Yawa Hansen-Quao, Executive Director of Emerging Public Leaders, believes that a new generation of well-trained civil servants is the key to improving Africa’s governance.
Two years ago (2018), while visiting the United States, I became unwell, was hospitalized, and later underwent an emergency cesarean section resulting in the birth of a baby that was premature and very unwell. Thankfully, my son Derek survived.
I often reflect on how different my story would have been had Derek been born in my home country, Ghana, as we had intended. Given that the under-five mortality rate in Ghana is 50 deaths per 1,000 live births (roughly seven times higher than the rate in the United States), and given the severity of his condition then, it is much less likely that he would be here today. That’s a terrifying and humbling reality. I have no doubt that my faith and love played a big role in Derek’s survival. But equally important are the roles that accessible emergency services, qualified healthcare professionals, and the availability of medical equipment played in giving him a fighting chance.
If you can call an ambulance, if you can count on a doctor or nurse being available to treat you in the emergency room, if there is a local health facility stocked with basic necessities, consider yourself fortunate. That’s a privilege that many citizens across Africa do not currently enjoy.
Improving access to, and the quality of, healthcare across Africa will require much more than just building more or better hospitals, buying incubators and ambulances, and training health professionals or scaling community health. Improving that access to healthcare, and its quality, will require doing all of these things and improving governance. We must improve the capacity, competency, and integrity of government so that it can connect hospitals, ambulances, incubators, and health professionals, and deploy them in a strategic manner to create a functional and responsive health system that is as capable of saving children such as Derek as it is meeting a country’s most pressing and changing needs in preventing pandemics and serving the most vulnerable citizens. This, for me, is one of the promises of good governance and it is why I believe that investing in a new generation of government leaders is the innovation that Africa needs most.
When citizens accuse their governments of incompetence or corruption, too often NGOs and funders respond by building parallel systems of service delivery. Ultimately, we will not achieve our development goals by building yet more parallel systems of delivery. Governments are not roadblocks to be bypassed. They are necessary partners in achieving sustainable, catalytic, durable, systemic change.
Improving government performance can seem like an impossible task. It is not.
On the global scale, governments dealing with underperforming institutions face four key challenges:
These challenges aren’t insurmountable.
At Emerging Public Leaders, we believe we can interrupt the powerful forces that keep government performance low by recruiting and placing well- trained committed civil servants in the government and supporting them. We can stack the civil service with staff who believe in serving their country and are equipped with the skills necessary to change civil service culture and processes/policies to improve efficiency and performance, help to advance innovation and ensure long-term development
After more than a decade of working with the government of Liberia, and now Ghana, we have seen first-hand that investing in and supporting the next generation of civil service leaders is transformative. When a civil service is strong, responsive, and can adequately deliver services and envision them for the future, it recasts the image of the government and the image of the country.
Our Public Service Fellowship program provides a merit-based pathway for skilled youth to enter government. We offer selected university graduates two years of salaried employment in government institutions, with training and mentoring that positions them to contribute to improved public service delivery, spur good governance, and promote growth. Post-fellowship, our graduates carry forward with meaningful careers in public service.
Not only do such efforts create a more effective and trusted government, they also create a more inclusive government. Merit-based approaches to recruitment bring more women and rural dwellers into government. This has a knock-on effect of making government more knowledgeable and responsive to the needs of everyone. And if you think our 160+ fellows in Liberia and Ghana can only make changes around the margins given the thousands of people in the civil service, think again.
Nyanda Finda Davis, a graduate fellow in Liberia, became the first female head of passports, where she cut the passport processing time from one month to three days, and now serves as a Counselor in the Liberian Embassy in Washington D.C. Another graduate, Johnson Williams, created Liberia’s first web-based budgeting platform and now serves as the Assistant Director for National Budget Development. Another graduate cut the process for applying for a mining license from between three and five months to seven to 15 days.
When Ebola broke out in Liberia, our graduate fellows were on the frontlines of Ebola response and Liberia benefited from having a trusted network of trained and ethical young leaders during a time of profound crisis. Their impact over time grows exponentially as they inevitably advance within the civil service to become influential ministers, directors, and superintendents.
Emerging Public Leaders was founded in 2009 as the President’s Young Professionals Program (PYPP) in Liberia. A decade since our founding, we are pleased that an increasing number of private-sector leaders, development partners, philanthropists, and NGOs such as African Leadership Academy, Ashesi University, Global Health Corps, AMP, EJS Presidential Center, and Apolitical Academy have recognized that building a strong, competent, and ethical public service is a requirement for achieving our development goals.
As the big bet community is realizing, scaling good ideas and innovation at the systems level almost always requires government as a partner, as both purchaser and implementer. If we are not passionately devoted to getting competent, ethical changemakers into government, then all of our other work is for naught. Civil service is the secret sauce in expediting our progress and achieving our goals.
Join me in creating a pipeline of qualified, dedicated public servants that will drive change and deliver the good governance that Africa deserves.