Learning to Lead Economic Growth during COVID-19

6 mins read

Guest blog written by Yakama Jones

My country suffered from the Ebola crisis six years ago, experienced negative growth rates and is yet to attain pre-Ebola growth rates. It is in the midst of the recovery process that the current Corona pandemic has struck. There is a general scale down in economic activities, rise in employment, and risks of food insecurity in vulnerable households. This is coupled with existing challenges in human capital development and infrastructure. The introduction of movement and social distancing restrictions in a bid to ‘flattening the curve’ has exacerbated already existing multi-dimensional poverty and social protection issues. Despite some financial support from International Finance Institutions, and donations from the private sector, the economic impact of COVID-19 on our import-driven economy, which we have spent the last couple of years struggling to diversify, would be long-lasting.

Yes, there is a lot of data, albeit high-level projections of the economic impact of COVID-19. The forecasts produced with technical support from the IMF, saw original GDP growth projections for 2020 being revised downwards from 4.2% to -2.2%; Balance of payments worsening from $30.2 million to -$301.3 million; and domestic revenue falling by about 15%. Resources are being diverted towards the health response and the Quick Action Economic Response Programme. 

Nevertheless, I am convinced that the implementation of the country’s Medium-Term National Development Plan has slowed down. There is a need to re-evaluate current progress and re-strategise our approach to growth and development to help catch up and accelerate growth, especially for the delivery of His Excellency the President’s Human Capital Development Priority Portfolio. It is within this context and aim to contribute to Post-COVID growth that I enrolled on the Leading Economic Growth Course.

One of the first things I learnt from this course is that the challenge of addressing economic growth and making sure it leads to development is not a complicated but complex problem. Like every country, mine comes with its history, experience, governance styles, natural resource endowments, institutions and humans. As humans, we are already complex beings. Bringing all our knowledge, skills, technology, and other production capabilities together are also complex. The interconnections across the ecosystem are numerous, and so are the possible outcomes. Country experiences and positions are continually evolving. Sometimes it is just not easy to determine what would ‘make the monkeys jump’.

I also learnt that we must try to move away from implementing policies in the form of ‘copy and paste’ from economies of ‘similar economic structure’ or international best practice. We must be intentional in undertaking our growth diagnostics to identify our binding constraint versus working through a laundry list of reforms. I loved both the “Fishbone” and “Decision Tree”approaches. 

Of course, data and evidence must guide our approach; hence the engaging with the “Atlas of Economic Complexity” was super exciting!  My country is not included due to our inherent problem with data and statistics; therefore, ironically, I ended up exploring the complexity and product space of countries with similar economic structure and also neighbouring countries. I deduced that countries like mine need to invest in improving ‘knowledge’ to add to the ‘complexity’ of existing products to earn more revenue. This could then be used to attract more ‘monkeys’ with higher quality ‘know-how’ and investment in supporting technology and infrastructure. Once this knowledge and technology mix is being developed, the country can strategically diversifyinto more complex products.  This can move the country from ‘Bridge over troubled waters’ to the ‘Hey Jude: make it better’quadrant for onward movement into higher quadrants.

However, this requires the right leadership mix to design interventions, sequence them appropriately and ensure that positive changes are sustained. From what I learnt from this course, a “Solution and Leader Driven Change” (SLDC) approach on its own will be inadequate for the complex growth problem my country is facing. A mix of both SLDC and a “Problem-driven Iterative Adaptation” (PDIA) approach is what is needed with multiple agents to drive implementation. 

As a country, our medium-term goal is sustainable, inclusive growth and attainting middle-income status by 2039.  If the outcome should be inclusive, it only makes sense that the process is also inclusive.  Hence, I was super excited to learn about implementing a growth strategy through the collective efforts of Multiple Agents.  In my role as Director of Research and Delivery in the Ministry of Finance, I see myself having a clear role in supporting this process. I am excited about being part of the journey wherein practitioners across the public and private sector engage in an action-learning oriented iterative approach to pursuing our country’s growth strategy. 

