Interview: Yawa Hansen-Quao on Strengthening Public Service and Civil Society to Build Back Better

Yawa Hansen-Quao, Executive Director of Emerging Public Leaders, discusses the importance of strengthening Africa’s public service and of increasing intra-African collaboration for a stronger post-pandemic recovery.

Interview

Key Takeaways

Below are some of the main takeaways from COVID-19 Africa Watch’s conversation with Yawa Hansen-Quao – Executive Director of Emerging Public Leaders – a youth-training platform that is driving Africa’s development by creating a new generation of public servants committed to social impact.

  • Emerging Public Leaders’ work is primarily motivated by the conviction that Africa will benefit from stronger public institutions. The program aims to fill Africa’s future talent pipeline with competent and ethical young professionals, through a two-year public service fellowship that attracts the best and the brightest university graduates in several African countries. The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the necessity of this sort of initiative: it has further increased the urgency of having solid networks of trusted, trained and ethical professionals in the public service, who can enable timely responses to emergency situations.
  • The pandemic is showing people that their voice matters. Because of the disruption, combined with new tools that people have at their disposal, citizens are becoming much more active in voicing their concerns, demonstrating, and demanding government transparency and accountability. This is a positive and healthy process in any democracy, and has been largely led by younger generations.
  • There is a sense of hope that the new US administration will take a keen interest in supporting Africa’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery. However, at the end of the day, the destiny of Africa lies in the hands of Africans. The pandemic has illuminated to many citizens across Africa the need to look internally, to place more importance on regional collaboration, and to rethink together how to bounce back better, how to recover, and how to maintain a greater sense of autonomy when Africa comes out of the pandemic.
  • Research has shown that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting women, notably by restricting their movement and their livelihoods. However, there are opportunities for women and for civil society at large to act as agents of change and to help one another even at the neighborhood level, so as to collectively drive change at the community level. A spirit of volunteerism should be strongly encouraged in this moment.

The interview was conducted by Adwoa Difie Boakye-Mensah, an IFC-Milken Institute Capital Market Scholar from the Ministry of Finance of Ghana. A transcript is available below.

Transcript

Interviewer

Hello. My name is Difie Boakye-Mensah. I work with the Ministry of Finance Ghana, and I’m an IFC- Milken Institute Scholar. Today I’m delighted to speak with Yawa Hansen-Quao, a social entrepreneur and Managing Director of the Emerging Public Leaders. Ms. Hansen-Quao, you are welcome!

Yawa Hansen-Quao

Thank you so much! It’s a pleasure to be here.

Interviewer

I know you are very passionate about building strong institutions in Ghana and Africa at large. Why is excellence in civil service so important to you? And can you tell us more about yourself, the work you’re doing at Emerging Public Leaders, and the impact that your work is making across Africa?

Yawa Hansen-Quao

Well, thank you, Difie. I have had the pleasure of leading Emerging Public Leaders for the past three years. Our work primarily is based on the premise that Africa will benefit from having stronger public institutions. And our focus is really on filling the future talent pipeline with competent and ethical young professionals. We do this primarily through a two-year public service fellowship that attracts the best and the brightest university graduates in the countries in which we operate. We work as a partner with government institutions to place them where they’re needed the most. So, it’s a great way of cultivating local talent and disrupting the brain drain that usually happens (where graduates come out of a university or institutions of higher learning and are immediately attracted to opportunities in the private sector instead of the public sector). And so, we really want to improve the quality of those who work in public service institutions and equip them with the training and the architecture of support that they need in order to be drivers of transformation.

Our end goal is a continent that is peaceful, prosperous and just, and we know that can’t happen unless we have the right people in the right positions. I think for far too long, we’ve focused mostly on presidential leadership. And that’s important too, of course, but I do think that Africa is turning a specific chapter where it’s not just the head of state that’s important, it’s who’s running and leading and making decisions about budgets at the community level, the municipal level; who’s writing the policies and enacting the laws that will affect the way that future subsequent generations will live. So that’s why I think this work is important. It’s about the future. And as the world is changing so significantly, we do need a different breed of public servants who understand the challenges, but also the opportunities of a moment like this and who have the ability, the skills, the technical capacity, but also that strong ethical compass to make the choices that benefit the citizens that they are called to serve.

Interviewer

With the onset of COVID, the government has rolled out a number of interventions to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the population.  In your opinion, are these interventions adequate and rightly targeted at the vulnerable in society who are always worst affected by the impacts of this pandemic?

Yawa Hansen-Quao

It is just such an interesting moment to be a governmental leader. The pandemic has been an unprecedented assault on every country’s progress. Ghana, like many other African countries, has rolled with the punches. And I think our leadership has tried to make the adjustments, put in the regulatory framework to handle it the best they have known, but I think what’s especially important in this moment is regional collaboration, continental collaboration and global collaboration. I think the pandemic, the COVID-19 crisis itself, is teaching us that we can no longer think in silos. We see how one person bearing the disease crossing a border has the effect of spreading at such a multiplied rate. And so, I think that the Ghanaian government, as well as most governments, have done what they can. I think they’ve enacted policies that have responded to the information that they had available at any given time.

