Managing COVID-19 response public resources with accountability in Africa

Members of Local Defence Unit (LDU) offload relief food during a distribution exercise to civilians affected by the lockdown, as part of measures to prevent the potential spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Kampala, Uganda April 4, 2020. REUTERS/Abubaker Lubowa
Editor's note:

Below is a governance viewpoint from the Foresight Africa 2022 report, which explores top priorities for the region in the coming year. Read the full chapter on Africa’s economic recovery.

Foresight Africa 2022Africa’s challenge with the COVID-19 pandemic goes beyond the health implications that have plagued the world, as the severe impact of the pandemic on global trade flows, investment opportunities, and commodity prices has also created unprecedented human and economic challenges.

While Africa might have the lowest relative incidence of COVID-19 among continents, there is a far more gory picture with the humanitarian disaster that has pervaded the crisis. It is the pandemic of mistrust and poor accountability that has governed use of domestic stimulus packages.

Throughout the pandemic, several entities—domestic and international—rallied to provide significant funding for Africa, which reached $51 billion in support over the last two years. However, evidence on how hurriedly distributed resources intended for COVID relief were abused for private gain litters Africa. For example, in Nigeria, a state lawmaker included palliatives in souvenir party packs. In Malawi, a minister was sacked due to corruption issues related to COVID-19 resources. While the pandemic should have deepened trust between the citizens and the government, it has widened the divide.

African countries cannot continue to create ad hoc mechanisms fit for emergencies; they need to institutionalize accountability across the entire public finance chain.

African countries cannot continue to create ad hoc mechanisms fit for emergencies; they need to institutionalize accountability across the entire public finance chain. This ties into my previous experience with the Nigerian government where I placed significant emphasis on procurement reform through the establishment of the Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit (Due Process Unit). Africa needs to revamp its procurement framework by adopting the unit’s Open Contracting Principles that liberalizes access to public spending in a transparent and inclusive manner.

In addition, African governments must embrace the agility that comes with technology in the delivery of its services. Running distribution schemes through human networks provides easy pathways to corruption. The continent of young people needs to accelerate civic-tech, through empowerment of young individuals with ideas in using machine learning, creative design, artificial intelligence, and other technologies to improve efficiency and ensure delivery.

The challenge of seeking more funds without commensurate accountability is that it further distorts the relationship between the citizen and state, leaving the people without expectations, thereby leading to a perpetual state of apathy on the side of the citizens. The pandemic represents a period for African governments to rebuild trust and reaffirm the social contract. It needs to make haste to truly ensure that resources in these unprecedented periods optimally work for the people.