Monday, November 12, 2018

Building a Functional State in South Sudan

By John A. Akec
Political and economic literature is replete with books describing the causes and reasons behind states’ failure. ‘Failed states’ are polities that do not function properly, and hence are incapable of delivering stability and prosperity to their citizens. This is according to Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart, authors of a book entitled “Fixing Failed States: A framework for rebuilding a fractured world” (Oxford University Press, 2008).

According to the authors, the number of states in the world today that fall in this category range from 40 to 60 in total; and are home to 2 billion people, representing almost half of the population of the globe. Failed states, as described by Ghani and Lockhart, are “either sliding backward and teetering on the brink of implosion or have already collapsed”. What’s more, a state is said to have failed when “vicious networks of criminality, violence, and drugs feed on disenfranchised populations and uncontrolled territory.”

Unsurprisingly, many of us will rush to a conclusion that such a description fits South Sudan’s political and economic situation squarely, like a glove. May be. Yet I beg to differ with this characterization in some ways. South Sudan never had a state to speak of before 2011 so that we can truly describe as failed. What is true is that South Sudan is striving to build a functional state from scratch after half a century of devastating conflict with Sudan, and in the last 5 years with itself. It is not an easy task, and it is a goal being pursued with slow and varying degrees of success.

That being the case, one cannot entirely dismiss Ghani and Lockhart’s and other similar works as such as that of Acemoglu and Robinson (Why Nations Fail), Greg and Obasnjo et. al (Making Africa Work), David Landes (The Wealth and Poverty of the Nations), Osborne and Gaeble (Reinventing Government) etc., as irrelevant. In fact, these works have much to teach us about how a nascent nation like South Sudan can accelerate success in building a fully functioning state. They provide useful tips and clues.

At the very core of Ghani and Lockhart’s book is a framework within which success can be measured against 10 cardinal functions a state is expected to deliver on. In other words, the 10 functions of the state, if correctly understood by policy-makers, can serve as the barometers against which progress can be assessed.

These functions are as follows: rule of law which is concerned primarily with making rules that regulate how society operates, while  defining powers and limits of the state and citizens; monopoly on the the legitimate use of violence; full administrative control of all state’s territory; sound management of public finances to minimise corruption and create public value; investment in human capital necessary for economic growth and industrial development; creation of citizenship rights through developing and implementing social policy that gives citizen a stake and boost trust in government; provision of infrastructure services; creation of favorable conditions for development of markets and jobs creation; prudent management of public assets such as land, equipment, buildings, cultural heritages, and national capital such as rivers and forests; and last, but not least, effective and responsible public borrowing that allows the state to accelerate socio-economic development without losing its economic and decision to lenders.

What it takes to achieve each of the 10 functions of the state can be a whole article. Suffice to say that effective performance of the above functions by the state leads to synergies that create virtuous circle of mutually reinforcing decision processes and expand opportunities for the citizens. This is what Ghani and Lockhart describe as “sovereignty dividend.”

On the other hand, failure to deliver on some of the above functions leads to vicious cycle in which various centres of power compete over control of the state, the prevalence
 of multiple and contradictory decision processes that confuse government’s priorities, citizen loss of trust in their government, loss of legitimacy by institutions of governance, disenfranchisement of the citizens, and, in many cases, the eruption of violent conflict.

When this second scenario persists, it gives rise to “sovereignty gap.” This means the government of the country concerned is required to do more to reduce the sovereignty gap and increase the sovereignty dividend.

For South Sudan, we can agree that there is currently more “sovereignty gap” than “sovereignty dividend.” We should not lose hope, though. To be able to fulfill the 10 functions of the state as enumerated above, enabling conditions must to be created by our government.

These conditions include but not limited to reforming the civil service to raise its competence and capacity to design and implement policies, creation of institution for strategic and centralized planning, creation of a ministry for coordination of all the government, strengthening of the revenue authority to mobilise domestic revenues, and investing in education and skills training in order to raise nation’s scientific, technological, administrative, and managerial capacity.  Without these ingredients of success, nothing can really move forward.

