The future of capacity building in Africa: A conversation with Frannie Léautier

Frannie Léautier, executive secretary of the African Capacity Building Foundation. Photo by: ACBF

To Frannie Léautier, Africa is at an institutional crossroads. With state building largely done, she says it’s time for African states “to deliver.”

Léautier, a Tanzanian national with a doctorate in infrastructure systems from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the executive secretary of the African Capacity Building Foundation. Founded in 1991, ACBF is at the center of efforts to help states deliver. With support from the World Bank and other donors, it funds a range of capacity-building projects that aim to help Africans run more effective governments, better manage public funds, and hold elected leaders accountable.

Devex met up with Léautier on the sidelines of ACBF’s 19th board of governors meeting in Paris in late September. In this exclusive interview, she discussed the current state of African development and the wider challenges of capacity building.

World leaders met in New York in late September for the Millennium Development Goals. From where you sit, in Africa, was this just another big U.N. meeting, or did something important actually happen?

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Having 180 nations sit down together, around a common objective, is a really good idea. Putting the MDG objectives on a loftier plane than the normal effort to make day-to-day progress has helped countries get energized. These are difficult discussions, though, because most of the objectives go beyond the technical and are actually issues of culture.

Take the education of girls. Fixing that means changing ideas that families have about the role of a girl child, having schools in place in villages and rural areas, having the teaching force in place, having the financing for food, having secondary schools that can take students when they are out of the primary level. When you look at what you need to do just to achieve that one objective, the chain of change is very complex.

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That’s why I say today that the glass is half full. There have been excellent achievements, but there are still challenges ahead. Often, we see that failures occurred because capacity was lacking – whether it is the skills to know how to intervene in these very difficult environments, whether it’s the capability to monitor, track and evaluate, and make changes along the way, whether it’s capacity to integrate questions of the MDGs within the broader strategy and planning of governments. Capacity bottlenecks are apparent across the chain.

This might sound naive, but what do you really mean when you use the word “capacity”?

When we bring up the issue of capacity, there’s usually three reactions. First we hear: “What is capacity?” So, we have to break it down and try to explain … with the … specific areas we work on. The second reaction is often: “Why haven’t we been doing this?” There’s very little knowledge of the history, what has been done, the successes and the mistakes. But the third reaction, and the one we have been building on most now is: “How can I help?”

I have a great example from financial management. When you analyze why financial management is so weak in many countries, which we did, the lack of proper accounting software rises up as an important issue. There’s also a lack of training for people who come into financial management jobs, not having the right terms of reference for hiring an external auditor, or not being able to follow through on audit recommendations because there’s no tool for actually tracking where they were and how they are implementing. These are all systemic problems with readily available solutions. What I find amazing about capacity building is that when you unbundle it to its core, it’s not rocket science.

What are the new capacity-building challenges facing ACBF and its member countries?

First is the challenge posed by climate change and its implications on severe drought or food riots. There will be fights for water between urban and rural areas, huge impacts on political and social stability in cities, but also in the border regions between countries. Capacity is needed to manage diverse migrant communities that may be attributed to climate change.

The second big issue will be food security. Many countries have pockets of surplus – and gaps – in their own domestic food markets. Part of it is logistical: weak infrastructure, no roads, no mechanisms to transport food from one place to another. But there is also no regional market for food. So, if there is a crisis, it is very difficult to procure food regionally. It’s much easier to import food from China or the U.S. than to move food from Zambia to Malawi. Some of these intercountry or regional constraints are very present and visible.

The third big gap is linked to African energy use. What form of energy makes sense for Africa? We don’t necessarily want to follow the rest of the world, including India and China, in terms of using traditional fuels on the path to development. At the same time this reflection is taking place, more countries are discovering oil. Being able to responsibly extract the the fuels while developing a new approach to energy is a huge capacity challenge.

And what about governance? Has enough been done to improve public administration?

At the national level, there’s been a lot of focus on governance. But there are two levels of governance that are going to be particularly striking in the future. One is subnational governance: how cities are managed and how communities are managed. And the second is governance at the regional level. There are other governance issues as well. We need better governance for increased trade flows, for creating regional capital markets. And, of course, there’s corruption, cross-border crime, cross-border security risks. The continent has to put in place capacities to deal with a range of governance issues that will become more problematic as migrant flows increase. That is going to be a real challenge.

