Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair traces his deep interest in Africa back to his father teaching in Sierra Leone in the early 1960s, a time when South Korea was just as poor as Sierra Leone. While South Korea took off economically, Sierra Leone was racked by a long civil war. But now, "the pace of change in Africa is dizzying," Blair told a Stanford audience on May 17.
As founder of an organization called the Africa Governance Initiative, Blair is partnering with governments in six African countries, including Sierra Leone, in a new approach to poverty alleviation, one aimed at ending aid to the countries within a generation. His emphasis is on building government capacity to do practical things like keeping electricity running in capital cities, but he also stressed the importance of private sector investment, social media, and university assistance in analyzing what approaches work best.
Hosted by the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies (SEED) at Stanford GSB and the university's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Blair took questions from Dean Garth Saloner and Twitter followers. He was later interviewed by Stanford media representatives. Here are edited excerpts from that session:
You talked about providing partnerships with African governments rather than foreign aid. How are partnerships different from the technocrats that were provided through foreign aid in the past?
What often used to happen is the outside world would come into the country and tell them, "These are the things you should do." What we do is say, "OK, what is it that you think you need, and then we'll help." So there is very much about country ownership. And the types of people that we bring in are not traditional technocrats. They are people with experience getting things done in government or in the private sector. And they work alongside the people from that country, so they don't come in and write the report and give it to them. They actually sit in the same office, answering the phone with them, and getting things done. A very good example would be around Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia where we helped change the way her office was able to interact with the cabinet in order to produce the right quality of decision making and the process of prioritization.
Our people would actually work with hers and say, "OK, let's look at what we can really do here; let's try to exclude a lot of things that were really not realistically going to be able to get done." In Liberia or Sierra Leone or Guinea where we work, how do we get the lights on in the capital city? Forget all the grand vision stuff. Let's just make sure people get reliable electricity. That is something where working out how you do that and then grinding out the implementation is what we do.
What concrete steps do you see university initiatives, such as SEED, taking to further the developmental goals you champion through your African Governance Initiative?
It's a big role for SEED because what we need is some intellectual capital in our own analysis of what these countries require and how we should put it in place. Working out what systems work and what don't, and the empirical evidence to support particular initiatives are really important things that SEED can contribute to. I think governance is the developing area, but I'm speaking from the practical point of view of a politician. We need some expertise and research [related to] government attracting the private sector — what works and what doesn't, and how do we put in place the right systems.
There are well-intentioned students here who see Africa as a great area of growth and opportunity, but how do you dispel their fears of doing business in emerging markets that have a stigma of strife and internal disarray?
These countries often are not easy places to work in, but 25 or 30 years ago, people would have said the same thing about South America. It's very interesting in the documentary about the Brazilian race driver [Ayrton] Senna [that] at several points in the film, Brazilians say, "Senna is the only good thing about this country." This was contemporary footage from the late 80s, early 90s. It's inconceivable that somebody in Brazil would say that today. So yes, if you want to go into emerging market countries that are at a further stage of development, or if you want to go into our type of country, things are going to be easier, but how exciting is it to go in on the ground floor when the opportunities are being created? I think many of these African countries will be in a place in 10 to 15 years' time where the types of questions people ask about them today aren't asked anymore.
In faltering African nations gripped by autocratic regimes, what mechanism of policies should be put in place by actors such as people on the ground, other countries, or international organizations to bring freedoms to residents?
First of all, we should understand that the number of countries that are democracies has increased dramatically, and what's more, changes in governments [have occurred] through a democratic system, so it is a very different picture [than in the past]. What can be done from the outside really depends on whether the country is making progress, but there is a democratic deficit you need to address, and I think we can help in closing that deficit.
The most effective form is to make it an issue, and you can do that within the continent of Africa itself. I think there has been a reluctance too often people to excuse behavior that is inexcusable on the basis that there is a history of liberation from colonialism and so on, but I think in most African countries today there is a far greater willingness to do things differently.
How much do you think China's investment has changed the West's view of what can be done, especially with private sector investment?
I'm not sure how much it has changed our view, but I am sure how much it should. It should be a big wake-up call to us. I totally understand why African countries find China's investment very welcome, but what it means is we should be thinking about how to get our own act together in this, because otherwise we will lose our place. China has gone from a standing start in 10 years to become the leading power in Africa.
When do you see the African Governance Initiative working with Arab spring countries?
We really have worked in sub-Saharan Africa. I think that will be our focus for the time being, but of course the lessons we apply are perfectly applicable to any emerging market country, and I think for the Arab Spring countries the challenge will be turning this great democratic hope into practical increases in living standards and opportunity, and that's going to be difficult. We for the moment will work only in sub-Saharan Africa, but in the future it's possible to take these lessons out from there.