By Prof Pierre Gomez
As living witnesses, we have seen an Africa, The Gambia not being an exception, where the poverty of public provisioning, absence of good (enough) governance, and the sluggish pace in the institutionalisation of democracy have become a normal abnormality before public eye. It is probably relevant to note that during the 22 years of dictatorship in this country, majority of the country’s intellectual community either fled from persecution or seemingly demonstrated no commitment to grasp the basic concepts of the theory of democracy, or more crucially, the concept of democratic governance. Thus, it is important to observe that our country is still struggling to redress the moral turpitude left behind by the 22 long years of dictatorship.
This essay is a response to this deficit. I argue that a society where governance and public institutions are glued together with social capital, that society is likely to develop in an organic way. As members of society who have seen yesterday, and living today, we are in a privileged position to make prescriptions and proscriptions for a better tomorrow. Therefore, I strongly believe that this august assembly of ladies and gentlemen of integrity and wisdom would bear me witness that this is what is needed to move The Gambia forward.
We must first of all begin with a review of the concept of social capital in the context of public governance. Social capital refers to the internal social and cultural coherence of society, the norms and values that govern interactions among people and the institutions in which they are embedded. Social capital is the glue that holds societies together and without which there can be no economic growth or human well being. Without social capital, society at large will collapse. For the purpose of this discussion, we might analyse the theme under civic engagement, political equality, solidarity, trust, tolerance, and associations as social structures of cooperation.
In sub-Saharan Africa, politics has been largely organised hierarchically and is often more narrowly shaped by personal advantage as well as tribal inclinations. Thus, it appears safe to argue that the culture of personal rule and bureaucratic despotism is yet to be fully discarded in favour of generative politics. It is this generative politics which has made the West, since the Second World War, practice public governance as a form of collective deliberation on shared concerns or issues at stake in society.
This concept of civic engagement is broadened to include individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern. Given this definition, it is apparent that not all public affairs stakeholders are, in a manner of speaking, civically engaged. A parent joining a school governing board, a citizen actively participating in the mayor’s public budget speech, voting in local and national elections, and so on, would be good examples of civic engagement in this regard. Equally important to the concept of civic engagement is the feeling of belonging to and ownership of the political, social and economic communities.
The Gambia, like many other sub-Saharan African countries, appears to need a lot more of systematic civic education exercises than are currently available largely through the efforts of NGOs and religious organisations. It is worthy to note that the core mission of civic education is to develop competent citizens who have the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to participate responsibly and effectively in the political and civic life of a democracy. Such citizens often participate in their communities through membership in voluntary civil associations like the one we are witnessing today.
We are all living witnesses to the fact that there is no evidence that the growing body of educated Gambians is being trained especially in the virtues of collaboration beyond the basic bonds of ethnic communities. Even today, there are speculations that some major political parties in sub-Saharan Africa are organised around tribal lines and are more reflective of regional groupings rather than ideological stands.
So, what should be done to curb this malaise? It becomes paramount for society to be structured in such a way as to create closure in the social network. This will ensure that all actors are connected in a way that facilitates the imposition of obligations as well as sanctions on all members. It is evident that this becomes practically impossible when communities are divided on ethnic, regional and religious lines.
Although many will claim that political equality is not an issue in The Gambia, it is important at this point that we conceptualise political equality beyond the more commonly accepted liberal notion of frequent and regular elections held under universal suffrage. Whereas the legal provisions enabling this kind of political participation is important, it is argued here that more is needed to encourage genuine political engagement amongst the citizenry that would supersede the undercurrents of ethnicity and other social norms that might threaten the workings of a full-blown universally accepted-type of democracy. For example, violent conduct during elections often serves to disenfranchise the vulnerable such as women and thus denies them political equality in practice.
Overall, sub-Saharan Africa has had stable and reliable support for the executive. But, on other measures of political effectiveness such as voter turnout, political rioting, and political deaths, the performance has largely been found wanting. In the new era of multiparty politics, sub-Saharan African political entrepreneurs have mostly failed to organise citizens beyond tribal lines into coherent political parties with succinctly articulated ideologies. In fact, in many instances, the politicians have intentionally retreated to their ethnic cocoons to garner support and supplement political organisations.
Many scholars today, hold the view that other than the political party organisation structure, there is no substantial difference in the manifestos of the variety of major political parties; and that, it is easy to see that religious affiliations and tribal backgrounds of the political party top bras have political ramifications in sub-Saharan African political parties.
