Mid September’s Frontiers in Development conference hosted by USAID was a celebration and a reflection. It celebrated halving global extreme poverty between 1990 and 2010 and reflected on the next big goal: eliminating extreme poverty by 2030. It’s an admirable aim but the next mile will be even harder. Growth, especially in China, which lifted 680 million people out of poverty between 1981 and 2010, played a pivotal role in the gains of the past few decades. Today, extreme poverty is increasingly concentrated in fragile states, with weak governments. And with the link between growth and falling poverty broken in many countries, governments will need to fix it.

Appearing at the USAID Frontiers in Development conference last week, AGI’s patron Tony Blair discussed with Raj Shah the nexus between politics and ending extreme poverty.

Appearing at the USAID Frontiers in Development conference last week, AGI’s patron Tony Blair discussed with Raj Shah the nexus between politics and ending extreme poverty. / USAID

As Francis Fukuyama haswritten in the Wall Street Journal, effective government provides “personal security, shared economic growth and the basic public services (especially education, health care and infrastructure) that are needed to achieve individual opportunity.” And without those things, zero extreme poverty won’t happen. So how can we build effective government? We need to start by providing support that’s “politically smart and locally led,” in the words of David Booth and Sue Unsworth, leading governance experts.

This isn’t always easy to do. It requires flexible funding and adapting approaches as you go, which isn’t always possible for major development agencies. One positive example from our work here at the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) is found in Rwanda. In 2011, only 16 percent of the population had access to electricity, and, lacking capacity and expertise, the government was struggling to get big power projects off the ground.

President Paul Kagame decided Rwanda should focus all government capacity building on four key areas, including energy. From there, the government, with support from AGI, set up a capacity building program that brought in international experts to work with young Rwandan counterparts across the energy sector. This approach meets the twin goals of delivery and capacity building at the same time. The results are starting to show. There’ll be a boost of 230MW to Rwanda’s grid in the coming years – enough to power tens of thousands of households and small businesses. And these gains look likely to be sustainable – local staff are already taking over from many of the external experts.

The political and the local have been essential to the program’s success. President Kagame has kept the government focused on implementation and the government designed the initiative in a “locally problem driven” way, in Matt Andrews’ words – around a cadre of young Rwandan professionals. AGI’s role as partner has been to help set up systems that work “with the grain.”

The lesson for those of us who work on development is to identify what political leaders really care about and “give them politically realistic advice,” as Tony Blair told USAID Administrator Raj Shah at the Frontiers in Development conference, because they set the real priorities of government.

The U.S. Government’s Power Africa initiative is a great example. The focus of the program is right because energy is an issue that’s high on the agenda of many African leaders as well as being central to economic development. And USAID’s approach is smart because, as well as providing access to capital and technical expertise, it aims to help leaders identify politically feasible routes to manage reforms – something AGI will support through a group of senior former government, energy industry and investment figures. This is important because the politics around things like putting in place the right legislation and setting up effective, independent regulators can be tricky.

The good news is this isn’t groundbreaking. “We need to recognize that development is fundamentally a political process, not a technical one,” wrote Raj Shah in the Frontiers in Development publication. Or as Tony Blair puts it ‘if you miss the politics, you miss the point.’ So the political leader and the development leader seem to agree. If we miss the politics we may miss the chance to end extreme poverty.


Dan Hymowitz is Head of Insight and Learning for the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative