This year's African Union (AU) January summit, appropriately themed around the potential of the continent’s youth, sought to position the continental body to meet the challenges of the coming decades – an era during which the continent, having fallen behind its global peers, is pursuing a decisive developmental breakthrough.
A laudable aspiration, certainly, but one that the AU and its predecessor have long espoused. Is Africa poised to make its transition, or is this yet another false start?
The trajectory that Africa hopes to follow is set out in two initiatives. The first is Agenda 2063, the AU’s blueprint for revolutionising Africa’s political and socio-economic circumstances. Within 50 years, it envisages the continent as democratic, prosperous and peaceful, and its people as healthy, well-educated and economically productive.
The second is the Sustainable Development Goals, an initiative of the United Nations. The goals aim to provide minimum living standards for all – in nutrition, education, healthcare, environmental protection and so on – by 2030.
These are vast, ambitious visions. But putting them into action demands that governments and, increasingly, regional and continental bodies design and implement effective policies. These measures must be analysed and evaluated, weaknesses identified, errors corrected and successes replicated. It is imperative to understand what in Africa’s developmental journey is working, and what is not.
For this reason, the AU’s decision to assign monitoring and evaluation responsibilities of these initiatives to the continent’s homegrown governance evaluation system – the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) – is to be welcomed.
The APRM, founded in 2003 as an offshoot of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, was explicitly intended to address Africa’s governance deficiencies. It aimed to encourage policies and governance practices that ‘lead to political stability, high economic growth, sustainable development and accelerated sub regional and continental economic integration’.
To this end, reviews of participating countries’ governance would be held, blending participatory domestic review processes and country review missions composed of experts from across the continent. The findings would be recorded in 'country review reports' and then be discussed at high-level forums of heads of state of the participating countries. Mutual assistance and peer learning in dealing with problems would be encouraged, while those countries that refused to address their shortcomings would be disciplined by their peers.
Conceptually, the APRM is well placed to act as a monitoring agency for Africa’s progress under Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals. It has established valuable expertise in governance evaluation, having completed reviews and published reviews on 17 countries so far. (A further four countries were reviewed in January and their reviews are expected shortly).
These reports have been highly regarded, and commended (generally) for dealing with sensitive issues forthrightly. The APRM has an established infrastructure which could be applied to these tasks, and is suited for the long-term monitoring that Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals demand. Over half of the AU’s member states (accounting for over three-quarters of its population) have joined the APRM.
More importantly, like Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals, the APRM is a process focused on governance and development. It shares their ideological assumption. They seek not only generic 'development', but development that benefits ordinary people, opening up their life possibilities and giving them agency regarding their own fate. They demand democracy, inclusion, accountability and the rule of law.
Not just a governance abacus, the APRM is designed as a governance activist.
Furthermore, the APRM is enjoined to promote peer learning. How well it has done so over is lifespan is unclear, but officials within the APRM system argue that it is indeed happening, albeit often out of public view. For example, Algeria has reportedly offered help to Uganda in developing its hydrocarbons sector. This has great potential for the Sustainable Development Goals in particular, where countries with similar conditions are similar problems.
However, challenges abound. Measuring progress in the developmental objectives will require new data gathering strategies – the APRM will need to gather and analyse information far more rapidly and frequently than has thus far been the case. Its mandate has become altogether more extensive, and it remains to be seen how it is executed.
Critics of the APRM can point to a list of failings. Reports of financial and administrative weaknesses over the years have made for disturbing reading – something that the APRM’s expanded mandate cannot afford and will need to address.
Indeed, the APRM is only now moving out of an extended period of near-paralysis. While Chad, Djibouti and Senegal – and Kenya for the second time – were reviewed at the APRM Forum on the margins of last month’s AU summit, these are the first to have been done since January 2013 – a lapse of nearly four full years.
Much of this has been due to indifference by many of the participating governments. Perhaps most notably, many have been remiss in paying their annual subscriptions. Meetings of the forum are poorly attended by the participating countries’ leaders.
But African civil society, activist groups and intellectual bodies must share some of the blame. Few African initiatives have offered the possibility for participation and impact on policy conversation quite to the degree that the APRM has, but the will to exploit it has sometimes been found wanting.
Good governance will not be provided unless it is demanded.
Placing the APRM into the heart of Africa’s developmental plans thus represents a major opportunity. It demands rejuvenation, certainly. It has not lived up to the hopes that it may have inspired at its founding. But it can point to a solid institutional design, and a brand identity signifying good governance.
An imperfect tool it may be, but one to be improved, and the best one that the continent possesses for seizing this once-in-a-generation chance.
Written by Terence Corrigan, a governance consultant and Research Fellow at the Governance and APRM Programme at the South Africa Institute of International Affairs; and Steven Gruzd, Programme Head. This article was first published with AllAfrica.com