The role of the state: effective leadership is about making things happen

AGRF 2020

“Having a grand vision is the easy part. The challenge is turning that vision into reality.”

The words of Rt. Hon. Tony Blair, Executive Chairman, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, speaking at the 2018 Africa Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) in a session called The Role of State Capability: Building on Success Stories.

His message was straightforward: effective leadership is about making things happen, not about getting elected. Quoting a famous US politician, he said the reality is you “campaign in poetry and govern in prose.”

He was quick to praise the progress that so many African countries are making in terms of reform, investing in infrastructure, making markets accessible, enabling technologies and more, but emphasised that much remains to be achieved. He was particularly keen to highlight Africa’s performance in adding value to raw materials. As he pointed out, West Africa produces 70 percent of the world’s cocoa but a negligible quantity of chocolate.

Ultimately, Mr. Blair told his audience, leadership is about ‘four Ps’:

  • Prioritisation: if you try to do everything, you end up doing nothing. So what are the three or four key things that will really make the difference? Ask, what do you want to be judged by?
  • Policy: somewhere, someone will somehow be grappling with a problem that you have, be it about innovation, achieving better yields, extending access to credit, building exports and more. Today, we have an open market in ideas: so study it carefully – never mind what you wrote in the manifesto, but before implementation ensure you have your priorities and policies in place.
  • Personnel: you are only ever going to be as good as the team around you, so get the best people from wherever you can. It is a great feeling to have pride in your country, but it is foolish not to access the best talent from elsewhere if it is not otherwise available.
  • Performance management: ensure that the things that need to get done actually get done, that the information you use is actually true. Follow through, and deliver against the critical things that you say you’ll do.

Leaders must never forget that politics is about people, he concluded, often living poor lives but with enormous potential. Unless things change in the right way, they will never see that potential fulfilled.



In the panel discussion that followed, Former Prime Minister of Benin and Managing Partner & Co-Founder, SouthBridge, Lionel Zinsou, agreed with Mr Blair, but pointed out the scale of the challenge involved in financing a massively decentralised sector such as agriculture.

One of the first questions he asked upon gaining office in 2015 was about the proportion of domestic financial resources dedicated to agriculture. Two percent, he was told – and that for a sector representing 23 percent of GDP and 50 percent of employment.

As he said, “You cannot mobilise potential if you are underfinanced.”

Further issues were raised by other panellists. Dr, Jendayi Frazer, Managing Partner of Africa Exchange Partners and former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, recalled how the different speeds at which public and private-sector organisations move had led her in the past to rename PPPs ‘Permanently Postponed Projects’.

And Gilbert Houngbo, President of IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) pointed out how all Ministers in a government believe their Ministry to be the most deserving case for funding. As he said, this is why everything has to start with national planning and prioritisation.

African countries’ commitment to the Malabo goals was welcomed by Dr. Shenggen Fan, Director General, IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute). “It’s true that many countries reporting in the first Biennial Review are far from achieving the target of 10 percent of national expenditure being on agriculture,” he said.

“But it shows that African leaders want to be accountable and subject to peer review. And that’s impressive.”