Public finance tops West AFRITAC’s agenda
With 8 of the 10 countries served by West AFRITAC being members of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), there are some special considerations for technical assistance that distinguish West AFRITAC, based in Bamako, Mali, from East AFRITAC, its counterpart in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. While monetary policy and bank supervision feature prominently in the work of East AFRITAC, there is more of an emphasis on public finances in West AFRITAC. Three of that center’s six resident advisors specialize in public finance, and a fourth advisor specializes in government finance statistics. This is because fiscal policy is the centerpiece of the adjustment programs in the WAEMU countries, which have relinquished the ability to conduct an independent monetary policy. The bulk of the center’s activities so far has concentrated on strengthening public expenditure management and fiscal and customs administrations, and on improving government finance statistics.
Like its counterpart in East Africa, West AFRITAC intends to maintain the priorities it set in 2003 and largely build on activities begun toward the end of the year, grouped broadly under fiscal administration, public expenditure management, debt management and financial markets, supervision of microfinance institutions, customs administration, and statistics. For example, center staff will visit Burkina Faso and other countries to help strengthen capacity for fiscal administration and budget management.
In the coming months, the center will help Benin and Guinea define the institutional responsibilities for the different agencies involved in debt management. Mauritania will receive help in undertaking a diagnostic of the computerized system of debt management. Specific technical assistance missions intended to follow up on earlier recommendations for customs administration are scheduled for Benin, Guinea-Bissau, and Togo. And, in collaboration with the Bamako-based Economic and Statistical Observatory for Sub-Saharan Africa (AFRISTAT), the center will undertake a number of activities associated with improving real sector statistics.
Under the work plan for this year, the center’s experts will conduct regional workshops on a broad range of topics, including fighting tax and customs fraud and evasion, computerizing customs administration, managing program budgets and the medium-term expenditure framework, computerizing expenditure management, compiling government finance statistics, applying best practices in microfinance supervision, combating money laundering and financial crimes, and issuing government paper and debt management. Each resident advisor is basically in charge of preparing the workshop in his area of expertise, identifying specialized local or regional short-term experts to supplement his own knowledge.
While the main priorities are not changing this year, certain new activities will be added, in line with the priorities set by the countries the center serves. West AFRITAC shows considerable flexibility in delivering its assistance, pointed out Norbert Toé, the center’s coordinator. For example, while the center had planned a large volume of activities for Guinea-Bissau in the 2003 work program, a coup d’état in September put a temporary halt to most of those activities. Following the installation of a transition government, West AFRITAC rapidly deployed resources to help Guinea-Bissau prepare a 2004 budget, which was submitted to donors for financing. Over the coming year, West AFRITAC intends to step up assistance to this postconflict country.
During its first three months of full operations, West AFRITAC provided the majority of its assistance through long-term resident advisors. For 2004—and based on the budgeted resources—the work of the resident advisors will be supplemented with significant short-term expert assistance. Since the resident advisors “backstop” the short-term experts, the fields of expertise are broadly similar, Toé explained, but short-term experts add their more specialized skills to contribute to a specific aspect of the issues tackled. With the growing need for computerized budget execution and debt management, skilled computer technicians have been in particularly high demand in these early stages of the center’s operations.
Prioritizing better coordination
Because the center has so far directed most of its efforts toward capacity building at the regional level—given that most participating countries are members of a regional economic and monetary union—West AFRITAC has been working particularly closely with the Central Bank for West African States and the WAEMU Commission. Like East AFRITAC, the center has also been cooperating with the African Development Bank, as one of the major contributors to the AFRITAC initiative, and the Harare-based African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF).
“There is room for further strengthening coordination of technical assistance providers’ activities,” commented Toé, citing this as a particular priority area for 2004. The staff of West AFRITAC is hopeful that designating a senior civil servant or a small team, in order to create a “single point of entry” in the beneficiary countries for all capacity-building and technical assistance issues, as well as developing a more proactive approach to information sharing by major technical assistance providers, will go a long way in addressing this issue. With a shift toward a more strategic and managerial role by the AFRITAC resident advisors in their respective areas of expertise, coordination will be enhanced, Toé said, explaining that positive steps have already been taken in this direction with respect to technical assistance on microfinance.
Because the center depends on the information it receives from key players in the region to be able to carry out its role most effectively, Toé stressed that coordination of technical assistance is a two-way affair, with the best results occurring when both providers and recipients share with the center the status of ongoing activities. More internal coordination between the country representative on the West AFRITAC steering committee and the beneficiaries of the technical assistance would also help, he added. Increased involvement of the IMF resident representatives in the field and regular contacts and information sharing between them and other providers of technical assistance are an essential part of this process. Moreover, an enhanced coordination process would help forge a broader alliance toward achieving the goals set forth in countries’ Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). The planned website for West AFRITAC should also facilitate coordination of these activities in the subregion.
During its February 2004 meeting, the steering committee stated explicitly that, going forward, it will be important to ensure that providers and recipients of capacity-building assistance more actively coordinate their activities to make the best use of technical assistance. For 2004, West AFRITAC plans to expand its cooperation with AFRISTAT, especially in the area of real sector statistics, while striving to enhance coordination with other regional institutions and major providers of technical assistance.
Developing indicators to monitor progress and increasing the transparency of reporting outcomes were also prominent issues on the steering committee’s agenda. The center itself, its steering committee members, and other technical assistance providers, as well as the countries served, are collectively looking for better monitoring and reporting procedures and are identifying short-term indicators that lend themselves to measurement. One such indicator could take the form of a more efficient and shorter response time to national authorities’ requests for technical assistance.
Advice for future centers
Asked what advice he would give to a newly established AFRITAC, Toé emphasized the importance of flexibility, especially given the newness of the initiative and the complexity of capacity building. “Care must be taken to ensure from the start that the countries themselves exert full ownership of capacity-building activities,” he said, adding that “keeping in constant touch with the steering committee members and various contacts in the beneficiary countries also helps tremendously, as does communicating regularly with the stakeholders, especially the donors.”
According to Toé, among the main lessons learned from West AFRITAC’s early experience is that while recipient countries are most familiar with their administrative weaknesses, they need a helping hand to assist them in devising the most effective ways to strengthen their capacity. Moreover, frequent follow-up seems to be extremely useful in making sure that technical assistance recommendations are carried through. Another critical lesson is that countries should not view the reforms they undertake in the context of their PRSPs as another layer of conditionality but rather as a process they initiate to achieve the goals they have set for themselves. A central role of AFRITAC is to help strengthen countries’ administrative capacity to better execute these reforms.
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