Africa: ‘Empowerment’ by imposition

By focusing on 'capacity-building' and 'empowerment', international institutions seek to evade responsibility for their continued domination over African affairs.

David Chandler

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The British government has made ‘saving Africa’ a key focus of its foreign policy over the past few years, highlighted by UK prime minister Tony Blair’s establishment and chairing of the Commission for Africa in 2004, and the government’s use of its presidency of both the G8 and the European Union to champion the cause of Africa’s development.

Focusing on Africa has been a good move for the UK government, mired in its foreign policy support for US president George W Bush’s war against and occupation of Iraq. Here is an issue where it appears that the UK is taking a lead, an issue which, because of its wide-ranging goals promising a reshaping of the West’s relationship with Africa and support for African-led aspirations, has met with a consensus of support and even an element of popular enthusiasm – as manifested in the audience for the Live 8 concerts and support for the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign, with an estimated 10 million white wristbands being sold in the UK alone.

So what lies behind the UK government’s desire to focus on the ‘empowerment’ of Africa, and similar policies being promoted through the US Millennium Challenge Account, United Nations Millennium Development Goals and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) ‘country-owned’ poverty reduction strategies? UK chancellor Gordon Brown argues that: ‘A century ago people talked of “What we could do to Africa”. Last century, it was “What can we do for Africa?”. Now, in 2006, we must ask what the developing world, empowered, can do for itself.’ (1)

While much of the headline-grabbing attention has been on the promises of additional international funding to support African states’ provision of essential services, such as health and educational support, and in mechanisms for managing debt relief and trade reforms, it is the stress on ‘empowerment’ that has become increasingly the central thrust of international policy. Empowering Africa may sound nicer than the West asserting its power and self-interest in the continent, but it is important to consider what the West’s empowerment of Africa actually means in practice and how the mechanisms of empowerment work.

The discussion of Africa’s empowerment has enabled Western powers to achieve two aims: firstly, to legitimise new much more interventionist forms of external regulation, designed to support governance reforms ensuring the Western direction of state policy programmes; and, secondly, to deny the power and influence of Western actors, who have sought both to evade responsibility for Africa’s growing marginalisation in the world economy and to argue that there is little that can be done to alter the material inequalities that condemn Africa to its subordinate status.

African ‘capacity’

The Western desire to reorganise the relationship between international institutions and the African state and, in doing so, to downplay Western domination over the region, lies at the heart of the empowerment agenda. As Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa report, Our Common Interest, states: ‘Africa’s history over the last fifty years has been blighted by two areas of weakness. These have been capacity – the ability to design and deliver policies; and accountability – how well a state answers to its people. Improvements in both are first and foremost the responsibility of African countries and people. But action by rich nations is essential too…. Without progress in governance, all other reforms will have limited impact.’ (2)

The UN 2005 Sachs report on the implementation of the UN Millennium Development Goals similarly argued that poor governance in African states and the lack of state capacity were the key reasons for ongoing problems in meeting the goals, and suggested greater attention to capacity-building and empowering state institutions in the region (3). International involvement in ‘capacity-building’ and ‘empowering’ both the African state and its peoples therefore builds on the frameworks of external regulation of governing institutions on the basis of new allocations of aid given to those African countries which have been assisted in line with the ‘Monterrey Consensus’, elaborated in 2002 at the International Conference on Financing for Development, held in Monterrey, Mexico.

In exchange for African countries allowing international involvement to shape new state mechanisms of good governance and new national development strategies, the developed countries have pledged to provide greater levels of support in terms of development assistance, trade reform and debt relief (4). These international partnerships have operated in the international mechanisms of African empowerment under the UN Millennium Development Goals, the US Millennium Challenge Account, the Highly Indebted Poor Country initiatives and the World Bank and IMF Poverty Reduction Strategy mechanisms. As the UN notes:

‘However well crafted on paper, investment strategies to achieve the Millennium Development Goals will not work in practice unless supported by states with transparent, accountable systems of governance, grounded in the rule of law, encompassing civil and political as well as economic and social rights, and underpinned by accountable and efficient public administration. Many of the poorest countries will need major capacity-building investments to put in place and maintain the necessary infrastructure and to train and employ qualified personnel. But without good governance, strong institutions and a clear commitment to rooting out corruption and mismanagement wherever it is found, broader progress will prove elusive.’ (5)

