Thursday, July 25, 2024
InterviewBuilding capacity in an era of “less trust in institutions”

Building capacity in an era of “less trust in institutions”

In May 2022, Mamadou Biteye was appointed to head the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) – an often overlooked organization that has been working on improving institutional capacity on the continent for more than three decades.

Biteye, an agricultural economist by training, was named executive secretary following a career working for organizations such as VISA, Oxfam, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

He was in Addis Ababa recently to launch a training program for AU diplomats and executive council members on the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) in the days following the 37th AU summit. The Reporter’s Ashenafi Endale sat down with Biteye to learn more about ACBF, the trade agreement, and public trust in African institutions. EXCERPTS:


The Reporter: Here at the AU, you have just launched a capacity building program for AU executive council members regarding the implementation of AfCFTA. Can we take stock of AfCFTA signatories in terms of implementation progress and delays?

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Biteye: I do not have current status for each country. What we do is relevant to our own mission as an institution. The African Capacity Building Foundation is an institution that belongs to forty African nations. The reason it is necessary to build the foundation is the need to raise Africa’s human capital and also strong institutions to shepherd Africa’s institutional building and inclusive development. That is our mandate.

In terms of human capital, we need to train individuals from public, private, CSOs and different sectors including even the youth; to equip them with the skill and knowledge needed. The AU has passed a decision in February 2022, requesting ACBF to develop and deliver capacity building programs for diplomats that are accredited to the African Union, on different topics.

The program we just launched is just the first one of the AU’s decisions. This capacity building program for AfCFTA implementers and AU exec members will be a series. This is just the first one. We decided the first program to be on AfCFTA. Why? Because AfCFTA has been approved and signed by almost all countries. But still not all countries have ratified.

Domestication of AfCFTA also lags behind. That is why we appointed ambassadors who are involved behind supporting and coordinating the AfCFTA implementations, and advising their governments. It is important to give them this training. This aims at better equipping AfCFTA negotiators and implementers.

What is your diagnosis as to why AfCFTA implementation is lagging given that African countries have been aspiring towards economic integration? Are the factors behind the delay at national levels, AU level or AfCFTA Secretariat in Ghana?

Oftentimes, it is really an issue of domestication. And AfCFTA domestication is an issue of political will. And secondly it is a capacity issue. Political will is prioritizing the implementation of AfCFTA. But domestication is, actually after signing and ratifying, it is actually embedded within the national laws. It is also reviewing and evaluating the rule books of the people.

The other biggest challenge, next to implementation capacity, is insufficient awareness among the private sector. When I talk about the private sector, I talk about small and medium enterprises – SMEs. SMEs make 80 percent of Africa’s economies. They are always not aware of AfCFTA. The AfCFTA issue is so highly technical that it remains difficult for SMEs to understand it, and identify what are the provisions that they can utilize to increase their access to cross-border trade.

All of these challenges are challenges of capacity, knowledge and skills. This is why the role of ACBF and other training and capacity building institutions are extremely crucial. It is also the role of chambers of commerce. It is really important for chambers of commerce to duly understand AfCFTA, and work at local, national, regional and continental levels.

We need to regularly assess and evaluate: what are the capacity gaps, what is the export readiness we have in our countries, what are readiness from legislative and infrastructure point of view, identify whether it is the capacity gaps of SMEs or implementers, and etcetera. Is it a digital payment system issue? Whatever the gaps and wherever they are, we need to reinforce capacity so that the AfCFTA goes into action.

During the 37th AU summit in Addis, there were discussions on the need for the establishment of continental financial institutions like the African monetary institute, African central bank, and African development bank, in order to fast-track AfCFTA implementation. Can we say all key institutions, including the customs union, are in place to implement AfCFTA seamlessly and achieve Agenda 2063?

These institutions are extremely important. Progressively, in Africa, we need to be equipped with all the important instruments to independently and resolutely advance these integration, trade and financing objectives for development.

However, the idea is not just creating institutions. It is also creating, empowering, and endowing those institutions with the right sets of skills so that they can be efficient and operational in discharging their mandates.

