Africa is the new growth frontier for a growing number of multi-national corporations. As these enterprises enter African markets, they are confronted with diverse policy challenges across the continent. For these companies, at least three policy questions arise:
- is it possible for multi-national corporations to influence policy in Africa?
- whose facts and statistics to use in framing their arguments?
- and whose advice do African policymakers and decision makers take seriously?
Companies are right to ask if it is possible to influence policy on the continent, because many locally and around the world are suspicious about outsiders attempting to influence policy in Africa. Some regard it as a sovereignty issue, believing that African governments should not heed the policy desires of companies or activists with roots outside the country or continent.
Others worry about the influence of money and corruption. The ethical question about the desirability or otherwise of allowing outsiders to influence policy indeed requires thoughtful debate and reflection, because it is now more possible to influence policy in African democracies than ever before.
Let’s call it the unrecognized democracy benefit. The reason is simple: democracies in Africa are increasingly sensitive to the opinions of voters, civil society and the needs of business. Politicians in these countries want to satisfy their citizens, attract investment and earn international respect. However, these policy-makers are not pushovers by any means, and they are often very suspicious of the true motives of business.
The wider interest
Therefore, companies that take a wider view of policy, instead of focusing narrowly on their own commercial needs are most likely to achieve policy success, because democratic African governments are more willing to act in the wider interest rather than to the benefit of a single company. A good example is the way in which the South African government accepted the recommendations of the SA Press Freedom Commission, funded by the press, after the ruling party had already decided on the establishment of a media tribunal to regulate the printed media at an earlier party conference.
Companies that want to influence policy in African countries must therefore marshal a good argument in the wider interest. But whose facts do they use?
The most unsuccessful efforts I have witnessed over the last few years had a common flaw; using foreign example to the exclusion of African statistics. Whether it is an effort to change liquor license laws or labeling laws, many companies have made the mistake of using facts from western countries to make their point – ultimately unsuccessfully.
There is another way; use the Census results of the country where the policy change is desired. Over the last two decades, the UN has been quietly successful in assisting Africa countries to improve their statistics, particularly through a regular Census. The collection and reporting of Census results is increasingly accurate and meaningful.
Census results are mostly trusted by local academics, government officials and politicians. By deploying African Census results multi-national companies not only use numbers and facts about which there is broad consensus, but they also show local trust and sensitivity. African policymakers use their own Census results to frame policy and are therefore more likely to take seriously arguments based on these same statistics. African Census results should be a prime resource for entering policy debates in African democracies.
For a long time, the assumption that foreign experts knew better than their African counterparts was an accepted wisdom amongst multi-national corporations who either themselves trusted the advice of their hometown gurus, or because their credentials are recognized and paid for by international aid organizations. Sometimes there is even a genuine desire to transfer expertise in this way.
Recipe for failure
In Africa the approach of deploying foreign experts is increasingly a recipe for policy-change failure, because non-Africans are sometimes insensitive to local culture and custom, but perhaps more importantly, they strengthen rather than weaken the sovereignty argument.
Admittedly, there are sometimes pitfalls when using local academics or experts, particularly if they are identified with specific political camps; an opposition allied academic may be at the top of her game, but would most likely be dismissed by government policymakers. An option is to use African experts, from outside the specific African country, if local experts are too compromised or not strong enough.
Multi-national corporations can make a real contribution to African success if they engage policy-makers in the wider interests of society or their entire industry rather than only in their own commercial interests. These engagements should marshal local facts and statistics – particularly Census results – and be backed by the expertise of local or at least African experts. By working with African universities and business schools or research companies to do studies using local Census results and other local research, companies can make a local case in the wider local interest. And in this way, increase their chances of policy-change success.
Thought Leader Profile
Francois Baird is the chairman, Africa at Edelman, the world´s largest public relations firm, founder and chairman of US based consultancy and investment firm Baird´s US, as well as a founder and co-chairman of British headquartered international communications management consultancy, Baird´s CMC. He is a board member of the Centre for Communication and Reputation Management at the University of Pretoria and a member of the Policy Advisory Board of the not-for-profit organisation Ocean Security International.
Francois consults internationally on issues, communication and management strategy. His specialties are public affairs, corporate reputation risk assessment and management, communication strategy and crisis management. He counts amongst his current and former clients international philanthropists, chief executives, entrepreneurs, Presidents, cabinet ministers, international leaders in civil society, senior civil servants and political leaders.
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