Tony Blair on development and leadership

On Wednesday ODI was host to Tony Blair, giving a speech on ‘leadership’ and the work of his Africa Governance Initiative

There were, of course, predictable howls of protest from people furious that ODI gave a platform to the man who sent troops into Iraq. My view, for what it’s worth, is that Iraq was terrible  but that Blair also did many good things: huge investments in the health service and education, the minimum wage, the Human Rights Act, the creation of DFID, the increases in aid.  I’m unwilling to get into a game of trying to trade these off against each other, and Iraq doesn’t cancel out the good stuff as far as I am concerned.  But anyway. 

Blair talked about the importance of effective leadership – his main argument (very much informed by his own time in government, he said) was that ‘without a strong centre, nothing gets done’.  I found this quite a refreshing challenge to the usual focus in the development canon on processes of governance and democracy.  Ideal processes won’t necessarily turn out leaders who can actually act (one might cite the American constitution and Obama’s current trials as exhibit A here), while some leaders can do considerable amounts of good while presiding over very far from ideal processes (some might argue that Kagame falls into this category – I find it very hard to judge).

One wouldn’t want to push this too far.  Being able to participate in a political process that you trust to deliver, and not being subject to opression and fear while you do so, is a good thing in itself.  But it was a useful reminder that people matter in history, and that having people who can get things done, and who want to do the right things, is a crucial part of making progress happen.  As a part of effective leadership, my former colleagues at ActionAid and Christian Aid will be pleased to know that he put a great focus on the importance of governments being able to raise their own money through tax, and the huge importance of getting investment deals right so that governments benefit. 

Rightly, most of development is focused on what happens in societies and economies at large.  But I found it quite useful to be reminded that what happens at the top of governments can be about making good stuff happen, and we should not always just focus on governments when they start doing things wrong.