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“Coordination is a critical enabler for integrated digital services and a wider digital economy agenda”

This anonymous interview has been carried out with a digital development specialist with an international financial institution, where he is providing technical expertise and advice on policy, institutional reform, project development, and execution to support the digitization of public administration and public services delivery in client countries. Note: He is delivering these remarks in his personal capacity and these remarks do not necessarily reflect the views of the institution.

This interview is also available in French.

Regarding the outcomes of African government negotiations with local and international partners on large-scale digital projects what is your analysis of what African governments are doing right, and what could be done better in your opinion?

Most African countries are either developing or have developed a national digital development policy and strategy for coherent implementation of digital initiatives across the government. Some countries go a step further to develop implementation road maps to achieve the short-, medium-, and long-term country national goals set out in the digital policy and strategy. An example is the Kenya National Digital Master Plan launched in 2022. This is critical to government partnerships with international development partners on large-scale digital projects.

The reason is that by defining a policy and strategy, a country clearly outlines a blueprint that captures its national goals, objectives, and priority projects. This helps to see the bigger picture of areas of interventions where there will be the most impactful and enable socio-economic growth. Therefore, an international development partner coming into the country must align proposed projects and initiatives to the already defined national goals in the policy and strategy. This enables the countries to reduce the risk of fragmentation and duplication of digital projects.

An area that countries need to improve on is regarding institutional frameworks and coordinating mechanisms among ministries and agencies. More often than not, there have been situations where mandates are not properly defined, and ministries and agencies tend to overlap on implementation, creating confusion on who is doing what? Coordination is a critical enabler for integrated digital services as part of the wider digital economy agenda.

Another area to look at is the rigid and reactive regulatory framework of some African governments, where there is a challenge of how to regulate new and rapidly evolving digital technology. Governments must protect their citizens by putting in place cybersecurity measures, data protection, and privacy regulations. In summary, strengthening regulatory frameworks is critical for developing a digital public infrastructure (DPI) which has become an aspiration of almost every government.

Considering the multiplicity of donors and the complexity of digital solutions (providers, technologies, SLAs, interoperability solutions etc.) how can African governments navigate the geopolitical rivalries and choose the best partners according to their interests?

This is a very complex area to navigate. As mentioned earlier African governments must first set their strategic priorities and approach for a government-wide digital public infrastructure. Then the government must define an enterprise architecture and interoperability framework leading to the development of a digital platform or government stack comprised of reusable building blocks. Examples of countries that have taken this path are India, Singapore, Estonia etc.

The next step then would be to leverage the extensive repository of DPGs which are open-source software, open data, open AI models, open standards to develop sector-specific digital solutions. The DPGs combine three fundamental characteristics: they are non-rivalrous, non-excludable and globally available. It is important for African governments to prioritize open-source applications and platforms to avoid vendor lock-in.

Some of our interviewees for this series have mentioned that some deals in the digital sector are poorly structured because those in charge may not know how to execute well. What is your analysis of the pitfalls in executing digital projects on the continent?

Project implementation is primarily the responsibility of the Borrower, but the funder provides effective implementation support to improve results, help manage risks, and increase institutional development. Unfortunately, country institutions are not always sufficiently developed to undertake project implementation. Particularly challenging may be multisectoral projects involving multiple ministries and implementing agencies or projects with new clients lacking experience with the funders’ projects.

To mitigate this problem and ensure the borrower can convert investment funds to completed projects, it is important to assign a unit, which ensures that staff are assigned full-time to the project tasks. The organisation then funds the project management in various ways, including using loan or grant components for project administration. The funder also supports capacity development through advisory technical assistance (Tas) to the projects. TA activities consist mostly of training and capacity building, studies and work plan development.

How do you see the position of subregional multilateral actors (e.g., Smart Africa, AfCFTA, ECOWAS, WAEMU) in the delivery of cross-border digital project (e.g., cross-border roaming, terrestrial regional fibreoptic) solutions? What are the major barriers to negotiating these partnerships and some recommendations on how they can be addressed?

Alliances and regional organizations such as Smart Africa, AfCFTA, ECOWAS, WAEMU have all referenced the need for Africa to create an enabling environment for digital integration and the creation of a Single Digital Market in Africa. The major barrier to this goal is the inconsistency in policies and laws in African countries. Many countries are at different levels of maturity in digital development.

In recent times, Smart Africa has developed a number of blueprints with different member states covering Smart Cities, Smart Broadband, Digital Economy, ePayments, AI, Digital ID etc. to provide countries with a template on how to develop similar policies and strategies in their context. For example, the Sierra Leone National Digital Development Policy, developed in 2021, was inspired by the Kenya Digital Economy Blueprint developed by Smart Africa and Kenya Government.

Another example is the ECOWAS led initiative of having a subsea fibre optic cable that will Increase international broadband capacity and guarantee redundancy of member states: Cabo Verde, The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Sierra Leone. As part of the MOU signed by member countries, they affirmed their commitment to sharing policies and strategies in efforts to coordinate the implementation of the project. This regional initiative is captured by the ECOWAS ICT Strategy, which identified access to infrastructure and high price levels for broadband as some of the areas that require political intervention/will and appropriate frameworks.

What strategies have proven effective as ways that can African governments work together to achieve consensus and concrete action toward digital goals, especially concerning cross-border digital trade and international infrastructure projects in partnership with the private sector?

Many African member states have elaborated their own strategies and policies on digital transformation, but there is a great degree of variation in terms of the digital preparedness and needs of different African countries. The African Union Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030), which builds on many existing frameworks such as PRIDA, PIDA, AfCFTA), SAATM etc. has been widely adopted by member states. The document highlights the need for common regulatory frameworks, developing multi-stakeholder African alliances, and the promotion of PPPs.

Aside from this, there are also sub-regional alliances, such as the Manu River Union (consisting of Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone), which aim to achieve greater unity and solidarity. In 2019, the union in partnership with the African Development Bank, launched a cross-border project for Digitisation of Government Payments that will enhance public resource management transparency, security, and optimisation.

Are there any best practices that African government can learn from each other in the process of negotiating digital partnerships with development partners, private sectors and involving civil society in the process?

The best practice is for African governments to develop strong institutional frameworks and coordination mechanisms to ensure their Ministries and Agencies engage development partners and the private sector with one voice and a common national agenda. Over the last 10 years, I have seen ministries of developing countries with more resources (e.g. Finance, Health, Education) engage development partners and private sector with sector-specific objectives and not the national agenda thus, the government loses on the ability to negotiate for lower prices or volume discounts for services.

This interview is part of the Negotiating Africa’s digital partnerships: interview series led by Dr Folashade Soule with African senior policymakers, ministers, private and civic actors to shed a light on how African actors build, negotiate and manage strategic partnerships in the digital sector in a context of geopolitical rivalry. The series is part of the Negotiating Africa’s digital partnerships policy research project hosted at the Global Economic Governance programme (University of Oxford) and supported by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).