Rebecca Regan-Sachs

Best Ideas of 2010: Bringing Change to the Bottom with Change at the Top

Editor’s Note: This post is one in a series on the Best Ideas of 2010 for the BoP. We asked the NextBillion staff writers and editors to share what they considered to be the year’s most impactful – or potentially impactful – concepts, startups or initiatives that came to fruition in 2010.

There are many ways to help the people at the base of the pyramid-and among the most effective is to have responsive and accountable leadership at the top.

But if poor governance in places like Africa has been one of the primary impediments to development, national elections there have often provided little cause for hope. Just in the last few years, two of the continent’s largest potential economies-Kenya and Zimbabwe-have had to adopt unwieldy power-sharing governments after corrupt incumbents refused to acknowledge the likely victory of their opponents.

In Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) this November, it looked like history repeating. After an increasingly dictatorial 10 years in office, President Laurent Gbagbo appeared soundly defeated at the polls by challenger Alassane Outtara. Then began the familiar Dictator’s Dance. Despite Outtara’s certification as the winner by Cote d’Ivoire’s Independent Election Commission and the United Nations, the country’s corrupt Constitutional Council summarily annulled votes for Outtara and declared Gbagbo the winner. Amid intense domestic and international consternation, Gbago threw a lavish “inauguration” for himself and has refused to relinquish any levers of power.

But this time, the international community is not playing along. In an unusual display of unity, the United Nations, the World Bank, the European Union, the United States – and most importantly, African regional organizations ECOWAS and the African Union-have all called on Gbagbo to step down. ECOWAS and the African Union have suspended Cote d’Ivoire, and the rest are threatening sanctions, travel bans, asset freezes, and other such diplomatic measures with teeth. Perhaps most importantly in a country where Gbagbo still controls the national military, UN peacekeepers flatly refused his recent order to leave the country.

Why is this important? Next year, 17 sub-Saharan African nations will hold national elections. In Cameroon, President Biya will attempt to extend his 29-year rule marked by rampant corruption and flat economic growth. Niger will hold its first elections since a military coup this past February overthrew its autocratic government. Similar tests of democracy across the continent will determine if its poorest citizens will finally be able to hold their governments accountable for the schools, roads, jobs, health care and myriad other services that corrupt leaders have stymied for so long.

Of course, not every election result may be as clear as Cote d’Ivoire’s, and the international community walks a fine line between promoting democracy and interfering in countries’ internal affairs. Moreover, we still don’t know the outcome in Cote d’Ivoire. By the time you read this, the country could be starting either a new government or a civil war.

Regardless, 2010 must be the year to draw a line in the sand. If the African community and other international powers remain steadfast against such blatant corruptions of democracy, then future elections in this region may finally stand a chance of delivering change for the people who need it most.

Impact Assessment
Base of the Pyramid, governance