Listening to lectures by Ricardo Hausmann and Matt Andrews, reading through the case studies, and prescribed readings, I notice that one of the strengths of this process is that it goes beyond policy documentation. It is practical engagement with a problem.  Being practical in problem-driven work allows people who are responsible for solving the problem and have the required authorisation to learn actively, apply existing knowledge, assess shortfalls and learn new ideas. It allows them to experience these policies in action; hence casual links are identified for improvement or replacement where necessary. Capacities are built, and practitioners don’t only ‘know why’ but also ‘know-how’. Through this approach, practitioners in teams, actively engage in the policymaking and implementation process; hence learning is mainstreamed throughout the process. They learn ‘on- the- go’. Given that it is iterative, practitioners try something, and the lessons learnt can be applied, and opportunities for further learning continue. I did, however, wonder though, what it would be like managing a deep dive session in real life wherein participants seem to be stuck in the ideation and iteration process for an extended period.

More than 60% of our citizens are multidimensionally poor. There is a substantial urban-rural divide.  Nonetheless, the provision of services across key sectors- health, education and agriculture have been devolved to Local Councils. This course has once again heightened the importance of assessing our growth and inclusion both nationally and sub nationally taking other dimensions such as gender and social groups into consideration.  But who would do all of this? Multiple Agents- The Authorisers, The MotivatorsThe ConvenorsThe ConnectorsThe Problem IdentifiersThe Ideas PeopleThe Operational EmpowerersThe Implementers, and The Resource Providers. Yes, Reader, you are part of this and have a role to play! It goes beyond mainstream government. There is a role for civil society, the private sector, development partners, local leaders, Think Tanks and ordinary citizens!

What we need for the implementation of a game-changing growth strategy is multiple change agents with a strong ‘Sense of Us’. Policy formulation and implementation need to be owned by everyone. Like-minded leaders must exist at ever cadre of society. If not, there would be a disconnect, and the intended sustainable positive change would never happen. With positive change agents working with the smallest administrative units and embedding the vision, ‘know-how’ and delivery approach, a more significant ‘Sense of us’ is created. Collectively, the nation would be more aligned with the growth strategy being pursued and have greater clarity of what is required of every citizen for it to be successful. 

For me, immediate success would be identifying those three things that constrain the country’s growth and mapping the path to addressing them, especially within the context of recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Continued success would be implementing well-thought-through ideas with a team of capable and committed public and private sector players with the blessings of the highest political office. This will include the availability of the necessary convening power and resources to ensure this process is successful. A tighter and clearer relationship with the private sector as well as the universities and Think Tanks for continuous learning, capacity building and generation of evidence to support policymaking is also needed.

I have learnt that leading growth should not be a one-off- planning exercise. It should include embedding the learning process throughout policy formulation and implementation. This will help create a generation of citizens capable of diagnosing and driving the country’s growth for the foreseeable future.

Ours is a complex system, with complex individuals facing complex problems. I cannot tell how long this creation of ‘PDIA Change Agents’ will take, but we need to start. So, in designing our growth interventions, I encourage all of us to be guided by these words of Ricardo Hausmann: “Any growth strategy for inclusive economic growth must empower people by including them in the networks that make them productive. Inclusiveness thus should be seen not as a restriction on growth to make it morally palatable, but as a strategy to enhance it by”

This is just a brief of what I have gained over these ten weeks——.  new ideas; new tools; new concepts; new approaches, active thinking about entry points; who else to recommend this course; re-examining our national development plan and so much more. 

I am especially grateful for, brainstorming, learning and sharing lessons with my incredible group HKS LEG #26! 

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Leading Economic Growth Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 10-week online course in July 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

To learn more about Leading Economic Growth (LEG) watch the faculty video, and visit the course website.

1 Comment

  1. From what I have learned from this piece was that each country in world is endowed with its natural resources and as a result it is from those resources we map out a way to utilize the resources efficiently and effectively, but we failed to is to copy and paste models which not are fits and difficult to suits our economy as a whole.

    I totally agree with you for Africa economy to remodel these models in order to create positive impacts into our economic growth

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