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Rethinking leadership for development - with Tony Blair

Time (GMT +01) 10:00 11:00
Hero image description: Alison Evans and Tony Blair Image license:Creative Commons

Tony Blair

Alison Evans
- Director, ODI

At this fourth and final meeting in the ODI series on ‘Busan and Beyond: Aid Effectiveness in a New Era’, Tony Blair, in his capacity as Patron of the Africa Governance Initiative, was joined by a high-level audience to discuss leadership, aid effectiveness and development.

ODI Director, Alison Evans, opened the meeting with a reminder that that the future of aid in development is uncertain. Pointing to the greater diversity amongst developing countries, many of whom are now growing fast and accessing new sources of finance, and the international community’s mixed record in supporting and respecting Paris Declaration principles, she argued that the long-term future of aid in its current form is not only untenable but, in many ways, less desirable. The time is therefore ripe to reconsider the aid effectiveness agenda in general, and country ownership in particular. In welcoming Tony Blair to the meeting, Alison noted that he is uniquely placed to reflect on these issues.

Tony Blair
outlined what he believes to be the central issues in the aid effectiveness debate in the run up to Busan. He made four main points.

1.     Aid works. Millions of lives have been saved as a result of relief and vaccination programmes. But the ultimate purpose of aid is to help governments to use aid to end aid, and the main challenge for the development community is to provide support in such a way that it enables African governments to be effective. This is the idea behind the creation of the Africa Governance Initiative.

2.    Democracy is a sign of progress in Africa, but governance is not simply an evaluation of transparency and accountability; it is also about effectiveness and the capability to get things done. For all leaders, the tough part is not wanting to do the right thing, or knowing what it is, but doing of it. The challenge is less about the ‘what’ than the ‘how’. This is where African leaders need most support.

3.    A new model of capacity building is needed
. For the Africa Governance Initiative, building the capacity of African leaders and governments requires helping committed leaders’ to prioritise and deliver on their promises. First, this means helping leaders to focus their attention on a small number of credible priorities – no more than five significant goals can be successfully delivered in a single electoral term. Second, this means strengthening central ministries so that they can deliver the executive’s priorities.

4.    Resources alone cannot deliver results in the absence of either political will or government capacity, however. Leadership is the change-maker. It is not possible to build capacity in a country without proper leadership but, once you have it, you can achieve many things.

In conclusion, Tony Blair said that building the effective government capacity to get things done needs to be at the heart of the aid effectiveness agenda. He suggested that conditions in Africa today are qualitatively different than they were 10-15 years ago, and they this gives cause for optimism that development assistance can be used to support the emergence of capable leaders and governments. He emphasised two changes in particular:

    1.     There is a new generation of African leaders, in politics, business and civic society, who are anxious to take the destiny of their own country in their own hands. In Africa today there is the same spirit of possibility, determination, self-reliance and pragmatism that was found in India 15 years ago. 

    2.    Second, there is a new generation of entrepreneurs. Africa’s economy is moving ahead at great speed and with innovation and technology, African economies can move ahead rapidly. If natural resources can be effectively exploited, there is no sensible reason why African countries cannot create a tax base and sustainable domestic revenue.

The Chair began the discussion, before opening the floor to questions.

Alison Evans, ODI:
How do we convince a sceptical public that aid can be used to build institutions and strengthen governance in order to reduce aid dependency?

Tony Blair
: Governance does not have the emotional impact that, say, famine relief does, and so it can be difficult to build an effective public message. But it is possible when you have concrete stories of how building capacity in the right way, and sometimes in a small area, can have a far-reaching impact.

Alison Evans, ODI
: How does the work of the Africa Governance Initiative to support individual leaders relate to the wider agenda of building cultures of leadership that can ride out the electoral cycle?

Tony Blair
: Without a strong centre, nothing gets done. Whether what the centre is doing is right or wrong is another matter. The best way to build a strong centre is to build leadership. The best way for this to survive the electoral cycle is to show that leadership can work. Democracy becomes rooted when it is shown that something happens and gets done when you elect a government.

Nick Gowing, ODI Council
: Do you think that empowerment through social media is shortening the timelines for delivery and putting pressure on those in power?