So oftentimes, I have the impression that wherever there is a challenge, the response is creating a new institution. Establishing institutions is good but they must deliver on their mandates. So reinforcing institutional capacity is crucial, both for existing and new institutions. Institutions also need to coordinate their actions, to discharge cross-cutting targets. Creating institutions is not enough, unless they are efficient, functional and actually result-oriented and work together to deliver the promise.

Is the establishment of those African financial institutions expected soon?

I do not know. I was not in the conversation during the summit.

When we talk about institutional efficiency, we are talking about the capacity and efficiency of human resources. The AU’s manpower is often pooled from quotas of member countries, based on their influence in the AU to hold key positions across its departments and institutions. Do you think the AU manpower recruitment and appointment process is merit-based? And how does that contribute to the implementation of deliverables?

I do not know exactly because I do not work for the AU. What I know and talk about is the ACBF. Definitely, ACBF belongs to AU member states.

But the membership of these countries stops at the Council of Governments. The Council of Governments is the highest governing body in the ACBF. At the ACBF, all recruitment and appointment is merit-based. There is no country quota system in our recruitment system. We recruit based on profession and capacity we need and qualification. I believe this should be the way to go for any institution.

When I talk about capacity development, I often use an image of a plant. To have a very good plant that is productive, you need a good, healthy seed, and fertile soil. Think of human capital as a seed. The fertile soil is a strong, efficient and conducive institution. If you have one but not the other, you cannot go very far.

So we need to revamp capacity at government, private, and everywhere.

The execution of many of the programs and objectives targeted, including under Agenda 2063, is often left in the hands of member states who are plagued by government willingness and capacity issues. Do you think this is creating lags in achieving Agenda 2063 and other targets?

Yeah, but we need some data. The AU does not really have a territory. The AU Commission does not really have a territory. It is a platform and union for the member states. Whatever decision that is taken, it is taken by member states. But actually it is in the implementation, where the rubber hits the road, is at country level. So if countries make decisions and make commitments, it is actually for each country to play their part at the national level.

There is no AU territory. There are countries that make up the AU. So the implementation is going to be really when every country plays its role. Now, are all decisions passed by the AU implemented? Are they always swiftly implemented? At what level? That is a question, I believe, that we need a little bit more data [to answer]. Data is extremely important to evaluate the implementation levels at the continental level. Data is also important to evaluate the impact of the continental implementations on the African population in reality. 

Why couldn’t the AfCFTA Secretariat have mandatory schedules in place, pushing member countries to implement the trade deal by a specific time, instead of leaving the matter to the willingness of member countries?

To me, the AfCFTA Secretariat, at the same time the AU, belongs to the countries. They are not the bosses of the countries. If the countries make those decisions, they put in place the Secretariat and facilitate the implementations. But the Secretariat is not the boss of the countries. It can facilitate, provide the support countries require. It can conduct research, provide advice, provide policy briefs, and support at technical levels, but actual implementation is the responsibility of each and every country who has signed the AfCFTA agreement.

Why was ACBF established as a separate entity from the AU while still working for the AU?

Actually, ACBF was not created by the AU. It was created in 1991 during structural adjustment times, when there were ample resources coming to the countries. But actually the level of the implementation of those projects, the level of the consumption of those resources were very low. And this was due to poor planning and execution.

So ACBF was established to fill the capacity deficits of policy makers, evidence-based policy making and also economic planning and implementation capacity. That is what it was.

Obviously over time, more than 50,000 people in civil service have been trained in different areas of African governments. Many of them are civil servants in the government across the continent.

Today, you can see many ministers of finance, governors of central banks and many other officials are alumni of the ACBF program.

In recognizing the contribution of ACBF, in 2017, the AU conferred the status of a specialized agency. ACBF is an independent agency. AU recognized the foundation’s contribution to human capital development and institutional building in Africa, for the AU. That does not make ACBF a member or an organ of the AU. But it gives the legitimacy for ACBF to speak on behalf of AU, on matters related to capacity building. At the same time, it expands the ACBF mandate to provide capacity building to the AUC, and to the RECS as well. So AU’s decision in 2017 recognized ACBF and expanded the mandates of ACBF.

Does ACBF provide only short-term training or also have medium and long-term programs like higher education institutions?

We have launched the ACBF Academy. This Academy is going to be the main vehicle of human capital development for AU and its institutions. The Academy will sustain different schools that are focusing on specific areas of knowledge and skills.

