Malado Kaba, former Minister of Economy and Finance of the Republic of Guinea, speaks to COVID-19 Africa Watch about the potential for digital disruption in government and public service in the wake of the current pandemic.
The following are a few of the main takeaways from COVID-19 Africa Watch’s conversation with Malado Kaba, the first woman to be Minister of Economy and Finance of the Republic of Guinea:
- COVID-19 has prompted a proactive private sector response to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic, but government action has remained essential for containing the virus and developing effective economic response plans.
- Digitalization has at least four benefits for governments: 1) it increases efficiency; 2) it increases accountability; 3) it exposes corruption; and 4) it prepares the way for the digital economy.
- Advancing a digital transformation agenda also requires progress on basic infrastructure, particularly access to electricity.
- A major goal should be increasing African agency in the continent’s digital transformation, and the AfCFTA may facilitate this.
The interview was conducted by Constantin Rukundo, an IFC-Milken Institute Capital Market Scholar from the National Bank of Rwanda. A transcript is available below.
For more insights from Malado Kaba, see her article, ‘The COVID-19 crisis: A key moment to strengthen transparency and accountability in Guinea.’
My name is Constantin Rukundo. I am from the Central Bank of Rwanda and the IFC-Milken Institute Capital Market program. Today I’m pleased and excited to welcome Minister Malado Kaba who is joining us today to share her insights on their COVID-19 crisis in Africa. Minister Kaba is a Guinean economist, and was the Minister of Finance in Guinea. Currently, Minister Kaba is chairing the board of the body regulating electricity and water in Guinea, and she also sits on various other boards. Thank you for joining us today, Minister.
COVID-19 has seen responses, not just from policymakers and donors, but also from Africa’s private sector, which has been very innovative and speedy in response to the crisis. So why is it still important to focus on the role of the public sector and government?
The pandemic of COVID-19, which has struck us hard all around the world, and also Africa wasn’t spared, has prompted, as you rightly said, quite positive support coming from the private sector across our continent. We’ve seen the private sector involved in initiatives, aimed at providing food, for instance, and also taking actions to reduce costs of certain services. Especially I’m thinking about mobile devices. And I think that this has been complimentary to what the public sector and governments are also providing.
However, I also believe that this crisis has reinforced the important role played by both the public sector and governments, especially across our continent. We’ve seen that all governments work is actually quite effective in leading strategically the health response and being agile, in making bold decisions, and also acting decisively. For instance, I was pleasantly surprised yet also quite struck by the decision of the government of Nigeria to lock down such a bustling city like Lagos to prevent the virus from spreading.
I also believe that the crisis has shown how important it is for the public sector to be an inclusive tool. We’ve seen both ministries of finance and central banks coming up with economic response plans, aiming to provide liquidity to cash-strapped SMEs, and also implementing social skills aiming to distribute food and also cash.
Minister Kaba, you have advocated for the adoption of technology to provide efficient service to the public. What are your views on how technology has contributed to curving COVID-19 in Africa?
We’ve seen many of our talented geeks across the continent coming up with applications, aiming to inform us on a daily basis about the number of confirmed cases, the number of deaths, the number of discharged people. And especially for instance, when it comes to my country, Guinea, I was approached by young people who had developed an application called Kisal, which was aiming to do just that. And I think that this has been hugely important because it was a way to be transparent about the situation. And also it was a way to communicate clearly on what was going on. And we know how crucial transparency and communication in times of crisis management.
Thank you, Minister. Speaking of technology, as this so-called fourth industrial revolution is intensified around the globe, governments in Africa face massive challenges to adapt. What are the benefits for government as they go forward with their digital transformation?
Again, you know, as I said earlier, I strongly believe that the public sector is a powerful tool for inclusion. But as I wrote in a recent article, it can only serve, it can only work for the many, if it undergoes a deep transformation. And I believe that this transformation is underpinned by pushing for a digital agenda within our public sector.
