 report, driven by health gains.

There were also individual bright spots in governance — Mauritius, Seychelles, Namibia, and Botswana were among those ranked best, while countries such as Kenya and Morocco made significant improvements over the past 10 years. Both Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire have rebounded from political turmoil to attract wide-ranging international investment — the latter showing the greatest 10-year improvement in overall governance.

Good governance in these countries was backed by strong performance in rule of law and transparency and accountability sub-categories. Similarly, countries scoring higher in the previous two criteria also showed progress in sustainable economic opportunity and business environment.

“I'm just acutely aware of particular challenges for African governments generally … The pressure of population growth, and we know what works well on that: educating girls and women, having health systems that function well,” Robinson said. “Then combine that with a business environment that encourages innovation in jobs, job creation, ways of helping entrepreneurship at all levels, and prioritizing getting more off-grid energy distributors … to rural areas, slum areas, farm areas so that people can become more productive and bring themselves out of poverty.”

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About the author

  • Christin roby

    Christin Roby

    Christin Roby is the West Africa Correspondent for Devex. Based in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, she covers global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her Master of Science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.