For instance, in collaboration with European university institutes, the Florence School of Regulation; we launched in September, the African School of Regulation. This is established under the ACBF Academy and it is the first in Africa.

This African School of Regulation is based in Accra. It is providing not only professional training, but also degree training for young people, who want to embrace the career of regulator. Webinars, seminars and different capacity building packages are also designed for officials and experts working in regulatory bodies in Africa. They can be either from the public sector or private sector.

The other school we are working on now and preparing to launch later this year, towards the fourth quarter of 2024, is the African School of Taxation and Public Administration. This school will focus on building the capacity of tax institutions, authorities and offices and the officials and experts there. Soft skills, tax regime administration and related fields will also be provided under this school. If these institutions are well equipped with the proper skill and knowledge, then it will be possible to fulfill the social contracts.

There are also programs on institutional capacity accelerators. This is a vehicle for institutional capacity strengthening.

Speaking of taxation, some African economies are worried about losing customs duty revenues on operationalizing the AfCFTA. The Afri-Exim bank pledged it has earmarked USD1 billion to compensate for such losses. Do you think that package is incentivizing countries like Ethiopia, who have sizable import volume and could lose customs revenues by zeroing customs duty?

I am not aware if that package is active. I understand the impact of such mechanisms. Integrations in the beginning means products which were previously taxed will fall under the tariff free regime. That may initially create losses of revenue.

But the point is not about the size of revenue from import duties taxation. It is really about producing and exporting. That is actually where real wealth creation, job creation and development can happen.

How critical is capacity building for the AU?

It is crucial. Any institution, not only AU, needs capacity. Now more than ever, obviously, regional institutions, pan-African institutions, and even global institutions, need to reinforce their institutional capacity.

Because we are just in that era, around the world, where citizens have less trust in their institutions.  Whether this is national government institutions, regional, pan-African or global. That is the era. That is the situation we are living in now.

Are the institutions we have today on the continent fit for our aspirations? If you ask this question to the average citizen, probably the no is more than the yes. We need to build very capable institutions, with the right set of skills, to deliver on the aspirations. That is how we can restore the trust and faith of citizens in African institutions.

Is the era you referred to a result of deteriorating institutions, or because citizens are more empowered through information, technology and decentralization on access to information?

There are several factors we can see in the world today. There is obviously more knowledge, more connectivity. The way we have access to knowledge today, and the speed, is extremely high, compared to 20 years ago. So this is extremely important, that we know this.

We also live in an era where a lot of deliverables are expected from institutions. How can institutions cope with an era where citizens are more capable?

There is information, knowledge and skills out there. But the question is, do we have the right people in the right positions in the institutions? Public institutions need to be managed as private companies. They must focus on delivery, impact. Public institutions also need to be transparent, accountable to the citizen. This is extremely important, because if that is not the perception, that citizens have credibility of their institutions and their ability to deliver on their promises, it is going to be compromised.

Could you rank which capacity issues are most challenging for the AU? Is it the issue of manpower, resource, finance, policy, institutional structure, or others?

I cannot really rank the AU because I do not work in the AU. I have not conducted an assessment of the AU so I do not have the data.

But what we know is problems do not come in an isolated manner. They all come together. They are more complex, and inter-connected. Oftentimes it is one issue but there are many problems interfacing and overlapping, manifesting themselves. If you have financing issues, then you have peoples issues. If you have peoples issues, then you have institutional efficiency issues, and so on. All of that comes together and you cannot solve everything by addressing only one issue. Such problems is also not limited to AU but all institutions. It happens in any institution.

Institutions that strive to become effective must stop every now and then and assess themselves, assess their environment, their mission, and tap on solutions. Institutions must consistently reimagine themselves, and adapt to the changing environment. Organizations that do not adapt to their environment are bound to lose their efficiency and credibility.

Anything you would like to add?

After launching this AfCFTA capacity building for AU ambassadors, we have seen an overwhelming interest from all African countries. We designed a hybrid training system and a lot of African ambassadors and AfCFTA implementers attended online and in person here at the AU headquarters. There is an overwhelming response by the diplomats, to widen their skill and knowledge on AfCFTA. This means this training is valuable to them. So we decided to avail all the knowledge, skills and resources online so they can access it at any time.

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