In some ways, it sounds like you are saying that years ago, you were working on issues of state building, and, now, it is a question of helping the public authorities that have been created to better respond to the modern challenges facing everyone.

The challenges of creating a state are largely done. First, you created an elite. The elite created policies and the environment to develop countries into nation states. But now, those states have to deliver. And to deliver services, you have to come down to the level where things really happen, where you’re actually delivering water or good governance or representation to a group of people at the regional level.

To shift gears a bit, donor countries are obviously talking a lot these days about aid effectiveness. How is ACBF working with its grant recipients as well as with donors on this issue?

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We are very involved with preparations for the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, coming up in Korea in 2011, and we are working with the [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s] Development Assistance Committee on the issue. But beyond that, we are actually putting a lot of effort into getting results. A few months ago, we brought 77 project directors to Nairobi to discuss results measurement frameworks. We used the meeting to help them develop good results-based approaches. They went back to their home organizations, and they developed a baseline so going forward we can track progress for these 77 projects. This is a major contribution to the Accra Agenda because we’ve put the focus on results as well as ownership of those results and the design. They actually designed it themselves. Someone didn’t come in and impose it from the outside. And third, and perhaps the most important element, is the reliance on their own country systems. Because to deliver their objectives, they had to determine their capacity for financial management, for audits, and keeping track of where they were going.

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If we continue to do this, within five years we will have very strong capacity at the country level for this type of thinking and this type of work. It will support the instruments that the donor community is putting in place. If you have strong country systems, then budget support works. If you have strong ownership, than supporting multiscale ideas work. If you have strong implementation capabilities, then you can make movement in specific areas of reform. We see this as an intellectual contribution to the aid effectiveness review but also a very concrete example of what ownership means.

That’s how you’re responding to what donors want from you. So, what is ACBF looking for from donors?

I think donors have put a lot of money into capacity development, and, unfortunately, the results are not as important as the amount of investment that has been made. That is why there is so much discussion today on the actual results that have been delivered. That said, I think donors need to think of African countries as partners, rather than recipients of grants. Donors need to see their aid as investments, because if you’re working with a partner, you’re working for a common objective. I would also say they need to be more humble in terms of listening to the ideas that are coming from the continent.

What can Africa learn from other developing countries?

There’s a lot that Africa can learn from the BRICS. Brazil has transformed its agriculture sector while balancing rural and urban development and trying to manage its natural resource wealth. From China we can learn about implementation because the Chinese have been very capable of creating these multiyear strategic plans and sticking to them over long periods of time. China was also very smart in the way it embraced open markets. From India, Africa can learn a lot about innovation, how a country can invest in science and technology and fostered innovation. From Russia, I think the question is, how do we use heavy extractive industry revenue bases to build capabilities in other areas? Africa is very rich in natural resource and extractive industries, but the investments have not gone into diversification, or growing other sectors of the economy, particularly agriculture.

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African countries probably need to talk to each other more, too?

We can definitely learn by looking at what is happening within Africa. Take South Africa and how it is managing supply chains. That can certainly be applied in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which needs serious help in that area. Or you can look at Rwanda, in terms of how a country can go from conflict to post-conflict to reforming its economy and becoming home to one of Africa’s best business environments. That could certainly be a lesson for other countries. Or take Ghana’s example, on democratic transition and securing peace and security as you open the economy.

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Even more importantly, people are asking for it. Even when you go to the smallest village and you ask young people about leadership, they can actually point to leaders in other countries, and they can say that they want to see these characteristics from other countries in their leadership. The information age is helping propagate ideas of good leadership and stoking the excitement and desire of young people to take on responsibility. This hunger about the future is reminiscent of where Africa was in the 1960s, just after independence. At the foundation, we are working hard to see that countries are prepared so that this excitement really leads to massive change and not disappointment.

Read more about the pioneering work of the African Capacity Building Foundation, which has produced more than 3,000 African financial, public sector and intellectual leaders.

About the author

  • Lawrence Speer

    Lawrence is a Paris-based correspondent and communications consultant who has been reporting and writing on development issues for more than 20 years. He covers French development assistance and has interviewed French Development Agency Director-General Dov Zerah for Devex News.