Above all, our government must muster strong political will so as to take all such measures as would propel our country out of conflict, insecurity, and poverty, into the league of functioning states, among the world community of nations.  

The goal of building a fully functioning polity in South Sudan in one generation is a challenge pregnant with opportunity. It is an opportunity worth ceasing.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Wrestling at Heaven's Gate: The Challenge of Forging a Vision for Peaceful and Prosperous South Sudan

By John A. Akec

The importance of a vision in the life of a nation is as ancient as our planet earth. Visions have underpinned the rise and fall of great civilisations through out the recorded history of the world. Its mention goes back as far as the Bible time, where in the book of Proverb we read: “where there is no vision, people perish.” Other versions of the holy book put it more starkly: “when there is no vision, people cast off restraint.” What does this mean exactly?

One the one hand, and in the biblical context, lawlessness and sin reign supreme in societies and nations where divine guidance and the moral anchors, which Christianity and all other forms of organised religion strive to provide, are no longer central to what people do or not do. Sodom and Gomorrah were examples of visionless societies that abandoned all restraint, and have been recorded to serve as a warning on the terrible end that awaits similar societies. 

On the other hand, and in the political and secular context, governments, societies, and political parties of every stripe need “a vision of the end, and without a vision there is aimlessness and vast chaos” as once noted by the great American educational philosopher, Robert Maynard Hutchins.

And without any shred of doubt, any possibility of agreeing a comprehensive peace deal in South Sudan is a welcome news. After all, “bad peace is better than good war,” as Yiddish wisdom puts it. But we also need to be reminded that this famous Yiddish wisdom is not without critics who counter that “a bad peace is worst than war.” In our context, one can argue that any peace deal that has no vision of the ‘end result’, is bad peace. Specifically, for South Sudan at this moment in time, the end result should be a united, prosperous, and resilient nation.

Hence, while we applaud the current momentum towards an inclusive peace deal that has been jump-started by the signing of Khartoum Framework Agreement, the absence of clear pointers to state-building goals should be a cause for concern, lest the emerging peace deal eventually unravels like its predecessors. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the parties to the regionally backed peace talks to try their hardest in order to negotiate a peace settlement whose primary goal does not merely stop at the distribution of power, but that which must be based on a farsighted vision capable of propelling the country out of the vicious cycle of violence and socio-economic stagnation into spheres of sustainable peace, unity, security, and prosperity. In short, we need a peace deal that “will end all wars” in our country.  And here are some, not necessarily all, of the elements of such a vision.

First, the agreement should resolve that South Sudan must be governed by its constitution. Our Interim Constitution is a good document that must guide and inspire all that we do or not do. And if there are clauses in the constitution that hinder our progress towards building a prosperous and united country, then we should speedily amend them. And until the amended constitution is passed, our current constitution should be our reference point and the anchor on which all government, business, and civil society actions are based.

Second, we must recognise that stagnation and the lack of socio-economic development could be a cause of current and future wars. Citizens must be given stakes that will raise the opportunity costs of war and consolidate peace. In the last 4 years, our country experienced negative economic growth as indicated by an ever contracting GDP. Oil production has dropped from over 350,000 bpd in 2011 to under 120,000 bpd in 2018. We remain amongst the most oil dependent countries in the world. The contribution of tax to government budgets is insignificant We fought three disastrous wars since 2011. Our ability to provide services such as health and education has been affected negatively. Foreigners want to take over security of our citizens.

And as the late architect, Constance Adams, who worked in American space programmes once noted: “no nation in the history of the earth has failed to conduct great projects and remained significant.”  The Great Wall of China, Pyramids of Egypt, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and Ivor Tower in Paris, are all expressions of what peoples of those great nations are capable of dreaming up and achieving. Until now, we as a nation are yet to complete a single ambitious project that we can be proud of.