 And I think that this moment is also proving the importance of data-driven decision making. That’s why our work in a moment like this is also crucial. I can tell you the story of one of our Fellows at the Ministry of Health. He had the technical competence and the ability to analyze data and make recommendations about where staff should be deployed, which enabled his superiors at the Ministry of Health to really thoughtfully decide where and how to deploy contact tracing teams.

 We had another group of about 10 to 12 Fellows who also volunteered their time with the Ghana National Households Registry to make sure that the relief items that the government was disbursing to vulnerable communities really ended up in the right places.

I think that in many ways, there’s nothing that has driven more conversations around the importance of governance than having a pandemic – where you can’t but rely on government. That’s an important takeaway for everyone. But it also makes me especially proud to be doing this work in a moment like this because we’re seeing in real time the effect that solid networks of trusted, trained and ethical professionals can have in enabling responses to crises such as these. None of that can happen without the right public servants in place who understand, but who are also technically able. And regrettably, there are stories that are coming out right now about the unfortunate acts of corruption that a pandemic like this is also giving rise to, which is why I want to just reinforce the importance of having values-based leaders in place.

Interviewer

Thank you. Talking of corruption, I think the current pandemic has put more emphasis on the importance of transparency and accountability in government. How have you seen these impacts in countries and leaders you have worked with, and are there any specific success stories you would like to share with us?

Yawa Hansen-Quao

I think that this pandemic is showing a lot of people that their voice matters. I think that because of the disruption, but also because of these new tools that we have at our disposal, we’re seeing citizens becoming a lot more active in voicing their concerns and in demonstrating. We’ve seen lots of public protests, not just in Africa, but around the world for various causes – and not necessarily protests just because of people’s responses to the pandemic. A moment like this causes us to pause and look internally at what could be better. As we saw in Nigeria with the #EndSARS protest, and as we’ve seen in other countries, I do think that there’s still a struggle and a tension between people and their leaders and the right to know what’s going on, the right to know where our money is being spent.

In Ghana, we’ve had longstanding conversations about the Right to Information Bill and its passage. So I do think there is that tension around transparency, but in terms of the demand for accountability amongst citizens, it’s there. People are becoming much more vocal and are unafraid to let their voices be heard. And I think that’s a positive and healthy process in any democracy. I do also admire the young people who have been the face of these protests, who have said that if we do not speak up now, posterity will judge us. That heightened interest among young people to get involved is leading to more and more young people running for public office, which I think is also a great result.

Interviewer

Definitely. And I think you put it accurately when you say there’s the need for regional and international collaboration to promote balanced development across the globe. So in your opinion, what are the opportunities you see for US-Africa collaboration with the new Biden administration, and what should the US government be doing? What should African governments be doing to seize this potential?

Yawa Hansen-Quao

What happens in the US is always an influence or indicator of what happens in different parts of the world. I think there is a sense of hope and a sense of expectation that the new US administration will take a keen interest in supporting Africa’s recovery from COVID-19.  The economic implications of this are still being unearthed in many ways. I think the African Continental Free Trade Area and plans for its kickoff last year were greatly affected and disrupted by this pandemic. And so I expect (as I’m sure a lot of Africans do) that the US policies towards Africa will really be centered around post COVID-19 recovery, economic recovery. There is also already movement towards support to make sure that African countries have access to the vaccine for COVID-19, as part of the COVAX initiative.

But at the end of the day, I’m also of the school of thought that the destiny of Africa lies in the hands of Africans. And I’d love to see more robust collaborations, regionally and continentally (with bodies like the African Union, ECOWAS for the West Africa region, SADC for the South Africa region). I really think that this crisis has illuminated to many citizens across Africa the fact that we need to look internally and to rethink together about how we bounce back better, how we recover, and how we perhaps maintain a greater sense of autonomy in coming out of this.

So I do hope that this moment will be remembered as a watershed moment, as an opportunity for us to rethink what we want the future of this continent to look like. And I think that it’s going to be driven by this next generation of leaders (that are public servants and those who are activists today), who were pricked in their consciousness about Africa’s future.

Interviewer

Thank you. Now, talking of leadership on the continent, do you have any particular advice for rising young African leaders, especially women, on how to stay focused amid all the obvious challenges on the continent? In particular, what final words would you leave for young women on the continent?

 Yawa Hansen-Quao

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary people. And I think when you’re disrupted in the way that many of us have been because of COVID-19, it’s easy to be disillusioned and demoralized. But I would encourage every young person in Africa to do their best, to be a light where they are.

The research shows us that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting women – their movements are restricted, many livelihoods have been restricted. It’s easy to think, not about your country or your continent, but just about how to put food on your table. So, I have been encouraging young people everywhere to think of themselves not as victims of this moment, but as helpers. You may not be able to change the prospects for your entire community, but can you share a meal with your neighbor?

Can you babysit for an hour or two while a working mother takes a few calls? Change doesn’t necessarily have to be measured in terms of numbers. It could be measured in minutes and hours. So, I strongly encourage a spirit of volunteerism in this moment.

Interviewer

That’s true. Thank you so much on behalf of the Milken Institute. Thank you for your time. Stay safe and goodbye.

Yawa Hansen-Quao

Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

via COVID-19 Africa Watch
More analysis from COVID-19 Africa Watch: