Written Submission from the Africa Regional Office of Open Society Foundations (OSF)


April 24, 2020


Overview of OSF in Africa

The OSF network, founded by George Soros, is the world’s largest private funder of independent groups working for democracy, human rights and justice. Whilst OSF was formally founded in 1984, Soros philanthropy began in South Africa in 1979, giving scholarships to black South African students living under Apartheid. OSF’s work in Africa has expanded since then, providing support to a range of civil society organisations (CSOs) as well as post-Apartheid, post-conflict and transitional governments.


OSF opened its first national foundation in South Africa (OSF-SA) in Cape Town in 1993, followed by its first regional foundation, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) in Johannesburg in 1997. The Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OWISWA), based in Dakar, followed in 2000. The Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa (OSIEA) in Nairobi opened in 2005. Each national and regional foundation sets is own strategic objectives and thematic priorities, ensuring they are grounded in local realities and expertise.


The Africa Regional Office (AfRO) was created in 2013 to lead and coordinate the pan-African response to continental crises and opportunities. It also serves as a think-tank and provides technical advice and advocacy support to the broader OSF network on pan-African issues as well as global issues that impact on Africa. In 2020, OSF has a total allocation of USD125.7million for work in Africa.



This submission responds to a specific request from the International Relations Committee regarding questions about Africa as concerns: democracy and accountability; corruption and its impact on democracy; health challenges; and civil society. It makes the following key recommendations for the UK government:


  1. Democracy and accountability: listen closely to African citizens and African CSOs working in these areas, whilst simultaneously demonstrating the political will to engage these areas by investing greater human and financial resources to them (as well as to governments on track in these areas);
  2. Anti-corruption: complement African citizens and African CSOs’ efforts to combat corruption by addressing British actors that enable the corruption that takes place in their countries;
  3. Public health and COVID-19: take a longer-term, strategic approach to pandemic preparedness via increased support for the African Centres for Disease Control (CDC), national health system strengthening and support for national health insurance schemes;
  4. African civil society: return to supporting critical African CSOs (including African research and policy organisations) and find innovative funding mechanisms to support the younger, less patient and more technologically astute citizens that make up the new social movements now part of African civil society.


When thinking about how its policies can respond effectively to each of the four questions in this submission, the UK needs to clearly articulate a strategy that recognizes Africa’s own aspirations, knowledge, agency and need for self-representation. It must not view Africa simply as one element in a vague Global Britain concept or see the UK-Africa relationship purely in transactional terms as an obligatory part of the UK’s post-Brexit trade strategy. Doing so will require a profound shift in mind-set by the UK government towards Africa and an equally profound shift in relationships relied on to guide its engagement with Africa.



Africa faces long-standing threats (poverty, inequality, a second wave of sovereign indebtedness, economic volatility and insecurity) inherited from the colonial, Apartheid and Cold War eras and exacerbated by corrupt, incompetent and weak leadership. The failure of most African states to transform the colonial/Apartheid state into democratic states combined with self-destructive internal politics and misdirected policies has maintained this legacy.


The self-interested policies and practices of external actors, including former colonial powers as well as China and the Gulf States, erodes the agency and voice of African citizens. The continent’s new threats arise from: ‘state capture by local and global corporate elites; discrimination on multiple grounds and in multiple sectors; threats to bio-diversity caused by natural resource exploitation and climate change; the instrumentalisation of new technologies for purposes of state capture; the new ‘scramble for Africa’ by former colonial powers and emerging powers alike; and the much weaker regional and multilateral system. State capture is fuelling grievance and the militarisation of politics, opening the door to renewed authoritarianism in Africa.


In many parts of the continent, the state-building project of previous decades is unravelling in the face of ethno-nationalism, populism, violent extremism and other threats from non-state actors. After many years of structural adjustment, deregulation and economic orthodoxy, while countries such as Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Mauritius have been amongst the fastest growing economies, their growth has been jobless and non-inclusive. Africa’s un(der)employed youth are restless and hostile towards the state, whose reaction to its disenfranchised citizens has been to militarise the state, constricting civic and political space. These trends need to be reversed and replaced with genuine dialogue between citizens and the state, the outputs of which can help determine the direction of African democracy and development.


Q1: What do you see as the difference between democracy and accountability, and how are they linked?

Democracy is a form of governance in which the existence of the state, the powers that it exercises and its political and socio-economic aspirations emanate from the people through universal suffrage and the entrusting of representatives to act in the expressed interests of the people.


Any democracy’s strength today also lies in public participation, the management of diversity and the inclusion of those historically systematically discriminated against who remain the most marginalised. Africa’s youth and women also remain largely excluded politically and economically in both public and private life, with duty-bearers, policy and practice being unresponsive to their needs. The accountability mechanisms supposed to ensure the successful functioning of African democracies—defined as citizens’ ability to hold representatives to account for the powers and resources they have entrusted their representatives with—are not working in many cases.


The African state’s lack of accountability negatively impacts on African development. An unaccountable state is unable to: guarantee human security; curb abuses of power; capably make and implement laws and policies that generate economic growth and advance livelihoods and incomes; or assure the effective and efficient management of public resources. An unaccountable state is a weak one, unable to negotiate in the public and national interest with external actors (especially those with more leverage), including private actors, such as multinational corporations (MNCs). Post-conflict and transitional African states have the greatest opportunities to deepen democracy and advance development, but they are also the most vulnerable to predatory interests (domestic and external).


The UK made major commitments to Africa and its people when it signed the Joint Communique of African Union (AU)-UK Partnership in February 2019, that included collaboration on resilience, prosperity and an inclusive international system. Democratic governments that are truly accountable to their people are key to the achievement of those aims and the UK must, in relations with individual African countries and regional bodies, have that at the forefront. From the AU’s 2020 theme, Silencing the Guns to the AU’s Agenda 2063, the UK can play a key role in promoting accountable democracy in Africa. To do so, it must demonstrate political will by also listening to the continent’s citizens and African CSOs and investing greater human and financial resources in the same.


Q2: How big a challenge to democracy and accountability is corruption in Sub-Saharan Africa, and how can it best be tackled?

Between 2014-17, OSF conducted 21 country reports focused on anti-corruption agencies in Africa, highlighting the conundrum that political elites are both the perpetrators of grand corruption yet are expected to support anti-corruption investigations and prosecutions. They consistently undermine anti-corruption efforts, despite public anger and actions by non-state actors that remain the key defence against total impunity. The figures of public funds stolen are staggering. Petty bribes; the under-pricing of commodities and the over-pricing of goods and services publicly procured; tax evasion; and illicit financial flows (IFFs)—often with the complicity of banks in ‘dirty capitals’results in the loss of billions annually.


The worrying regression in electoral integrity and accountability processes is due to ‘state capture, in which public officers and representatives collude with domestic and external private actors to:


  1. Set-up informal and parallel consultation/decision-making processes outside the state;
  2. Make decisions based on private interests that adversely impact public interests, resources and services;
  3. Deploy statecraft to influence and coerce citizens, the media, the public service and the judiciary into ceding to, supporting or expediting those private interests.


As a result, constitutionalism and rule of law, democracy, the public service, parliament, the justice system as well as independent oversight institutions are neutered while impunity thrives. This is how corruption remains unchecked. In the face of these intersecting and entrenched interests, technical reforms to advance anti-corruption become largely irrelevant. Reforms can be sabotaged through pro-forma appointments to the judiciary and independent oversight institutions and being starved of public resources through the parliamentary budgeting process.


To counter state capture,’ there is a need to understand it and its impact on public institutions and governance. Analyses identifying those who influence and benefit from ‘state capture’ and how is necessary. This mapping of interests and relationships is critical for the oversight and correct functioning of all public institutions. Findings must then be evolved into public actions around which citizens can rally, for example: citizens movements against constitutional amendments to protect incumbents; civic movements for accountability; and building cultures of democracy and transparency within political parties.


Existing intergovernmental organs (such as the AU and Regional Economic Communities, RECs), their corresponding norms, standards and agreements (such as their Charters on Democracy and Elections), must adjust to acknowledge ‘state capture’ by: a) establishing new thresholds for ‘credible and legitimate elections (beyond the currently low thresholds for ‘free and fair’ elections’); and b) taking in account the use of public resources, the public administration, state security agencies to compromise the political opposition, civic actors and the vote itself.


The AU adopted its Anti-Corruption Convention in 2003. Widely ratified by member states, it came into force in 2006 and the AU Advisory Board on Corruption (AUABC) is now established in Arusha, Tanzania. Citizens of the countries studied in our series expressed disappointment at the performance of state parties, placing blame squarely on national executives and legislatures for undermining and curtailing the mandates of national anti-corruption agencies.


However, in the past few years, there has been a rise in effective investigative journalism responding to public demand. The exposure of grand corruption by investigative journalists combined with civic pressure has enabled some national anti-corruption agencies to fully exercise their mandates in dealing with corruption in some African countries, including Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia, Rwanda and South Africa. These countries have ensured that national anti-corruption agencies are independent, with adequate mandates, budgets and capacities to investigate and prosecute corruption.


Initiatives from the UK such as its Global Anti-Corruption Programme, that includes regional work in Africa as well as in key economies on the continent (Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa) with a focus on strengthening legal frameworks and stolen asset recovery are welcome. But much more needs to be done, including domestically in the UK, to demonstrate how seriously perceptions of the UK as an enabler of corruption in Africa are being taken.