What is holding us back? One may ask. It is my view that we can only reverse our fortunes if we can look inward to identify the weaknesses in our systems; and then device strategies for overcoming them. Let me briefly outline some of these internal systemic weaknesses and possible strategic options for future success.

To begin with, by failing to raise enough taxes from our citizens to fund government’s budgets, our country is missing out of the benefits that come with dependence on tax revenues. Research shows that the benefits of depending on taxes for government revenues include strengthening of the institutions of fiscal governance, improved government transparency and accountability, and strengthening of nation’s bureaucratic capability.

Furthermore, as a country, we must recognise that we have been drinking from a poisoned well. That is, our oil dependent economy hinders our progress at many fronts. Economists have long found strong links between dependency on primary commodity for export earning and likelihood of civil wars. They argued that rents from extractive industries (oil and gas, diamonds, and timber) increase greed and attract the wrong kinds of people into politics. Researchers made their conclusions after studying underlying causes of 47 civil wars in resource-rich countries around the globe. Commenting on these stark findings, Tina Rosenberg of New York Times wrote: “Every nation wants to strike oil, and after it happens, nearly every nation is worse off for it.” Weaning ourselves from too much dependence on oil revenue could be the beginning of progress. The sooner, the better.

The question is how? Help is around the corner in terms of availability of models to emulate in order to escape the resource-curse. The same research that unearthed these dark findings also points to possible remedies and experiences of others such as Norway (locking oil revenue out of economy), Alaska (distribution of rents to all citizens and future investment accounts), Botswana (establishing cluster of institutions for protection of private property), and Rwanda (developmental state) are just few examples of countries that have succeeded to break loose of resource paradox by following certain strategic options. One radical strategic choice recommended by Mick Moore at the Institute of Development Studies at University of Sussex in England (and coauthor of an up coming text book: Taxing Africa: Coercion, Reforms, and Development), is for the resource-rich countries to distribute all revenues from primary commodity export to their citizens and then ask the citizens to pay percentages of that back in tax. He believes this can create a sense of commitment amongst citizens and strengthen accountability.

Moreover, our country needs to build its bureaucratic capability not only to be able to collect sufficient taxes but also to be able to manage external shocks more effectively as well as being able to turn our societal aspirations into actionable policies and projects. This can be achieved by reforming civil service so that only, and only the most capable and ethical amongst our citizens can be admitted into the public service, irrespective of the ethnic background or religious belief.

Finally, any future peace agreement should aim at reducing the transitional period to no more than 12 months. Why? Elections by and in themselves are part of democratic development in the life of a nation. Regular elections do much to exercise tolerance of citizens and the politicians to celebrate victory in humility, and accept electoral defeat in grace. Elections also provide the needed once-in-a-while opportunity for citizens to hold their government accountable and chose those who will rule the country on their behalf, and hence impart legitimacy and give strong mandate to elected government nationally and internationally.

Depending on how the above nation-building blocks are captured by the peace deal being negotiated, we will be wrestling at heaven’s gate. And wrestling for that goal we should.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Reorganising South Sudan’s Civil Service for Economic Recovery – A Personal Perspective (Part 1 of 2).

By John A. Akec

Konyo Konyo Market- Juba- South Sudan- Copy Right JA Akec 2017

A View from Periphery
A diplomat I met at a function in Juba recently confided that the challenge posed by current economic crisis to the stability of South Sudan far outweighs the threats posed by armed non-state actors. To overcome these challenges, he proposed that the government moves speedily to appoint competent civil servants and technocrats in key positions at government institutions to lead the reforms. That the government spells out a strategy for turning the economy around, follows transparency in reporting on revenues and spending, and eliminates the leakages of funds through misappropriation. That it should also consider incorporating in its action plans the technical advice of the IMF and World Bank on economic reforms. These measures will help to restore confidence in government’s commitment to reforms. That done with honesty and commitment, he believes the government will find willing development partners to contribute financial resources to help in implementation of the economic recovery plan. Failing that, the diplomat fears, South Sudan might have to brace for more political and social upheavals on the road ahead. And I could not agree more with these candid observations. And here are my reasons for agreeing.