I also think that, you know, when we look at this crisis, what has been very interesting to me is to see many of those officials who were reluctant to use, you know, new technologies, all of a sudden embracing and loving it, you know, talking through VC as we had to restrict physical meetings. And I think that this discussion around, pushing a digital agenda on our continent and in our public administration must be based also on the advantages to do so. And I would maybe quote four of them.
“The private sector does not have a monopoly on efficiency. We in the public sector, as civil servants, we need to strive to work faster and to provide better quality services, to both our citizens and our economies.”
Number one, efficiency. When I used to be in the Ministry of Finance, I used to tell my staff that the private sector does not have a monopoly on efficiency. We in the public sector, as civil servants, we need to strive to work faster and to provide better quality services, to both our citizens and our economies. And so for me, this is something very important.
I have had some successful experience in this. In Guinea, for instance, in the mining sector, we have digitized the process of the mining register, which is now accessible to citizens, to investors, and to partners. When we come to set up a business and entrepreneur in Guinea can do that now online, and it will take him or her only 48 hours, um, against several months, several years ago. I’m not sure though, if we are faring better than Rwanda, but our aim was to fare better than you guys. But I think that this is really positive, you know. A third example relates to the public procurement, which was under my remit in the Ministry of Economy and Finance. When I was there, we were receiving many complaints from both SMEs and also our colleagues in government who complained about the long delays incurred. And so I decided to digitize the process that would allow me to identify, first, how long it took, and secondly, where the delays were incurred.
Two, we still need to be held accountable. And I think that digitalizing the public administration will help us provide more timely and accurate data in the public domain via the ministry’s website, on portals that can be accessible to citizens, civil society organizations, private sector people, and also investors and our development partners.
The third aspect is related to corruption, and we know how difficult it is. We have administrations in our countries that are mired in pervasive corruption. But here again, by pushing the digital agenda within our public sector, we are reducing the possibilities that some officials can have in demanding bribes to deliver services that would normally be free. And so for me, this is also something that we cannot ignore.
The last benefit relates to the data economy. We all hear now that we have entered the era of information technology, and many around the globe say that now data has become the new oil. And I also believe that digitizing processes can help us do just that, giving more and better data to also inform our policymaking so that we enhance our evidence based policymaking. And this will also help us monitor the way we implement our programs to be sure that we are delivering on the national development policy outcomes, and also on our Sustainable Development Goals.
Talking about the digital economy, what are some priority policies that you think Africa needs to put in place to pave the way for this?
We need a strategy with clear defined goals and also phases.
Number two, we need also to think of who should have the onus of overseeing the strategy. And in Guinea, for instance, I think that now we are on the right path. We had an agency whose job was to look at a standardization of digital aspects of our ministries, but this agency was in a ministry before, and since 2018, we have brought it back in the Prime Ministers’ office. And I think this is where it should be in order to have the ability to look at things in a comprehensive way, and also in order to ensure coordination.
“It’s very nice to talk about a digital agenda, but we also need to ensure that we leave no one behind. We know that there are large populations across the continent that are still offline and that do not have access to power. And we cannot talk about technology without access to power, and without also resolving some of our very basic infrastructure challenges.”
The third aspect for me is, probably I would think about some kind of overseeing body. I would think that this body should be as inclusive as possible. Because it’s very nice to talk about a digital agenda, but we also need to ensure that we leave no one behind. We know that there are large populations across the continent that are still offline and that do not have access to power. And we cannot talk about technology without access to power, and without also resolving some of our very basic infrastructure challenges.
But all in all, and I would like maybe to close down with this point: I dream about us trying to enhance African agency in digital transformation in our continent. And I think about that in particular in relation with the African Continental Free Trade Area. We have now this tremendous challenge to make it a reality.
Thank you Minister for those interesting ideas. I think they will be very helpful to reinvent the wheel after this pandemic to solve the challenge of our continent. Minister, the Milken Institute and I thank you again for sharing those insights with our viewers. Goodbye and stay safe.
Thanks for having me today.
COVID-19 Africa Watch tracks major developments and policy announcements from across the continent and also offers a curated selection of analysis on how the pandemic will impact African economies and development efforts. The site is a project of the Milken Institute’s Global Market Development Practice.