Partnerships, with the goal of good governance and the empowerment and capacity-building of African states, are the framework through which international mechanisms of regulation are reframed to deny the assertion of Western domination over the continent. In this framework, it is assumed that there are no political ‘interests’ involved, in the case of either Western states, donors and institutions, or non-Western states. The Commission for Africa calls for ‘a new kind of partnership’, one that is no longer based on conflicting interests but technocratic management: ‘In the past, contractual and conditional approaches were tried, and failed. What we are suggesting is a new kind of development, based on mutual respect and solidarity, and rooted in a sound analysis of what actually works.’(6)

In this regard, it is often held that ‘Donors must change their behaviour and support the national priorities of African governments rather than allowing their own procedures and special enthusiasms to undermine the building of a country’s own capacity.’ (7) New approaches to good governance are held to stand ‘in marked contrast to the approach of the 1980s and much of the 1990s, when aid was often…aimed primarily at advancing the interests of the donor.’ (8)

Aid was often ‘tied’, coming with a requirement to buy goods or services from the donor country, which often led to aid being expended on unsuitable or high cost outlays. (9) As UK Secretary of State for International Development Hilary Benn stated in 2005, the key concern of the UK government was to ‘make a clean break from past practice which sought to enforce particular policy choices.’(10) The UK Department for International Development has particularly emphasised the importance of intervention to ‘support policy leadership by developing countries without imposing our own views’ (11):

‘In recent years the UK has been moving away from traditional approaches to conditionality. We believe that it is inappropriate and has proven to be ineffective for donors to impose policies on developing countries. Instead, we believe that successful aid relationships must be based on mutual commitment and dialogue, transparency and accountability.’ (12)

Country ownership

The Monterrey summit and subsequent UN documents have been very quick to highlight that ‘each developing country has primary responsibility for its own development ’ (13). ‘Country ownership’ has been central to post-1990s calls for policy interventions with the goal of Africa’s empowerment. As the Commission for Africa report claims in its introduction:

‘Our starting point was the recognition that Africa must drive its own development. Rich nations should support that, because it is in our common interest to make the world a more prosperous and secure place…. But what is clear is that if Africa does not create the right conditions for development, then any amount of outside support will fail.’ (14)

The US aid and development policies operate on a similar basis. The key principle of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), established in 2004, is that of partnership, which is heralded as one of the lessons learned from development aid over the past 50 years:

‘Operate as Partners: Working closely with the MCC [Millennium Challenge Corporation], countries that receive MCA assistance will be responsible for identifying the greatest barriers to their own development, ensuring civil society participation, and developing an MCA program. MCA participation will require a high-level commitment from the host government. Each MCA country will enter into a public Compact with the MCC that includes a multi-year plan for achieving development objectives and identifies the responsibilities of each partner in achieving those objectives.’ (15)

In the past, the relationship of external donors and non-Western states was a contractual one between two or more ‘partners’. Contractual relations at the level of state governments made the lending and grant conditions the subject of international relations: in other words, they were officially negotiated between independent contracting subjects. This clarity and separation of international and domestic accountability has become increasingly blurred. Graham Harrison has used the term ‘post-conditionality’ to describe this blurring of the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside’:

‘…post-conditionality [is] one aspect of the politics of adjustment, a more encompassing framework which is based on the ongoing power of the IFIs [international financial institutions] by virtue of the “permanent crisis” of indebtedness…post-conditionality is…a useful characterization of a set of significant developments within donor-state relations, based on…forms of donor intervention which are not merely based on the threat of sanction which is at the heart of the conditionality mechanism.’ (16)

Overt and clearly stated contractual relations between non-Western states and Western states and international institutions, such as those under the World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programmes, open the relationship to political accountability, bringing responsibility to bear on both the non-Western government and the bilateral or international donor. The Commission for Africa argues that:

‘We do not advocate a partnership where there is a narrow set of specific contracts between African countries and outside bodies. That risks becoming adversarial and unpredictable and does not show the trust and mutual respect which is vital for a deep partnership to work. Similarly a partnership based on heavy conditionality set by outsiders will fail. It too is destined to lose the solidarity which should bind a partnership together. The binding forces must be solidarity and mutual respect.’ (17)

Here, the informal mechanisms of post-conditionality are argued for on the grounds of trust and respect for the African partners, but the commission’s report also suggests other grounds for avoiding the formal contractual relationship – the fact that ‘excessive conditionality together with demands for constant reporting risk making African governments feel more accountable to foreign donors than to their own people’ (18).