What is the Matter with Our Civil Service?
Right from its inception in 2005, the Government of South Sudan has never had the kind of bureaucracy and the caliber of civil servants capable of developing policies and plans which it could translate into executable projects to realise national developmental goals.  There are competent civil servants in our public sector but they only form a small minority. This was because political patronage and politics of accommodation, as opposed to merit, dominated appointments of undersecretaries, directorships of government departments, independent commissions, county commissioners, and payam administrators. That result has been the gross mismanagement of public finances, impoverishment of the country, and subsequently the onset of political crisis and civil war in 2013.

Because of inability of our civil servants who run our public sector to conceive and execute development plans, all major cities including the capital Juba lack electricity from grid as well as other essential utilities such as running water, sewage system, public transit, and broadband internet connectivity of the sort enjoyed by our East African neighbours, among others. As a country, we are yet to establish credible health system capable of preventing death from many common treatable illnesses. Our public universities are underfunded and ill equipped to assist the nation in development of its human capital. No investment has occurred in technical and vocational training (TVET) system that can equip our youth with practical skills our economy needs to grow and diversify. What is more, financial markets necessary for moblising savings for business investment, physical capital accumulation, and access to credit by businesses and consumers have remained unregulated and underdeveloped. Land property rights that protect individuals and investors are not entrenched in our legal system. And above all, our nation is yet to establish efficient tax administration for revenue mobilisation, and a functioning pension fund to look after retiring public sector employees.

This state of affairs is in the main a by-product of ineffective public service that has excelled in extracting value for private gains as opposed to adding value for the common good; and thus, draining the country of its scarce resources. Left unchecked, our civil service far from being the bulwark of state-building, will remain the albatross on nation’s neck, and the Achilles heel that undermines our progress towards prosperity. And with the passing of time, an incapable civil service will pose existential threat to the South Sudanese state that we all cherish to thrive and prosper.

That is not to lay all the blame for the current economic and political stagnation at our civil service’s door. However, it cannot be emphasised strongly enough that without credible government bureaucracy in place that is run by competent civil servants, our government will struggle for a long time to come to deliver on promised prosperity; and the ongoing efforts to turn the economy around will hardly bear fruits.

And to be credible, one must acknowledge that the responsibility for instituting competent and effective institutions of governance ultimately lies with the political authority of our country; especially the office of the President, his deputies, advisors, and his cabinet ministers; as well as the states governors and their ministers. And without their buy-in and commitment, there can be no hope for reform of our civil service, and consequently there will be no hope for economic recovery anytime soon.  

Fixing the Problem: Management Sciences and Ethics to the Rescue
So what sort of civil service is competent enough to deliver on its mandate? The reader is bound to wonder. It is a sensible question to pose, although not too hard to address if there is political will. Anyone taking top civil service position must have proven expertise in the subject matter of the department or ministry they are leading. He or she must also have solid grasp of management sciences and public administration, as well as ICT and communications skills, analytical and financial skills, knowledge of project management, ability to monitor and evaluate projects and write excellent reports. A civil servant must have good appreciation of law in regards to the mandate of his or her department. He or she should be able to see the bigger picture, and can negotiate complex agreements. The civil servant worth his or her salt should be able to think strategically and lead by objective in order translate societal aspirations, as expressed by the government’s vision, into concrete realities on the ground. And above all, he or she must be ethical with impeccable integrity, and be of good moral character; to count but a few of essential attributes of a competent civil servant.

