USAID must save Afrobarometer, say former Africa Bureau officials

22 Sep 2016
Afrobarometer fieldwork survey

Originally posted on Democracy Digest.

One of Africa’s most important democracy advocacy organizations is in trouble because of a sharp decrease in donor funding, according to several former Assistant Secretaries in the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs.

For almost two decades and across some three dozen countries, Afrobarometer has carefully recorded the attitudes of Africans towards democracy, governance, economics, and social development. The surveys of this pan-African research network have become an international gold standard for reliable and credible measurements of African public opinion, they write in an open letter to USAID Administrator Gayle Smith:

USAID has supported Afrobarometer since its inception in 1999, and has been one of the network’s Core Donors for more than a decade. However, during Afrobarometer’s next phase, covering survey rounds 7 and 8 (2016-2020), four of its five Core Donors, including USAID, have thus far said they are unable to renew their much-needed support, leaving Afrobarometer in danger of shutting down.

Other respected organizations have published data and indexes on African perceptions of political and social developments, but none has done so with the scientific rigor and systematic precision of Afrobarometer. The network boasts up-to-date polling methods, a user-friendly data interface, and highly topical research publications, including many targeted at press and popular users. The surveys have captured the ebb and flow of African thinking on critical issues like presidential term limits, constitutional changes, and official corruption, while tracking progress in poverty alleviation, delivery of health and education services, and provision of clean water and reliable electricity supply.

Through its communications program, Afrobarometer results are shared tens of thousands of times every month via their website, social media, and widespread coverage in African print and broadcast media. Survey findings have contributed directly to anti-third term campaigns in Burkina Faso, Burundi and Togo, provided impetus to clean up the judiciary in Ghana, launched the “Pay No Bribe Campaign” in Sierra Leone, and enabled citizen organizations to hold leaders accountable for their failure to reduce poverty in South Africa.

Afrobarometer is important for three main reasons, notes Oxford University’s Dr Nic Cheeseman, the author of Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures and the Struggle for Political Reform:

First, it has generated high quality data based on a reliable methodology, and so we can have confidence in its results. This has established a valuable precedent for how surveys should — and should not — be conducted.

Second, in many cases the Afrobarometer asks the same questions in different countries and over a number of years. This makes it possible to see whether citizens think that the quality of democracy (and education, healthcare, water supply…) in their country is increasing or decreasing.

Third, the Afrobarometer is one of the only major research tools and datasets to be run in Africa by Africans. At present, the Executive Director is the widely respected Ghanaian scholar Dr E Gyimah-Boadi, and the survey is conducted by a network of more than 35 partner organisations across the continent.

Afrobarometer findings are also used widely within the USG, including for program planning and monitoring within USAID, and by analysts and embassies throughout the State Department, say the former Assistant Secretaries:

USAID was at the forefront in helping to launch Afrobarometer in the late 1990s and has been a reliable partner for the past 17 years. We believe that its contributions to the Obama administration’s policies of good governance, the rule of law and the strengthening of democratic institutions ought to continue. We respectfully suggest that, working through the State Department and USAID, the US Government should renew its longstanding commitment at the level of one to two million dollars per year for the next five years to support Afrobarometer’s current work, ideally starting with FY17 funds.

A grant of this type might also mobilize support from other donors. The Swedish International Development Agency has pledged US$5 million and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation is holding US$2.5 million pending matching funds from other sources. Thus a timely USG commitment at this stage would enable Afrobarometer to leverage resources that would go a long way towards meeting its 2016-2020 budget requirements.

Over the longer term, we also recommend that the USG help Afrobarometer establish a permanent endowment to sustain its future work.

There is an opportunity here for the international community to help sustain a major success story of democratic and developmental institution building within Africa. We strongly urge USAID to continue to play a leadership role in supporting the Afrobarometer.

Signed,

Ambassador Johnnie Carson (2009 – 2013 – above)

Dr. Jendayi Frazer (2005 – 2009)

Ms. Constance Berry Newman (2004 – 2005)

Mr. Walter H. Kansteiner, III (2001 – 2003)

Ambassador George Moose (1993 – 1997)

Ambassador Herman Jay “Hank” Cohen (1989 – 1993)

Dr. Chester A. Crocker (1981 – 1989)