Tanzanian President Dr. Jakaya Kikwete looked bemused as we greeted him with a classroom-like chorus; “Welcome to the education lab, Mr President!”
The education 'laboratory' was one of six that government leaders visited in a conference facility on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam. Down the corridor, other labs were thrashing out topics including water, agriculture, energy, transport and revenue collection; collectively six (with education) priority sectors that need to dramatically improve performance and quickly deliver results needed for Tanzania's sustainable growth and poverty alleviation.
The 2012 census charts a booming population - up a staggering 10.5 million to around 45 million people in just 10 years. With the population projected to double in just another 26 years, that's a lot more schools, roads, water pipes, electricity and food needed just to keep up, let alone create jobs and economic growth that can lift many more Tanzanians out of poverty.
The Big Fast Results initiative is a Malaysian concept that uses labs to bring together around 30 sector experts from a range of backgrounds to work collaboratively together for 8 weeks. They diagnose constraints, identify strategies that can quickly improve the situation and then construct detailed implementation plans and budgets to deliver tangible change in the coming two years. The process is being led and facilitated by a team from the Malaysian Prime Minster's Performance and Delivery Unit PEMANDU that under Chief Executive Officer Dato' Sri Idris Jala have achieved impressive results in their home country and are now eager to share the approach in a productive South – South Knowledge Exchange.
A key lab concept I learnt was that in 'labspeak' we typically plan from 30,000 feet (high up in plane, no detail), but that a 3 feet plan (a very detailed large scale map, skimming the surface) is needed to make sure responsibilities are properly assigned and understood. Equally important is political buy-in to budget, release and monitor government funds to implement the plans. In week 3 of the lab I was astounded to see that the Vice-President came on Monday, the Prime Minister on Wednesday and a full presidential delegation on the Friday - this was unlike any education planning event I had been to before!
Will it work or fizzle away to pipe dreams? Well the sceptic in me was pleased to see the right issues being raised and some promising solutions proposed. Teacher motivation is very low and leads to average teacher attendance rates of only 50% as a recent survey showed, no wonder student exam results have plummeted. Both the President and the PEMANDU CEO welcomed low cost accountability measures (Tanzania has joined the Open Government Partnership under Dr. Kikwete). Empowering headteachers with toolkits to let them truly lead and manage schools was proposed, balanced with publicly ranking school performance using traffic light colour schemes and scorecards. Measuring the basic learning '3R' skills of early grade students and offering remedial classes for those who had fallen behind also makes a lot of sense, but how will teacher training and extra study be rapidly organised and paid for? Telling was another poster that highlighted the volume of funds, both government and development part that needed to be 'unlocked' from red tape that for two years had impeded the development of new community secondary schools.
Within another 5 weeks of the labs to run, I hope that the detailed, achieveable 3 feet plans emerge without crash landing and that the political leadership and goodwill generated can translate into action that can re-energise Tanzania to deliver for its people. Spending a long time in South East Asia before my current 'DFID Africa' days, I have seen the Asian tigers in action and it will be most welcome to see the best of their approach be translated into transformative action for Africa. Our regular sector dialogue and planning process has felt jaded and perhaps too driven by western donors at times, so perhaps this is what's needed to get homegrown action that the government and people of Tanzania can believe in?
I wouldn't be fair if I didn't mention the fact that DFID is assisting to finance the Big Results Now! Labs, following a visit President Kikwete made to see the Malaysian approach in action. We hope that it can inject some life and accountable results delivery into the Tanzanian development scene. Hopefully I'll be able to report something 'big and fast' in the not too distant future!