Black Smoke Everywhere

Published on 3rd May 2005

Recently 115 cardinals of the Catholic Church cut-off themselves from the rest of the world to elect a new Pope after the death of John Paul II. The whole world kept on speculating and praying. Pilgrims and tourists flooded the Vatican to witness the birth of a new Pope.  

The climax of it all was the communication through black or white smoke from the Chimney of the Sistine Chapel. The white smoke would indicate that the cardinals had picked a Pope while black was a sign of no success. After some rounds of black smoke, finally the Chimney emitted white smoke and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger emerged out of the conclave as Pope.

This has plenty of lessons for Africa. Why has Africa, full of human and natural potential, continued to experience poverty, disease and ignorance? Why has it continued to experience conflict, corruption, unemployment and other anti-development aspects? Why have some countries’ policies continued to produce black smoke?

All the 115 cardinals had the potential of becoming Pope but they settled on one. Consequently, Africa’s policy makers have ever since independence developed very ambitious strategies of development with emphasis on fighting poverty. The policies embarked on by the specific countries are indeed capable of steering the countries’ development.

However, implementation and sustainability have always hindered them from producing white smoke, so to speak. An illustration with a few sectoral policies in Kenya would suffice. Since independence Kenyan policy makers embarked on numerous strategies to eliminate poverty. This is indicated by various five-year development plans, session papers, the District Focus for Rural Development strategies (DFRD), the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) among others.

Surprisingly, these entire policies have produced black smoke because the poor become poorer. Another case in point is the education policy, which as many commentators have argued has had myriad strategies, notably the 7-6-3 and the now the contentious 8-4-4 as well as Free Primary Education. Again, all these have produced black smoke.

It is clear that our primary school classrooms are crowded, books and teachers are not enough, not to mention the transition problem, which is already a problem in secondary schools and will surely spill over to universities. In spite of volumes in the government archives that address the issue of government’s effort to ensure health for all, public health facilities continue to suffer poor infrastructure, lack of drugs and shortage of staff. Only recently, it was reported that a few individuals have enriched themselves with billions meant to fight HIV/AIDS. Even the attempt to create sanity in the transport sector has hit the rocks.

The list of poorly implemented strategies is endless in Africa yet a lot of taxpayers’ money is spent in their development not only through locally initiated seminars, workshops and conferences but also through external support.

To add insult into injury is now the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which African countries among others should strive to achieve by 2015. These goals, which aim to half poverty levels, ensure education for all, improve health status etc by 2015 have already produced several rounds of black smoke since 2000.

The way forward for each African country is to engage policy makers in a forum of rethinking their strategies for development. Most of them are essentially very beautiful and, if carefully studied on sectoral basis, it is possible to emerge with a rank of strategies and their implementation. A framework of implementation cutting across the interlinked sectors should also be drawn.

Of particular importance is the stringent keenness on implementation of the priority strategies. Implementation obviously goes along with sustainability. Any policy or project that lacks implementation and sustainability, however good it may sound on paper, is as good as dead. This is the type of Conclave that African policy makers must engage in.

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