“Investing in people is also AfDB’s responsibility,” says Agnès Soucat, Director of Human Development Department
Africa is on a remarkable growth trajectory. Many analysts predict that the continent’s economic growth will remain above five per cent for the foreseeable future. Yet, achieving this goal will require a different vision on human capital.
In discussions with the AfDB’s External Relations and Communication Department, excerpted below, AfDB’s Human Development Department, Director (OSHD) Agnès Soucat, highlights the major regional landmark achievements and giant strides in the sector over the last few decades. With statistical data, she also touches on challenges and how we can do business differently so that the New Education Model for Africa (NEMA) can benefit Africans. For Soucat, the NEMA is a client-driven model which embraces innovation in improving learning outcomes.
Question: What is the main vision of the African Development Bank’s (AfDB) newly approved strategy on human capital and to what extent can you say the strategy would lead us to the Africa the youth wants?
With one billion people in Africa today and 2.3 billion projected for 2050, African countries have a unique window of opportunity to capture the demographic dividend. Today, Africa is the youngest continent and by 2040, it will have the world’s largest workforce, surpassing China and India. The Bank’s vision is to harness the potential of this large youthful population by investing in human capital development programs. Our main focus is skills and technology development to support Africa’s transformation in Bank priority areas, such as agriculture and food security, infrastructure, governance, regional integration, gender, and fragile states. While we can only adapt to climate change and natural disasters, we can predict demographic changes, anticipate the needs of our children and youth and break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Investing in people not only makes economic sense, but as the premier development Bank for Africa, it is our responsibility to do so.
Question: You affirmed that the recently adopted Human Capital Strategy of the Bank represents a milestone for the institution. What are the key elements in the strategy and how would it affect the way the Bank does business?
This strategy is a milestone in many ways. It is the first time the Bank’s Board has approved a holistic human capital strategy encompassing strategic priorities for the continent such as youth employment, social inclusion, skills development, and technology.
It also comes at a critical moment in Africa’s transformation: we have seen with the Arab Spring of 2011 the greater for social inclusion and safety nets. This is the tip of the iceberg. The demographic explosion, combined with a youth bulge who are increasingly educated and with greater access to information, will mean the demand for social services will rise. People will demand accountability and equity. This is why two of the key pillars of the strategy are voice and accountability in service delivery and inclusive financial and social systems. On average, 40-60 per cent of public expenditure is allocated to social sectors (education, health, social protection programs). While the Bank’s governance programs traditionally look at public financial management, we will now increasingly look at the governance aspects of education and health programs. The Bank’s Value for Money (VfM) program has begun to tackle this issue through high level ministerial dialogues with Ministers of Finance, Health, and Education as well as other types of capacity building programs for public officials. Another key element of the strategy is financial inclusion programs, which spans from empowering young entrepreneurs through start-up capital to making sure that the poor have social safety nets (e.g. health insurance), so that they do not have to bear catastrophic expenditures in case of illness.
Question: Could you shed light on the new education model mentioned in the strategy and what should beneficiary countries and the Bank do differently to meet the objectives of the model?
NEMA is a radical departure from the bricks and mortar and subsector approach in which we used to think about education. With this new model we will look at education holistically based on the needs of the country. While in some African countries (e.g. South Africa) the priority may be science and technology, in others (e.g., fragile states) we may need to look at early childhood education, nutrition and ICT-based primary education programs. Similarly, while some countries (e.g., MICs) may look to the Bank for its technical expertise or education policy reforms, others might need financing for infrastructure in the education sector. NEMA will use a tailored approach to educational system development, primarily ensuring that all programs foster critical thinking, make the best use of new education technologies, taps on the expertise and financing of the private sector to increase access and quality (PPPs), and ensures that education systems are intrinsically linked with the demands of labor markets in Africa. With NEMA, all our education projects will be designed using a participatory approach and have a strong impact evaluation component. NEMA is first and foremost a client-driven model which embraces innovation in improving learning outcomes.
Question: What challenges or risks do you foresee in the implementation of the internal and external aspects of the strategy?
Change requires patience and persistence. Implementing the strategy internally might be more challenging. It will require moving to a cross-sectoral approach, the ability to think outside the box, multidisciplinary teams, shared KPIs, and most importantly a change of mindset in how we think about human development. There is a need for the AfDB to shift the perception of human development as the “soft sector” and to prioritize investments in this sector as much as in infrastructure. When we look at countries who have leapfrogged their development in less than 50 years (e.g., Singapore, South Korea) it is first and foremost by investing in their people.
Consultations in 37 African countries reveal that countries are not only ready but they are asking for this change. In fact we are already implementing this new vision in countries like Cote d’Ivoire, Rwanda, Morocco, Mauritius, Kenya, and Tanzania. At the Bank’s 2014 Annual meetings in Kigali in May, some African Governments approached the Bank to request support in the matters of youth employment and safety nets.
Question: Now that the Bank has approved its first human capital strategy after decades of operations, what is the way forward?
The first step is to launch a communication campaign to disseminate the strategy in all our African countries as well as other strategic partners. We are also planning an internal reorganization and renaming of the divisions within the human development department. Our pool of 80-100 human development professionals spread out in over 20 country offices will now be working closely with all sectors and regional departments of the Bank to assess the skills and technology development needs and develop joint operations. For instance, one of the priorities of the East African Community is to build skills for extractive industries.