Colletta and Cullen (2000) argue further that even when these ethno-political parties give back their differences to remove a common enemy, they soon fall apart as a result of internal conflicts, making the mobilisation of national unity very difficult if not impossible to attain. In the course of these conflicts, norms and values essential for collective action are destroyed, thereby making post-conflict reconciliation increasingly difficult.
By all indications, the social capital debate places civic society on a high pedestal. The main function of social capital in this case will be to facilitate the exchange of information via social networks to lower individual transaction costs and hence produce an aggregate surplus value at societal level.
Thus, the relationship between community solidarity and transaction costs becomes quite evident.
Communities that are close-knit due to the abundance of social capital would tend to develop low transaction costs as most expenses that would be incurred as exchange costs are mediated by the existence of reciprocal trusts. On the contrary if the elite were corrupt, the ordinary people resorted to contraband trade and other informal trading activities that evaded the ravenous appetite of the appropriative state.
As argued earlier, tribalism is another major bane to the effective accumulation of social capital. It is deleterious (harmful) to national well being since tribal movements thrive on ethnic group conformism and loyalties that pulverise horizontal loyalties crucial to young nations. Moreover, where tribal loyalties entail implicit attachments to traditional values and institutions, these may at times be irreconcilable with the requirements of modern social progress.
Civil associations contribute to the effectiveness and stability of governments in many ways. It is necessary for the efficient functioning of democracy to have institutions that serve to: reanimate its beliefs, purify its mores, regulate its movements, and modify them according to circumstances.
It becomes unfortunate that at the height of single party dictatorship in certain sub-Saharan African countries, many intellectuals were forced to seek refuge abroad either to escape imprisonment or for their dear life. Those who could not be convinced to join the ruling elite often sought and found refuge abroad. This has led to the brain drain that has culminated in the emergence of a civil society bereft of effective organisational capacity.
The rot in social capital has not been restricted to the ruling class. The general populace has equally strayed from developing effective networks of mutual social advantage. The vice has percolated to the general populace who overwhelm the captains of state with spurious (fake) urgent demands for social and financial services. An example of this aspect could be the persistent bribe giving as well as bribe taking in public provisioning. Particular officials who do not take bribes may be seen as naïve just as those citizens who do not pay bribes while seeking government services may continually lose out to those who pay bribes.
The apparent dearth of social capital stocks to foster development in the country has to be reversed. There is need to find traces of common themes that readily unite people. As the review reveals, it is not so much that Africa lacks social capital stocks, rather, the present stocks of social capital that abound in the continent are not of the ‘right’ kind. There is need for associational norms that transcend the bonds of kinship, clans, and ethnic communities. Even more preferable, the bonds should be such as to facilitate a mass-driven continental political union.
Furthermore, these bonds must be long lasting and not simply tactical manoeuvres employed on the face of a perceived common enemy. Such tactical moves are normally relegated to the background as soon as the enemy disappears. The concept of social capital, if tied to the concerns of transaction costs, presents great potential for accelerated development on the continent. What is required is a paradigm shift so that the debate is elevated to encompass all aspects of development drives. A good example could be self-help movements that predate the contemporary independence era, and are still alive and growing ever more popular in many parts of The Gambia.Before moving to the contemporary scholarly narratives on the good governance paradigm, it is considered necessary to briefly highlight the link between social capital and good governance. It is clear from our history that governance crisis in The Gambia with such symptoms as failure of the rule of law, autocracy, unilateralism, etc. is unlikely to evolve into good governance by merely following the internationally agreed principles of good governance.
For the organic development of society, we need to look at gaps in governance, which in my opinion, could be bridged with social capital. We must ensure that our governance is participatory, consensus-oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. It assures that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society.
Popular participation as a mechanism for promoting good governance has been on the rise in Sub-Saharan Africa, The Gambia inclusive, since the early 1980s when it was mostly dubbed the ‘bottom-up’ approach.
The fight against corruption especially in high public offices, is gaining momentum and this is one area where both the donor communities as well as civil society actors are in complete agreement. Such convergence of interests sometimes makes it possible for the leaders to involve the larger citizenry in policy-making. The involvement of citizens in policy-making allows governments to tap new sources of ideas, information and resources when making decisions.
It is now a commonly accepted maxim that transparency, public consultation and participation have become more important than ever in policy formulation as well as in the reinforcement of democracy and stability.
It is self-evident that new and more complex models of organisation are emerging in both the public and voluntary sectors as new problems arise. The new models range from community-based organizations to full-blown public-private partnerships, all striving for the active participation of their members.
