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Democracy, Governance and Human Rights Programme Paper 3: Efficiency, Accountability and Implementation: Public Sector Reform in East and Southern Africa

24 Aug 2001

  • Author(s): Ole Therkildsen


Five questions central to public sector reform in East and Southern Africa are addressed in this paper: Has the size of government employment changed since the mid-1980s? Have government functions become more focused on "core" activities, such as health and education? Have real wage levels changed? Has accountability improved? Who supports and who opposes reform? The study includes Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The study shows that reform efforts in the region have produced mixed results. Typically, the assessment of reform outcomes is based on the notion that the state is overextended in terms of size and activities—although this is questionable as a general proposition, as the study demonstrates.

Labelling a reform a success or a failure involves both value judgements and technical assessments. The study shows that such evaluations are highly political and generate conflict among unions, state elites and donors. From this it follows that the future of public sector reforms will depend on the politics of reform. This has several implications.

First, the study finds that fiscally driven reductions of state employment and functions have gone too far. A better focus on and understanding of the developmental role of the state in resource-poor countries is needed. Increased spending on service delivery is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for service improvements. But as long as fiscal stability remains the overriding reform concern in practice, while economic growth and revenue collection are sluggish, efficiency gains are very difficult to achieve.

Second, much more attention should be given to the political dynamics of reform. Unfortunately, the basic premise in much of the literature is that reform of the public sector is intrinsically desirable, and resistance to change therefore based on suspect motives of self-interest among state elites. Resistance is not surprising in light of the general absence of clear improvements in service levels for citizens, and in real take-home pay increases for civil servants.

Third, donors influence the political dynamics of reform, too, although they do not suffer the consequences of their actions, when things go wrong. Donors should certainly not become more directly involved in the politics of reform. Instead, they should take the domestic political dimension of their support (or withdrawal) from domestic reform processes seriously. This would also help in bringing to the fore the limited domestic political (and technical) capacity to implement them.

Present reforms tend not only to be top-down in design and implementation, they also tend to focus on the upper levels of central and local government. This is the wrong starting point. A better understanding of the interaction between government agencies and citizens where services are delivered is necessary if reforms are to aim at improving service delivery, efficiency and accountability.

Ole Therkildsen is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Development Research in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Order PPDGHR 3 from UNRISD ($5 for readers in the North; $2.50 for readers in the South).