This opinion piece was written by Gyude Moore, Liberia’s former Minister of Public Works and a Visiting Fellow for the Center for Global Development. For more like this, see our spotlight on public service leadership in Africa.
In 2006, at the end of almost two decades of civil and political strife, Liberia was a broken nation. Ethnic and sectarian tensions weakened the bonds that upheld our sense of a shared national identity.
Years of conflict had hollowed out the state, rendering the government incapable of performing core functions of protecting lives and property, delivering services to people and executing policy.
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Even before the war, Liberia’s physical infrastructure and government capacity were at low bases. This lack of physical infrastructure was equally matched by the weakness of public administration.
Public sector jobs formed a central part of the patronage system, exacerbating the progressive erosion of state competence during and after the civil war. In practice, this means that government was filled with many unqualified personnel, with political allegiances that stood in the way of national development ambitions.
When President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took office in 2006, it was clear that it would be impossible to rebuild the nation without first bringing about dramatic improvements in the quality of the country’s civil service.
The then-new President made this focus on improving the civil service a key part of her appeal to partners who were, understandably, focused on physical infrastructure. On a visit to Washington, President Sirleaf, received support from Ed Scott, Jr. the founder of Center for Global Development and the Scott Family Liberia Fellows program was born.
To help bring back my country from a sub-zero baseline to a steady state has to be my proudest moment
The Scott Fellows program recruited young professionals to support the government of Liberia as it recovered from the war. Specifically, it was designed to fill capacity gaps by placing fellows, with the right combination of technical and management skills, in critical areas of need across the government.
The program sought to give young, highly-skilled people a chance to address Liberia’s human capital deficit, especially as it related to the quality of public administration and governance. It lasted two years, and fellows were ultimately absorbed into the government at the end of their tenure.
Longing for opportunities to contribute to the country’s development, many Liberians living in the diaspora returned home to serve as fellows.
I was one of them.
As a school going child, I had heard of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and, as a teenager, became cognisant of the significance of what she had achieved as a woman in Liberian politics, which was essentially an all-male affair. Having read her speeches after the inauguration, I was drawn to the rebuilding project, and the Scott Fellows program provided me with an opportunity to make a contribution to the reconstruction of my country.
I arrived in Liberia in September 2009 and began as an aide in the Office of the President. I went on to become Deputy Chief of Staff and Head of the President’s Delivery Unit. In that capacity, I was one of the President’s principal aides in the response to the Ebola Virus outbreak. A lot was at stake; predictions suggested exponential increases in the number of people infected by the virus.
Supporting the President in galvanising and managing the international assistance to the crisis response was a challenging experience for me, and I am grateful for the privilege afforded to me to play a role in bringing the crisis under control.
In my next assignment as Minister of Public Works, I helped build physical infrastructure that increased access to markets and social services for people around the country. To have been a part of the effort to bring back my country from a sub-zero baseline to a steady state has to be the proudest moment of my life.
A few weeks ago, the World Bank launched its anticipated Human Capital Index, which measures the amount of human capital that a child born today can expect to attain by her 18th birthday. A country’s performance on this index is certainly a reflection of the quality of its investment and outcomes in education and health, and their effect on productivity.
Investments in infrastructure alone will not suffice — we’ll need investments in people
Liberia understandably ranks low on the HCI. Surely, underinvestment in critical sectors produces suboptimal outcomes in education and health which affect not only citizens’ quality of life and prospects, but also the capacity of the state to nurture the human resources needed for effective public management.
The resulting vicious cycle contributes significantly to poor economic growth and entrenched poverty in many low-income countries. African countries are clustered at the base of the HCI, and without material improvement in those numbers, the future looks bleak.
The HCI data should serve as a call to action: we need to direct more resources to these sectors that matter for people’s long term life outcomes. On a continent that expects to see 900 million people enter the workforce by 2050, an incapable state will only compound the challenges we face.
Investments in infrastructure alone will not suffice. We’ll need investments in people, valuable as an end in itself, and as a necessary condition for Africa’s social and economic transformation. The HCI is a compelling case for investment in the quality of the public sector in Africa, which has critical roles to play in delivering strong outcomes in these sectors that affect the well-being of citizens.
The Scott Fellows program gave me a chance to contribute to development progress, and I have remained on the public service path ever since, seeking new ways to improve the human condition in Africa.
Today, I am a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Development, conducting research and dissemination of ideas on financing infrastructure in fragile and low income states, the quality of governance and the role of China in Africa’s development. From my position in the public sector, I saw how a weak, incompetent and corrupt public sector hobbles private sector development, erodes service delivery and ultimately undermine the legitimacy of the state.
I know it is impossible to observe the counterfactual, but I am certain that my public service journey would not have been possible without the access, structure and learning opportunities provided by the fellowship.
Over the last 10 years the President’s Young Professional Program has provided young Liberians with public service fellowship opportunities similar to the kind I had. As Minister of Public Works, I witnessed their valuable contributions to our work, and I also had the chance to mentor and supervise them.
It gives me hope to see the Liberia model live on through Emerging Public Leaders, which has expanded the model to Ghana. Interestingly, even though Ghana and Liberia are at two different points on the development spectrum, the enduring need for quality public servants meant that the model is applicable in both places and other contexts in between.
As states address deficits in long-term investment in Human capital, it is my hope that they would also look to Liberia and Ghana for examples in developing youth leadership in the public sector to respond to these challenges. For African governments, this is especially important. — Gyude Moore
(Picture credit: Flickr/Ken Harper)