If African governments ‘felt’ that they were more accountable to external actors and were highly conscious of their limited capacity to further the interests of their societies against these external pressures, this was because the mechanisms of external pressure were clear. Under more informal mechanisms, where external pressures operate within the policy-making processes of the non-Western state, rather than at the level of sovereignty – where governments have to publicly confront external actors – political clarification of the role of external influence is prevented.

Denying responsibility

External intervention is exercised in ways that blur traditional understandings of external and internal interests. Donor engagement no longer confronts non-Western states solely as an external imposition but as internal capacity-building and empowerment, through a much closer and more intimate engagement with governing institutions, especially finance ministries. Harrison acutely observes that the orthodox internal-external distinctions are less useful and that the ‘national-international boundary has been rendered so much more porous’ (19).

The extension of the ‘non-political’ technocratic regulatory controls of the World Bank to the fields of good governance, empowerment and state capacity-building has meant the depoliticising of, and external regulatory intervention in, areas once considered to be the preserve of domestic regimes. The shift from government to governance, from policy-making as an internal process to an internationalised process, has gone along with externally driven empowerment initiatives. External regimes of governance have become internalised through state capacity-building in conjunction with debt reduction or increases in external aid in exchange for a more direct role for external actors in domestic policy processes.

For example, in July 2005, the Paris Club of rich Western countries announced the biggest single debt relief in Africa’s history with a plan to exchange Nigeria’s foreign debt for the international regulation of its government’s spending. Central to this was the establishment of a key policy coordination role for Nigeria’s Millennium Development Committee. The committee, chaired by the president, Olusegun Obasanjo, internationalised the domestic policy-making process in Nigeria by including representatives of the World Bank and IMF along with representatives from international NGOs Action Aid and Oxfam (20).

In the case of international development, the empowerment of the African state has often been focused on Finance Ministries. In both Uganda and Tanzania, for example, the Finance Ministry has received a lion’s share of external funding for administrative reform programmes which have focused both on ‘soft’ capacities, such as the administrative and technical skills training of personnel, and ‘hard’ capacities, such as information systems and technologies. This external support has enabled the Finance Ministry to become the most powerful sector of government, in terms of capacity and influence (the Interior Ministries, in contrast, lack computerised systems and access to reliable information) (21).

It is the sectors of government that have been subject to capacity-building that are, then, the main conduits for external influence, leading the negotiations with the international financial institutions and being the authorising authorities for all project and programme funding, regardless of the policy sector involved.

Harrison argued that the process of empowerment and capacity-building goes beyond the restructuring of government ministries to direct regulatory control over the policy-making process itself:

‘In fact, rather than conceptualising donor power as a strong external force on the state, it would be more useful to conceive of donors as part of the state itself. This is not just because so much of the budgeting process is contingent on the receipt of donor finance, but also because of the way programmes and even specific policies are designed and executed… [D]onor sub-groups meet [with government officials] every fortnight or every month…; there is a group for each major industry which receives donor funding…the purposes of which are to discuss policy progress, monitor the disbursement of funds, and consider further funding options. These meetings have become a routine part of the way the government works….’ (22)

In this context, it is difficult to conceive of the institutions of many African states as having a ‘domestic’ existence. The civil service is increasingly trained and assisted by external agencies and produces reports not just for government ministers but also for external donors and international institutions and foreign states. The government ministries develop policy in close cooperation with external bodies and often with the policy aim of influencing these authorities to continue or to extend their assistance. The institutions and mechanisms of governance of African states are often no longer separable from the international mechanisms of governance with which they are engaged.

As Harrison notes, the focus on good governance, empowerment and African state capacity as the key to development ‘lays culpability for the general failure of adjustment on the states themselves, not on SAP [Structural Adjustment Programmes], or the nature of global economic change.’ (23) Western governments and international institutions then have little responsibility for political decision-making or accountability for outcomes – the everyday management of foreign policy and foreign development aid becomes a task of bureaucrats and administrative experts. And, if they fail, this does not reflect on the Western states and institutions involved.

As Michael Ignatieff and colleagues argue: ‘States cannot be made to work from the outside. International assistance may be necessary, but it is never sufficient to establish institutions that are legitimate and sustainable…international action should be seen first and foremost as facilitating local processes, providing resources and creating the space for local actors….’ (24)

For these authors the ‘key insight is that states cannot be made to work from the outside’ and they stress that ‘for international actors, this is a humbling conclusion’ which puts the emphasis on the local actors who must ‘seize responsibility – “ownership” in the present jargon’ (25). The emphasis is on African states to bear the accountability in the case of their failure to live up to the ambitious ethical claims made by Western states and international institutions.