At this point, it is important to reiterate the difference between ‘rule-by-law’ and ‘rule-of-law’, and why this is important. Under the rule-by-law, the law becomes an instrument of the government, and the government is above the law. This creates a recipe for dictatorship. In contrast, under the rule of law, no one is above the law, not even the government. The core of ‘the rule of law’ is an autonomous legal order. Under the rule of law, the authority of the law does not depend so much on the law’s instrumental capabilities, but on its degree of autonomy, that is, the degree to which the law can be considered distinct and separate from other normative structures such as politics and religion.
There is no gainsaying the fact that people become comfortable once they know that government programmes are well managed. Such management requires such important elements as greater openness and transparency. Otherwise, it will be impossible to hold politicians, the government, and public service officials accountable for the outcomes of their decisions.
There is need for a pro-active set of policy innovations that will create the possibility to compare modern conceptualisations of data privacy with the legal principles created in seminal privacy decisions relating to informational privacy laws. The on-going public service reforms in The Gambia will perform much better if they borrow the wisdom crystalised in these debates.
The possible challenge of public service reformers is the designing of institutions that enjoy neutral competence and that are, at the same time, responsive to the demands of the citizens. Although these demands may appear contradictory at first sight, they can be reconcilable.
The argument that may be projected here is that organisations can be formed with intentions to achieve neutral competence. They should therefore be insulated against political interference or executive manipulation by establishing some form of independence. This can be done by promoting exchanges based on professional norms as well as by leveraging participation in international organizations to counteract domestic biases. In such an arrangement, transparency can then be strategically deployed to facilitate balancing of views or to shame severe abuses.
One of the dictates of good governance is that bureaucracies become much more responsive to citizens as clients. Such a move will be carried out with the intention of increasing citizen participation in governance and making government agencies more responsive to local needs. Another promising resource for mobilising involvement among groups that are underrepresented traditionally in the governance process is faith organisations. In conjunction with welfare societies, religious missions may be effective vehicles to focus on issues of social justice as opposed to local community action.
Given The Gambia Government’s limited resource base, it is necessary for policy makers to turn increasingly to private and non-profit sectors for the resources to provide social services. Interesting examples have been cited of similar countries adopting new non-profit organisations as part of, say, health sector reform.
Necessarily, public servants must embrace public service reform goals for any meaningful successes to be realised. To this end, an examination of local management practices is necessary in order to determine the potential contribution of aligning staff priorities with policy objectives.
The concept of social capital is also pertinent to the development of a strong civil society given that civil society offers a potential source of organised drive to achieve a more inclusive governance paradigm. This approach is not new in developed countries where associations are increasingly participating in matters concerning social policies.
For purposes of determining effectiveness and efficiency from the perspective of service users, it is important to examine the actual and desired use of performance measures for management and external reporting purposes. Both internal and external verification of measures of efficiency and effectiveness should be broadly acceptable to all stakeholders.
Further preliminary issues should be the identification of potential and actual impediments to the development and meaningful use of performance measures.
There is no gainsaying the fact that to be able to deliver on these mandates, African civil service systems must be effective, efficient, transparent, and result-oriented. Failure in any one of these requirements will constitute a serious pitfall on good governance.
It is a truism that political corruption poses a serious threat to the stability of our newfound democracy. Among other things, it erodes the links between citizens and governments, thus deepening the poverty problem and further widening the gap between the rich and the poor. As mentioned earlier, the greatest danger that rampant corruption poses to our government is that it poisons public sentiment toward genuine democracy. It also makes the general populace become suspicious of the entire public policy system.
The challenge of entrenching accountability in governmental processes ultimately rests in the creation effective monitoring and evaluation systems. This is not only related to the supply of information and the delivery of knowledge to policy makers, but more importantly to their demand for lessons learnt about the effects of earlier policies. It is therefore incumbent upon governments to construct institutional mechanisms (both organisational and cultural) that will support the transformation of policy lessons into policy actions.
In conclusion, it is important to reiterate that public service bureaucracies in The Gambia play an important role in the management of socio-economic development and change. These tasks impose a number of imperatives on these institutions: they must be effective, efficient, transparent, and result-oriented. Public affairs stakeholders in the country are unanimous in their call for The Gambia’s civil service system to be anchored on good governance practices. This means that obsolete structures and processes used in the administration of public business must yield place to more result-oriented management philosophies, processes, and practices.
The author is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Dean, School of Arts