Q3: What are the biggest public health challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa, and how can they best be tackled? Do these challenges affect certain groups in particular?

The well-documented public health challenges facing Africa are daunting. They range from communicable diseases (HIV/AIDs; hepatitis; tuberculosis; malaria; and a multitude of neglected tropical diseases) and non-communicable diseases (vector-borne diseases, cancers, lower respiratory tract infections, diarrhoeal and cardiovascular) to high maternal and child mortality as well as high injury and trauma rates. All of these occur within worsening environmental conditions and progressively weaker healthcare systems. Periodic outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera resulting from natural disasters (increasing due to climate change) and conflict highlight these challenges. Recent outbreaks of Ebola, not least in West Africa in 2013-16, highlight the importance of Africa’s supporters such as the UK working in genuine partnership to bring such outbreaks under control.


Today the continent, like the UK, faces the challenge of responding to COVID-19. Most African countries are under ‘lockdowns.’ This has hindered the ability of those who are in acute need to access timely healthcare. Those with physical and/or cognitive disabilities and those about to give birth experience even greater difficulties because of existing shortages in support workers, appropriate materials and information and stigma and discrimination.


The Africa CDC’s proposals for strengthening healthcare systems through capacity-building for effective responses to emergencies, addressing complex health challenges and life-saving surveillance and research have been brought to the fore by COVID-19. They provide recommendations the UK should get behind, including:

  1. Improving the capacities of public healthcare systems on surveillance and prevention of as well as on response to emergencies (including outbreaks, man-made and natural disasters and public health events of regional and international concern);
  2. Investing in maintaining preparedness at national and regional levels;
  3. Ensuring substantive portions of national budgets are dedicated to health as per previous commitments;
  4. Providing funding and technical support to the Africa CDC.


It is encouraging that the UK has already committed GBP744 million to the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic and that it will host both the Coronavirus Global Response Summit on May 4, as well as the Global Vaccines Summit on June 4. Yet only a small part of those funds has gone to the African CDC. The UK needs to take a more long-term strategic view in its support to the African CDC as well as the World Health Organisation (WHO) as part of future pandemic preparedness measures. It also needs a similarly strategic approach to health systems strengthening at country level. Part of its response should include supporting the expanded national health insurance schemes that are being piloted.


Q4: How strong are CSOs across Sub-Saharan Africa and what could be done to strengthen them?

Civic space has been shrinking for the last 15 years due to unintended effects of democratisation (and the need for entrenched power to manage it). Some long-serving African leaders such as Paul Biya in Cameroon or Yoweri Museveni in Uganda remain but (relatively) peaceful changes of power have increasingly became the norm. Incumbents are ceding power in growing numbers either after their terms ended or in the face of defeats at the polls. As a result, the political landscape has shifted from one-party states and predictable dictatorships to more sophisticated and complex power grabs. New uses of incumbency advantage and new formulas to ‘win elections have been mastered. These include legislative and non-legislative measures curtailing freedoms and rights and targeted towards CSOs even as their funding has shrunk.


The net result is that existing CSOs—and their regional umbrellas—are now in crisis, fuelling democratic backsliding at the national and regional levels. In the face of informal repression (including through state-sponsored ‘trolling’ campaigns against them and their leaders), some appear to lack the credibility to speak on behalf of constituencies that do not see the value of their existence. They are now unable to influence the AU, the RECs and the governments they are supposed to interface with on behalf of African citizens. The same applies to the AU’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC), which is supposed to: contribute, through advice, to the effective translation of the objectives, principle and policies of the Union into concrete programmes.’ It has not yet fulfilled this mandate.


In short, CSOs need to re-invent themselves to be a relevant force for those it represents. The sector needs leadership renewal, generational shifts, long-term funding, institutional strengthening and stronger ideas/knowledge/action/policy propositions able to be communicated to the public. The governments they were designed to monitor and check have changed. The constituents CSOs are meant to serve have changed too.


A younger, less patient, more technologically astute African citizen has emerged that can organise rapidly around multiple issues. Senegal’s Y’en a marre, Burkina Faso’s Balai Citoyen and the DRC’s Lucha have sign-posted the direction of travel and other, even younger groups are stretching the boundaries still further. It is up to bilateral partners like the UK to catch up with their ambition and drive if they plan to play a constructive role in helping them to keep civic and political space open on the continent.



L. Muthoni Wanyeki, PhD, Regional Director, AfRO, OSF


Jeggan Grey-Johnson, Acting Regional Manager for Advocacy, AfRO, OSF


Received 29 April 2020