In India, for example, the brightest young graduates dream to land jobs as government’s civil servants (being one of the most coveted, respected, secure, and rewarded vacations in that great country). And the brightest Indian often live their dream by excelling in written selection tests, tough interview regimes, and surviving fierce competition against peers. In Britain, recruitment into civil service is through highly competitive written exams, with very few openings every year. Even young John Maynard Keynes with a BA first class in mathematics from Cambridge could not make it first time into a UK treasury job, as he was beaten by his Cambridge classmate. Keynes had to contend with alternative employment as a lowly statistics clerk in East India Company, before quitting to embark on building his illustrious academic career that later turned him into a world renown economist, with a school of thought after his name.

In their book Reinventing Government: How Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector [in America], David Osborne and Ted Gaebler tells how American cities were once run like personal fiefdoms by mayors who ditched out favors and jobs to immigrant leaders in exchange for securing immigrants bloc votes as well as diverting public funds for personal gains. However, starting from 1890s and for three decades that followed, the American statesmen such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Louis Brandeis waged war on the inefficient US’s public sector and replaced it with a bureaucracy led by civil servants who were recruited through competitive process involving written exams. And once recruited, civil servants climbed the career ladder through stringent promotion system. They were also legally insulated from unnecessary outside political interference, and protected from arbitrary dismissal.

And to attract the best and the brightest, top civil servants are highly remunerated, not only to motivate them but that none should be in want least they be tempted to misappropriate public funds. This puts a high cost to their prestigious career should anyone be found guilty of gross misconduct.

The above practice is almost the universally accepted mark of credible civil service. Short of that, one must call it something else. And something else is what describes South Sudan’s civil service. And the results are not good.

Bureaucracy Not a Panacea but a Necessary Evil in State-Building
Bureaucratic systems have been criticised for their inability to respond quickly to changing operating environments. However, bureaucracies and application of scientific management have served many countries in the West beginning with industrial revolution in 19th and 20th century, a period that saw phenomenal growth of large enterprises that were characterised by complex inter-relationships of people and machines. This forced the pioneers of scientific management such as Frederick Taylor (1856-1915) in the US to argue that well tried management techniques should be applied to solve organisational problems, as opposed to relying on personal experiences, and what Taylor described as ‘seat-of-the-pants’ judgments.

It is worth mentioning that bureaucracy as efficient way for organising a government is far from being a Western invention as one might be led to think. This is because the Chinese dynasties, beginning with Qin dynasty (221-205 BC), were run by a bureaucracy whose officials were a special elite who were versed in calligraphy and philosophy, and who were selected by competitive written exams. The Qin dynasty pioneering establishment of bureaucracy marked the beginning of imperial China and resulted in unprecedented period of uninterrupted stability that lasted for over two thousand years. There is no doubt that a key contributing factor to that stability was the competent bureaucracy that was set up by Qin dynasty.

But it was in the West where management theories and ideas on modern bureaucratic systems were developed in more systematic and scientific manner. The French industrialist, Henry Fayol (1841-1925), advanced the concept of universality of management principles and efficiency of specialization in carrying out tasks, the essence of authority and responsibility, and management hierarchy with its chains of commands. The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) complemented Fayol’s ideas and developed key innovations that underpin modern bureaucracy, as we know it today, by proposing the design of procedures to be followed closely by an official in order to improve the administrative efficiency, while eliminating the arbitrariness that is often associated with discretionary decision-making processes.

To begin the reform of our civil service, South Sudan can start by infusing the public sector with competent civil servants who will assist in designing more efficient state bureaucracy that will encompass all levels of the government (central, state, county, and payam). This will put an end to arbitrariness in decision-making and create goal-driven institutions that are capable of translating government visions and polices into concrete realities. Once established, and with passing of time, our bureaucracy can be gradually relaxed by injection with doses of entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility which are essential for any nation to thrive in the fast-phased twenty-first century global economy. This calls for an urgent action by political authority of our country if a speedy economic recovery is to be realised.

Part 2 of this article will look at other measures that will improve the capacity of civil service, as well as the institutional designs and arrangements that need to in place in order to enhance the ability of South Sudan to weather the storm of economic crisis, and bring about a speedy economic recovery.