Far from Western powers and institutions projecting a confident transformative project, the assertion of external power is held to be merely one of facilitating, empowering, and capacity-building African states. The projection of Western power takes the form of a non-political discourse where political interests are held to be subservient to the technical expertise of administration.

Most importantly, the desire to deny Western influence and agency means that non-Western state institutions are increasingly colonised by external policy actors as international institutions seek to informalise their role in policy-making. This creates artificial state institutions which have a much more attenuated relationship with their own societies but also little influence with regard to policy negotiations with external actors. The close liaison between international institutions and international NGOs and leading government ministries has been driven by the informalisation of the regulatory process and the desire to avoid an open intergovernmental discussion of economic policy.

It is this desire for evasion that would appear to be driving the shift from international to domestic discussion and the focus on empowerment and state capacity, rather than any shift in the content of the policies or any desire to open up policymaking to wider consultation and involvement.

Despite the rhetoric of ‘country ownership’ there has been little change in the basic policy approach of international institutions, or, of course, in the power relations involved. All national Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) must first be screened by joint-staff assessments from the staff of the World Bank and IMF. The approval of PRSPs is the fundamental condition for securing credit extensions, grants and debt relief, from other donors as well as new credits under the IMF’s Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility – the successor to the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility – and the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction Support Credits (26).

It would appear that the empowerment and state capacity-building impetus stems from the need to present the process as one of partnership or African state ‘leadership’ and ‘country ownership’ rather than Western imposition.

The shift from the projection of Western influence as a coercive external relation to a relationship of domestic partnership removes the emphasis on external accountability for policy and its outcomes. This has made the empowering practices of African state-building the central sphere of intervention for Western assertions of international policy purpose or mission, and in the course of this process, both the foreign policy-making of Western states and the political sphere of non-Western states have been increasingly reduced to narrow technocratic and administrative concerns. The governance sphere of non-Western states is both the target for Western interventions and the excuse for their rhetoric not being matched by reality.

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. His latest book is Peace without Politics: Ten Years of International State-Building in Bosnia (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). His next book, Empire in Denial: the Politics of State-Building will be published by Pluto later this year.

(1) Our final goal must be to offer a global new deal, Guardian, 11 January 2006

(2) Commission for Africa, Our Common Interest, 11 March 2005, p.14

(3) UN Millennium Project, Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals, 2005, p.43

(4) Report of the UN Secretary-General, In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All, 2005, p.12

(5) In Larger Freedom, p.13

(6) Our Common Interest, p.17

(7) Our Common Interest, p.14

(8) Our Common Interest, p.94

(9) Our Common Interest, p.92

(10) Hilary Benn, The Review of World Bank Conditionality: Statement by the Secretary of State for International Development, p.1

(11) Department for International Development, Partnerships for Poverty Reduction: Rethinking Conditionality: A UK Policy Paper, March 2005, p.iii

(12) Partnerships for Poverty Reduction, p.4

(13) For example, In Larger Freedom, p.12

(14) Our Common Interest, p.1

(15) The Millennium Challenge Account

(16) Graham Harrison, ‘Post-Conditionality Politics and Administrative Reform: Reflections on the Cases of Uganda and Tanzania’, Development and Change, Vol.32, No.4, (2001), pp.634-665, p.658

(17) Our Common Interest, p.89

(18) Our Common Interest, p.92

(19) Harrison, ‘Post-Conditionality Politics’, p.661

(20) Biggest African Debt Rescue Saves Nigeria £17.3bn, Guardian, 1 July 2005

(21) Harrison, ‘Post-Conditionality Politics’, pp.664-6

(22) Harrison, ‘Post-Conditionality Politics’, p.669

(23) Harrison, ‘Post-Conditionality Politics’, p.660

(24) Simon Chesterman, Michael Ignatieff and Ramesh Thakur, ‘Conclusion: The Future of State-Building’, in Chesterman, Ignatieff and Thakur (eds) Making States Work: State Failure and the Crisis of Governance (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2005), p.384

(25) Chesterman, Ignatieff and Thakur, ‘Introduction: Making States Work’, in Chesterman et al (eds) Making States Work, p.9

(26) Rick Rowden and Jane Ocaya Irama, Rethinking Participation: Questions for Civil Society about the Limits of Participation in PRSPs, Action Aid USA/ Action Aid Uganda Discussion Paper, Washington, D.C., April 2004, pp.7-12

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