Inside Policy Vault for Africa

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Policy Vault Africa, which is the first online repository of African governments’ policies and regulations, is opening the continent for opportunities, writes Chiemelie Ezeobi

Inside a small room at Johns Hopkins University’s Fast Forward U, a 10,000-square-foot innovation space in Baltimore, United States, Ridwan Sorunke, persuasively talked about his new dream for Africa—a policy vault of policies and regulations that will spur investments, development and democracy.

Around him, his friends who co-founded the organisation with him sat at the table to discuss the future. “There’s a surge of foreign interest in Africa,” Sorunke said. “But there’s an obstacle. African national governments policies and regulations are difficult to access, which is a turn-off for investors. It creates nightmares for development partners and international nonprofits seeking reforms as well.”

Motivated by this situation, the team went to work, building the first online repository of policies and regulations across all sectors for African national governments. So far, it has attracted global attention with accolades.

Recently, representatives of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent hours with the Policy Vault Africa team in a learning and listening session at its Seattle headquarters with great interest in understanding how the initiative could advance its own work in Africa.

Earlier, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) – an organisation that supports human rights, rule of law and democracy in more than 60 countries recognised Policy Vault Africa as best of its selected innovations for Africa this year.

Among major global institutions with investments in Africa, the National Endowment for Democracy, International Republican Institute and ONE campaign are engaging with Policy Vault Africa.

For its part, Johns Hopkins University, where the initiative was developed, has given its full support as a signpost to its students to accelerate innovation as one way to solve the world’s biggest problems.

Global Attention

There are many reasons why Policy Vault Africa is attracting global attention. Compared to the developed world, the creation and treatment of public policies in Africa, especially south of the Sahara, remains a backwater. The Internet has opened new and cheaper horizons, but governments still run poorly designed websites with clunky user interfaces. In many cases, the transition to digital has not even been made.

Many policy files exist only in dusty files sitting in poorly ventilated offices, rotting away. And, in other cases, governments simply refuse to release data on how they are running their societies; when they do, it is in arcane language that seeks to befuddle rather than clarify.

The status quo has led to a paucity of information on the continent. Researchers, investors, reform advocates and journalists are usually left scratching their heads and forced to rely on third party, external data – The World Bank, the United Nations – in their bid to determine the direction governments are heading. This is not enough.

One of the co-founders, a former editor at THISDAY with extensive work on policy reform in the areas of global health and economic growth across multiple countries in Africa, Adeola Akinremi says, “there is an urgent need to corral the continent’s public policies into a space that is universally accessible, safe and properly delineated so that those who need the information can access it, make sense of it and use it to build a progressive continent”.

Akinremi who leads communications for Policy Vault Africa from its Washington D.C, United States office made connection to Nigeria’s recent national debate on the amended Deep Offshore bill that was signed into law in London by President Buhari.

“Nigerians spent much of November discussing the signing of a new piece of legislation,” he said. “But who knows where the legislation is at this time. How many Nigerians and people with business interest in the oil sector have seen the content of the legislation? This is the vacuum we created Policy Vault Africa to fill.”

There is a common sense in Akinremi’s message. In its March 7th edition, the London-based Economist Magazine made a loop of generational scramble for Africa from first to third. According to the International magazine, “Outsiders have noticed that the continent is important and becoming more so, not least because of its growing share of the global population (by 2025 the UN predicts that there will be more Africans than Chinese people). Governments and businesses from all around the world are rushing to strengthen diplomatic, strategic and commercial ties. This creates vast opportunities. If Africa handles the new scramble wisely, the main winners will be Africans themselves.”

Alongside this, the tech industry has set its sights on Africa. With recent visits by major investors and players in the industry to Nigeria and other countries on the continent, it is evident that investors are seeking opportunities in Africa.

Much more, Africa is a haven for development work as international and local nonprofits push for social change. These nonprofits often need access to laws to plan their intervention in Africa.

“We’re taking this very, very seriously. The more open the government is the better for it. Policy Vault Africa is re-defining how investors and development workers engage with Africa,” said Tosin Kasali, Policy Vault’s country manager for Nigeria.

According to Kasali, “our work in Nigeria at this time is tremendous. We have in our repository more than 600 policies and regulations of Nigeria’s national government across all sectors. We’re committed to helping Nigeria attract global development support and much needed investments across all sectors.”

This type of initiative makes Africa a place of opportunities, one that is being shaped by and for the African people.

Indeed, Africa is poor for a myriad of reasons but a major one is the failure of governments to create sound, consistent policies that benefit their people. Although the bane of bad policy has its roots in the quality of leadership, it is also seriously affected by the level of democratic scrutiny.

For example, when governments make policy, how many people are involved and how many, especially those – academics, who have the ability and incentive to make it better or use it as supporting knowledge to envision a better society, have access to the policies? The answer is, perhaps, not a lot.

With intention to serve as a policy pavilion with synthesis and analysis of policy contents that have historically been difficult to access, Policy Vault Africa will now enable stakeholders to search for any policy in any sector in any country in Africa.

Timi Iwayemi, another co-founder who serves as a lead director at the organisation notes that “this will make Nigeria an attractive investment haven as investors will be able to understand countries commitment through the policies they have put in place.”

Obviously, if Policy Vault Africa succeeds in achieving its hugely lofty goal of providing access to policy and regulations “in any sector across any country in Africa”, transparency will shoot up in Africa; and with higher transparency comes a harsher spotlight on governance, rule of law, corruption and the ability to hold leaders more accountable for their actions and its effects on their publics. But can they pull it off?

Fast Success
Policy Vault Africa, despite being new, has already set out with guns blazing. On its website, the organisation says it has close to 2000 policies and regulations from African countries. The response from academic institutions, philanthropic organisations, non-profits, national governments and investors have also been exhilarating, according to Iwayemi.

“This is a great opportunity for African national governments to scale up policies that bring development because Policy Vault Africa is a see-through window for global partners who desire to engage with Africa on democratic development, economic reform and investments,” Iwayemi says.

Since the organisation’s website went live, it has received the highest traffic from research environment. “That tells us one thing: students, academics and think tanks – the go-to organisation for proposals and policy advice on key economic, health, security, social and environmental issues – are all using Policy Vault Africa,” Akinremi notes.

“Fixing Africa’s problems requires active and involved citizens. The moment has come to overturn decades of lost investment opportunities in Africa with this bank of policies,” he adds.

What Next?

With offices and personnel in strategic country capitals including Washington D.C, Accra, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Abuja and Kigali, Policy Vault Africa is poised to become a force to reckon with in the area of policy intelligence across Africa.

“It’s a pan-African initiative,” the organisation’s country manager for Ghana, Zarina Bentum, says, “and the vision is to ensure that no country is left behind.”

Its growing pool of information will make it easier and faster to know how governments are tackling various social and economic issues which affect the lives of billions of people and, inevitably, the entire planet. Beyond that, its work will also drive collaboration between governments, improving learning outcomes about what works and what doesn’t.

The organisation hopes to be sustainable through subscription fees. However, to scale quickly, it will require support from institutions who are willing to support initiatives that can help transform the continent. Policy Vault Africa has the potential to transform African governments’ policymaking processes, improving outcomes across the continent.