Tony Blair:
Empowerment through social media is a good thing but it is not just about public demand; it also requires leaders who can interact with people and explain what they are doing. This is why prioritisation is important. I tell leaders that they should tell the public three things that they will do, and then do them. That is what I learnt to do in office. However, the role of a leader is not only to respond but also to challenge.

David Booth, Africa Power and Politics Programme, ODI
: Given that most African leaders are working within dysfunctional political systems that encourage short-term policy horizons and undermine the emergence of the type of leadership you have been talking about, should we be more concerned with getting the right type of system than with its capacity?

Tony Blair
: As some Latin American examples show, it is possible to change dysfunctional political systems but it requires leaders who have real imagination and are prepared to take the risk that the electorate will support their long-term vision.

Malcolm Bruce MP, ODI Council
: How do you deal with countries, such as Rwanda or Ethiopia, that are delivering but have limited political space? And do you engage at all with countries, such as the DRC, that have neither?

Tony Blair
: The question of the balance between stability and basic principles is difficult. My position is that, if there are strong results, I am prepared to accept that a process of transition is necessary. But there does need to be a transition in the end. The key point is whether a leader can evolve their system. In the case of Ethiopia and Rwanda, my judgement is that they can and they will. The DRC is a classic example of the need to focus on a few priorities, but it may be important to focus on slightly different things, for example, ensuring that the military and civil police are able to impose law and order and create the basic security needed for development.

Hugh Bayley MP, APGOOD and ODI Council
: Given that in many countries the strength of the executive is as much a curse as a blessing, and that parliaments are essential for providing checks and balances and growing future presidents, to what extent would you work out from the president’s office and improve governance within parliament?

Tony Blair
: Clear leadership matters but it obviously depends what a leader is trying to do. And, of course, a strong parliament and central ministries are also important to the political evolution of a country. My key point is that I learnt that, unless there is someone at the top with a vision and a strategy to drive it, then nothing much gets done – and this lesson of government is broadly applicable to other countries.

Larry Elliot, ODI Council
: What can be done about the paradox that, at a time when aid is more effective than ever, the global economic crisis is likely to mean there is less support for it?

Tony Blair
: There is a paradox and, whilst the dead aid thesis is wrong, some of what is said is understandable. This is why it is important to demonstrate that the aid community is still thinking, innovating and evolving. It is important to show that we recognise our faults, and these are being addressed, but that there are also achievements that need to be recognised. As with the welfare debate in the 1980s and 1990s, it is important to take on board criticism in order to switch to the front foot.

Mark Robinson, DFID
: In the past, reformist governments coming out of political transition have found it difficult to sustain reforms beyond 10-15 years. What leads you to believe that reforms can be sustained and deepened now?

Tony Blair
: The potential for private sector development is different now. China is going to grow and it needs resources that Africa has and so it will invest in Africa. The potential now exists for government to create a domestic revenue base and reduce their dependence on aid. And democracy can only take root when there is economic dividend to it. There is also a new generation in Africa that are talking about how to get things done in the future rather than focusing on the narrative of the past.

Barbara Frost, WaterAid
: How do we generate the political will and capacity needed to deliver basic sanitation?

Tony Blair
: For this you need basic infrastructure and I would probably begin with the main urban centres. A huge difference can be made when there is a commitment to infrastructure. I am alive to the issues with Chinese aid, but they are building infrastructure in Africa and this is an area where we can cooperate. A big topic for Busan should be looking at how to aid can support infrastructure differently because, if the basic infrastructure is in place, then everything else becomes a lot easier. We can showcase in Busan that as the world is moving, the aid community is also moving.


At this event, Tony Blair - patron of the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) - delivered a speech on leadership and international development. Drawing on his time as Prime Minister and more recently, the work of the Africa Governance Initiative, Tony Blair gave his reflections on the visionary African leaders who are tackling poverty by transforming government, and what the international community needs to do differently to support them.

ODI Director Alison Evans led a discussion with Tony Blair and a high level audience from the development community on the best way to support country ownership, effective leadership and ensure aid effectiveness. This event provided an important contribution to the forthcoming High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, Korea.