Mr. Blair goes to Africa

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has brought his experience in governance to Africa, where he and a cohort of consultants advise leaders on such things as health care and private investment.

Nazia Parvez/AP/File
Tony Blair greeted Sierra Leoneans during a 2009 visit to Freetown.

Four years after stepping down as Britain's premier, Tony Blair is taking lessons learned in office and applying them in Africa.

Mr. Blair is pioneering a new approach to aid here, bringing in teams of young consultants to work with government officials as they tackle their country's thorniest policy challenges. Blair's organization, the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) has one underlying goal: to get things done.

"I came to the conclusion at the end of my time in office that aid was very important, but actually governance was as important – and governance not simply in the sense of honesty or transparency, but governance in the sense of effectiveness, of capacity," Blair told the Monitor. "With any of these countries, you can get a thousand consultancy reports that tell you what to do; that's essentially not very hard to work out. The question really is how to do it," he added.

And that's what his teams of young advisers – many of them recruited from firms like McKinsey and J.P. Morgan – are trying to figure out in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Rwanda, the three countries where AGI operates. In Sierra Leone, AGI has helped bring electricity to Freetown and implement a program of free health care for pregnant women and children under age 5. They're also supporting small farmers and working to attract private investment.

At the same time, Blair interacts with the presidents of the three countries, offering advice and serving as a sounding board for ideas. Those personal relationships are critical to AGI's effectiveness, he says.

"[AGI] only works if the president wants it to work, and if the president's really anxious to just get in the best lessons from abroad," Blair says, adding: "One advantage of being a former leader is that you know what it's like to sit in the seat."

As helpful as Blair's relationships may be, their importance to AGI's work may ultimately curtail the organization's influence.

"What's behind AGI is an individual, not an institution," says Mia Seppo, the head of the United Nations Development Program in Sierra Leone. She notes that if Sierra Leone's current president, Ernest Bai Koroma, is voted out in next year's election, Blair could lose access to key policymakers.

AGI's focus on delivering results has been effective, Ms. Seppo adds, noting that Blair and company have done "an excellent job," especially in attracting investment. But, she says, "you can't brush aside institution-building" – the types of reforms that will bring lasting changes to the way the government is run. "In a sense, you need to combine the focus on results with public-sector development."

Blair says he chose to focus his work in Africa because the continent "needs it most," but also because the region has enormous potential. "I think there is a buzz about Africa today that is different," he says, adding that the continent is "on the cusp of a big change."

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