How to fix public services in Africa
Anyone who travels to most of Africa will notice the level of deterioration of the infrastructure on the continent. From the roads to the electricity, from the public water system to the waste disposal system, the continent continues to struggle to join the league of the modern world by failing to provide necessary services to its citizens.
During the time of Africa’s greatest generation, the legends of our 1960s that freed us from colonization, we saw a continent on the path of continued progress. It had a virtuous agricultural system and was renewing social comforts. Good and lasting roads were built and Africa was respected in all regions of the earth.
In those days, the greatest African minds lived in Africa. From Chinua Achebe to Camara Laye, Africa gave the world literary icons. Interestingly, as our literature developed and grew with African voice and writing under the African Writers Series, our engineering was solid. Our engineers were in charge of the rail system that was functional and efficient.
Our engineers built the best roads. Our few water boards were working. The electricity where they were was reliable. Construction houses were not collapsing. In all the universities there was an aura of order and intellectual sanctuary. Public services worked and the government had access to the brightest African minds to recruit and retain.
It was an honor to work for the government because they offered the best package.
But, that was then. Things have changed, for the worse. Military governments destroyed that harmony and alienated many Africans from their leadership. Many left the mainland, and some swore never to work for the government.
During a series of workshops and seminars in Africa last year, I asked groups of students where they would like to work after graduation. At Universality of Nairobi, Kenya, none of the engineering students I spoke with showed any interest in working in public services.
At Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria, the brightest engineering students noted that utilities such as Nigeria’s PHCN (Public Electricity Corporation) and NITEL (Public Telecommunications Corporation) were last on their lists. From Uganda to Cameroon, Senegal to Botswana; government agencies are not attracting top African talent. These students do not see public services as places to develop their careers.
In short, the students thought that by working with the government, people will think that they are not good enough to compete for jobs in the private sector.
At a seminar in Benin, we made this observation to students: “Why do you complain when there is no light considering that the best among you are not interested in helping to provide that light?” They all smiled and said it wasn’t their problem. We gave a conference arguing that any sector that cannot recruit and retain the best in the land cannot compete.
It does not matter whether this sector is run by the government (many public services are still monopolized in Africa) or by the private sector. The point is that we cannot necessarily expect governments to provide us with the best service for electricity, water, etc. when the brightest people don’t get involved in those areas.
When they hire third-class graduates, they cannot provide first-class service. It is the same analogy where a school district asks a teacher to provide A students when the teacher is not of A grade quality. It is a vicious cycle and can only be broken by getting the right talents in the pipeline.
The best African technical graduates are employed by banks and multinational corporations (MNCs). The most ambitious and risk-taking few travel abroad. Those who make it abroad are generally above average; At least they pass the visa interviews. Under these conditions, monopolistic utilities have to plan with some graduates who may not be up to date.
Of course, this does not mean that everyone who works in public services is not brilliant; we are discussing averages here. We know of first-class graduates at these agencies, although we recognize that they may have been hired more than a decade ago.
Many of our public services are not managed efficiently and lack the dynamism that you will see in banking or multinationals. Bureaucracy is stifling with pay generally below average. To make matters worse, many African governments do not see the brain drain in utilities as a problem that they must find a solution to.
It is laughable when governments issue orders that public services in different African countries double their capacity. Nigerian governments have consistently missed targets on this annual ritual for over a decade. They promised to increase electrical capacity; They will be reviewed at the end of the year.
On rare occasions, they have little success because they brought in some foreign contractors. But when these expats are gone and there is time to maintain that capacity, you will notice in a few weeks that the system has broken. In good old Africa, when public services had the brightest stars of the universities, competing much better than banking, many nations had better electricity and water than today. Those talents will not only support the ability, but enhance it.
So how do you fix this problem?
It’s about knowledge and skill, the best tool of this century. To modernize and make public services work in Africa, it is time for African leaders to understand that the brain drain in the public is hurting everyone. They must find ways to bring talented Africans into public service to move our continent forward.
This can be done by revamping the system, paying competitively, developing merit-based processes, and ultimately trusting the best of ourselves to run our public services. Fixing Africa’s public services is perhaps one of the most important competitive weapons the continent can use to reverse the brain drain and accelerate economic development on the continent. It is time not to hand over the brightest talent to the private sector.