Interview with Hervé Assah, AfDB Resident Representative, Nigeria Field Office - Decentralization Brings More Efficiency to Projects

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Question: As a resident representative, how do you assess the Bank’s ongoing decentralization and how do you position yourself in this process?

Answer: When discussing proximity to customers, we also consider the benefits and operations on the ground. What is the value added of this close proximity in your daily work?

For ease of our presentation, we will address your first two questions jointly since they are related. The Bank Decentralization process is a multi-phased process. If the physical implementation of the twenty six field offices has now been completed, the bulk of the work remains in streamlining our operations, and increasing movements of resources and staff.

As it pertains to our Field Office, the impact of the Bank Decentralization policy could be observed from three key perspectives:

  • Impact on the Bank’s portfolio management
  • Impact on country dialogue; and
  • Impact on relations between our Headquarters and the Nigeria Field Office.

Bank Operations: prior to decentralization, the implementation of Bank projects in Nigeria were besieged with fundamental challenges, key among which were start-up delays, low supervision rates, ill-suited projects, slow disbursement ratio and frequent extension requests, inter-alia.

These consequently impacted the quality of projects implemented in the country. However, with the onset of the decentralization policy and the gradual increase in staff capacity- albeit still quite low for a country size of Nigeria- field office is managing to address these bottlenecks. Supervision rate has improved significantly- by about 50% on the Rural Water and Sanitation Sub Programmes, for instance.

Also, the timely involvement of relevant staff and national partners led to a highly successful design of the National Programme for Food Security, as illustrated by the strong expression of interest by the Government of Nigerian (GON) for the Bank to increase support in the agricultural sector.   

These incremental gains have been achieved for reasons that the field office staff are now part of headquarters (HQ) project design and implementation phases; and can now lead, on regular basis, supervision missions. This has remarkably improved average response time on project-related requests.

Another vivid illustration of the impact of the decentralization policy is evidenced in the regular and timely submission of quarterly reports and annual audit reports of the Health IV project since 2005. This has consequently informed the time spent during supervisions, as task managers, prior to embarking on supervision missions, would already have comprehended the full complexity of the project- thus, act swiftly.  

Country Dialogue: The impact of the Bank’s decentralization policy on country dialogue is evident from the position of the Bank, where hitherto it was not regarded as a key player in the country, but is currently regarded as one of the key players on the development terrain.

The Bank’s lack of presence contributed to the low regard for and visibility of the Bank in the past. Whereas key players such as the World Bank could make spontaneous decisions in country dialogue, Bank staff on the field had to revert to HQ for decisions; thereby slugging the decision making process.

While this trend is changing in the Bank, the change is rather slow, as some key decisions- that could improve the Bank’s image/visibility, are still centralized. Having said this, the field office has managed, with the little degree of autonomy and limited staff capacity, to gain the confidence of the government and other partners, and has subsequently improved country dialogue in recent years. The Bank is now able to participate actively and regularly in national dialogues and fora, such as the Health System Forum of the Federal Ministry of Health. The field office has emerged as the first point of call for the Government of Nigeria.   

Relations with headquarters (HQ): The decentralization policy has greatly improved staff moral, as it has attempted to bring some degree of fairness in benefits, such as field office staff medical, education, pension and the proposed new salary scale.

Dramatic improvements have also been observed in the “way business is done” in the Bank now. For instance, whereas project managers required the Bank’s “no objection” from the relevant Task Manager in HQ in order to purchase an item, at least one project manager from the field office is now able to issue the Bank’s “no objection” from the field office. This has sliced the time wasted in transmitting documents to HQ and having to wait for at least two months for response if the task manager is on mission.  

Finally, the decentralization policy has also improved the review process to track progress of projects. Efforts to coordinate the roles of the HQ and field office in the review and follow up of project implementation has proved successful in the sense that field office staff are now empowered to undertake the first review of evaluation reports before sending them to HQ, which has reduced the response time to general requests from project states by 50%. The rapid response on requests is highly instrumental in the success of the Health System Development project- being implemented in twelve states. The disbursement rate as at 2006 was less than 20%. Presently it is over 60%.

Question : The Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda emphasized the need for the alignment of aid on strategies, policies, procedures, and national mechanisms. On the ground, how do you translate the Bank’s commitment?

Answer : The decentralization policy has also made it possible for the Bank to honor its commitments to the principles of harmonization, alignment, results and mutual accountability under the Paris Declaration. Recently, the Bank has been attending meetings with other donor partners on their programs in Nigeria:

The Nigeria field office and the other development partners have worked together to prepare a joint Country Partnership Strategy (CPS), which represents a cooperative approach to assist Nigeria boost growth and achieve the MDGs.

The contributions to the process made thus far by all these development partners have helped produce a well Coordinated CPS Document. In developing our next Country Strategy Paper (2011-2015) for Nigeria, we hope to align its major thrust and basic framework with the CPS II. This will pave way for our eventual formal integration into a joint-CPS III. We may still need to add recommendations and lessons learnt from the current Country Strategy Paper after its completion and then seek Board Approval in 2011.

In addition, the field office has continued participating in thematic and sector meetings on various development issues- the aim of which is to signal strong support for the Government's development agenda, scale up financial and technical assistance, and step up finance investment necessary to remove obstacles to growth and development.

In view of the Bank’s visible presence in Nigeria, other donor partners have increasingly approached our field office to partner on projects. For instance recently, the World Bank and the Government of Nigeria (GON) approached the Bank to support a private-public partnership (PPP) in the agricultural sector or to work together on a PPP Capacity Building project in the power sector.  

The review progress of the respective states in drafting their Fiscal Responsibility Bills has also allowed the Bank to engage directly with the states, where hitherto, the interaction was at the federal level.

The decentralization policy has further enhanced the Bank’s engagement with Regional Economic Communities (ECOWAS and ECCAS).

A lurid illustration of this is the fact that prior to 2006, the Bank did not fully engage with ECOWAS at the country level. Currently, NGFO engages with these Regional Economic Communities (RECs) at deeper levels including portfolio dialogue, policy, coordination and even dispute resolution on multinational projects. For instance, the skilful intervention of staff was employed to resolve the discrepancy over highway codes on the Nigeria-Cameroon Multinational Highway project.

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