Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

Public Sector Reforms in Africa: Retrospect and Prospect

22-24 August 2007, Zomba, Malawi

Number of visits: 3124

The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) invites
abstracts and proposals for paper presentation at an international conference it is organising
on the theme of Public Sector Reforms in Africa: Retrospect and Prospect. The conference
is being convened in the context of the Council’s current commitment to promoting a critical
re-thinking of all aspects of socio-economic development in Africa; it is also organised to
honour the memory of one of the continent’s most distinguished development thinkers and
former member of the CODESRIA Executive Committee, the late Professor Guy Mhone. The
conference will be held in the Malawian university town of Zomba from 22 to 24 August,

The reform of the African public sector has been a long-standing item on the agenda of socioeconomic
and political reform on the continent. In the early 1980s when structural adjustment
programmes began to take hold, the public sector, as perhaps the most visible face of the
interventionist state, was consciously targeted for attack by the International Monetary Fund
(IMF) and the World Bank. It was considered as overbloated, inefficient, and distortionary,
the fulcrum around which “neo-patrimonial” and “clientelist” relations of various kinds were
organised and the source of the deficit-spending that fuelled inflation. For these reasons, it
was thought inconceivable that the economies of African countries could ever be structurally
adjusted without a radical rationalisation of the public sector in terms of its role, modus
operandi and mandate. The approach encouraged by the Bretton Woods institutions to the
reform of the sector entailed an admixture of commercialisation, privatisation and liquidation
exercises carried out in different phases. Attention was also paid to the reform of the civil
service in most countries, this taking the form of large-scale worker retrenchments in what
was initially described as “down-sizing” and later renamed “right-sizing”.

In subsequent years, specialised agencies were carved out of the public sector from among
institutions that could not be privatised or liquidated for one reason or the other. This process
of “agencification” of government resulted in the removal of some of the key parastatals, such
as the revenue and tax offices, from the mainstream of the public service and their
establishment as autonomous institutions with their own structure of incentives.
“Agencification” was accompanied with the encouragement of the outsourcing of other civil
service functions to private sector providers, and the application of market principles to what
was left of the public service. More recently, the institutions responsible for the public
provisioning of water, electricity, and a broad range of social services have been earmarked
for privatisation while market-based or -driven performance criteria have been developed for
the remnants of the state bureaucracy, raising questions about the very notions of public
service and public goods that are central to the articulation of the state-society relationship.

The process of the reform of the African public sector has gone on for about 25 years now.
During that period, the African state, ideologically demonised and made the political target of
the Bretton Woods institutions, has been “cut down to size”, bereft of any developmentalist
moorings and clad in its new garb of a night watch organ with a minimalist mandate to
“enable” the market. Its position as the historic habitat of some of the best human capacity on
the continent has been eroded and today, its managers are reduced to seeking donor support to
“build capacity” which had been lost through various rounds of down-sizing and right-sizing.
The public sector’s role in development planning was dismantled through an approach that
included but which was not limited to the outright dissolution of planning ministries and
commissions in many countries, as well as the re-orientation of national statistical agencies to
serve the purpose of data collection only. The initial targets of public enterprise liquidation
were mainly the commodity boards and supply companies set up in the first decade of
independence. Post-independence public enterprises were privatised in phases that eventually
meant the evacuation of the role of the state from development planning and investment.
Connections between the role of the public sector and the promotion of social citizenship and
nation-building were broken as a narrow and limiting economistic interpretation of the public
service came to prevail.

The massive self-off of public assets – performing and non-performing – resulted in the
selective enrichment of a minority through the transfer of mostly undervalued public assets to
the ownership of private cronies and speculators. In country after country, privatisation and
the fire-sale of public assets has generated all-manner of discontents: It has fed into widening
social and regional inequalities, reinforced networks of corruption, undermined the social
contract, contributed to de-industrialisation, and accelerated the de-nationalisation of local
economies. These discontents have also fuelled protests as their consequences have included
the pricing of basic social services beyond the reach of an ever-growing number of people. It
is the anchoring by the Bretton Woods institutions of their strategy of public sector reform in
Africa on a uni-dimensional and narrow market logic that is, additionally, bereft of any
serious concern for development and citizenship, that constitutes the primary explanation for
the efflorescence of protest movements in different countries to challenge the thrust of the
reforms. For, the reform process has been carried out without attention to the public purpose
or how it might be creatively safeguarded even at a time of change.

During his active academic life, Guy Mhone devoted an important part of his scholarly output
to thinking through the role of the public sector in the African development agenda. He was in
no doubt that for Africa to overcome its underdevelopment and dependence, the state had to
play a key, strategic role. He was equally in no doubt that the public sector had an important
role to play both in its own right and in relation to the governance of the market for a
developmental end. With this perspective in mind, participants in the conference will be
invited to take a critical retrospective and prospective look at the theory and practice of the
African public sector reform experience, doing so by taking stock of the past and proposing
alternative approaches that would respond to the pressing challenges of building a democratic
developmental state in Africa. The conference will seek to capture the ways in which the
reforms undertaken under the aegis of the IMF and the World Bank have transformed the
public sector in Africa and with what consequences; the impact which the reforms have had
on the state and on state-society relations; the consequences of the reforms for equity,
professionalism, the idea of public service, and esprit de corps; and the alternatives that are
available in terms of the re-thinking of the public sector in Africa and the retrieval of the
sector from the maladjustment it has suffered.

Among the themes that the conference will cover are:

- The Public Sector in National and/or Regional Development: Theory, History and
- Experiences of Public Sector Reform in Africa: Privatisation, Commercialisation and
Enterprise Liquidation Reconsidered;
- Civil Service Reforms: Dimensions and Consequences;
- Experiences of Public Service Decentralisation;
- Experiences and Experiments in New Public Sector Management in Africa;
- Re-thinking Public Sector Reforms for a Democratic Developmental Agenda;
- Overcoming Public Sector Maladjustments;
- Beyond the State-Market Dichotomy in Development Thinking on and Practice in
- Renewing the African Civil Service: Alternative Approaches;
- Beyond “Agencification”: Building a Developmental Public Sector for a Democratic
- Comparative Experiences on Public Sector Reform: Perspectives from the Global


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