Olawunmi Ola-Busari, class of 2020, spent her summer in Ghana interning for the World Bank where she worked with a team supporting the Government of Ghana’s Public Sector Reform for Results Project (PSRRP).
As I left my home in Pretoria for my summer internship with the World Bank in Accra, I was unsure of what to expect. I was born in Nigeria amidst the austerity and protests that accompanied the country’s implementation of the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Program—a fact reflected in my household nickname (SAPlitus) and my ambivalence towards the role of the World Bank in the development of sub-Saharan African countries. Having decided to subject my assumptions to the experience of actually working with the World Bank, I was nervously excited about becoming part of the team supporting the Government of Ghana’s Public Sector Reform for Results Project (PSRRP).
The PSRRP aims to improve efficiency and accountability in the delivery of key public services to citizens and firms in Ghana over the next five years. This aim speaks directly to one of the questions that most motivates my career: “How can we make public service delivery more efficient, cost-effective, sustainable and responsive to the needs of its clients?” During my time in Ghana, I have had the opportunity to observe the government’s response to this question through its National Public Sector Reform Strategy for 2018 to 2023, which the PSRRP partially supports.
Throughout the summer, I have learnt about what public sector reform looks like in practice, worked alongside those providing guidance to and oversight of the reform process, and built on my work experience in the region of the world I am most invested in. The experience has also forced me to rethink previously-held assumptions about the role of the World Bank in development and helped me gain clarity on the kind of work I find most engaging.
One of the most useful insights I have gained through this internship is an appreciation of the immense undertaking implied by the process of reform. I have observed in Ghana that it is a process that requires sustained political buy-in across successive administrations, iterative consultations with stakeholders, consensus-building, and the effective coordination of numerous actors. Furthermore, the challenge of fulfilling these requirements is compounded by the number of institutions involved in the reform and the existing capacity constraints they each face.
It is in relieving these capacity constraints that I have found the involvement of the World Bank to have the greatest value. Its financial support adds to the limited government revenue otherwise available for reform among a government’s competing priorities and special initiatives. Its technical support helps build the human capacity of the public sector, especially with regards to maintaining best practice in financial management and procurement. Furthermore, as an external actor to which the government has to be accountable, and by linking financial disbursements to the achievement of agreed-upon indicators, the Bank’s involvement drives a results-oriented implementation process with a greater emphasis on monitoring and evaluation.
In addition to developing a new respect for the work of the World Bank, my time working within the Project Management Unit (PMU) in the Office of the Senior Minister has been incredibly rewarding. The PMU is responsible for the overall coordination of PSRRP activities and staffed by public servants with decades of experience in the public sector, a number of whom have worked on public sector reform across both the current and past administrations.
The public servants whose work I have had the pleasure of supporting in the PMU have welcomed me as one of their own, answered all of my questions, and always taken my suggestions for improvements seriously. The knowledge they have shared with me has offered valuable insight into the broader political context against which the PSRRP is being implemented. Moreover, through our various discussions, I have learned about their motivations for working in Ghana’s public service, the challenges they face, and what they see as their greatest achievements. These conversations have encouraged me to continue looking beyond the common criticisms of public sector actors to find the individuals within institutions who are champions of good performance and accountability.
In contrast to working from the World Bank’s Accra office, where I learned a lot about the Bank’s procurement and financial management guidelines that govern the project, working in the PMU involved providing direct support to the day-to-day activities of those responsible for implementing the project. I have assisted in drafting documents, helped to edit procurement documents, maintained communication between project actors, contributed to meetings, helped identify challenges to project coordination, and suggested mitigation strategies. Through feedback from my PMU colleagues on my work, I have learned to better attune myself to the political motivations of different stakeholders and now understand my attention to detail and ability to create structure as two of my greatest assets. The experience of working within the PMU also taught me that I prefer working closer to the level at which implementation is taking place and directly supporting those responsible for carrying out project activities.
My concern for the public sector and the quality of its performance has been and continues to be shaped by my experience of the African countries in which I have lived and worked. In these countries, the most accessible services are often those that are publicly provided. As such, I remain cognizant of the millions of people who continue to rely on public institutions for identity, health, education, financial support and safety. At a time when private actors are an increasingly powerful force for human development through enterprise, technology and philanthropy, there are times I feel my concern for the public sector is archaic. Nevertheless, I am regularly reminded that even the potential of private actors to affect positive change is often defined by government action (or inaction).
When the quality of public institutions deteriorates and these institutions begin to fail those who rely on them most, we must contend with the reality that there is no mobile app that can replace good governance and, in the words of Ory Okolloh, that “we cannot entrepreneur around bad policy.” It is in response to this reality that Ghana’s government has taken on the ambitious task of reforming its public sector, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity, as part of my own response to this reality, to be a part of their ongoing efforts. Meda w’ase World Bank, PMU and Ghana for a great summer!