Failure to award

Can you imagine an aid-disbursing agency that refused to disburse? How often do you hear of a donor that decides not to give grants at all for lack of good candidates to receive them?

While donors do occasionally cut funding to a particular government or program, such a radical move usually requires either repeated and unrepentant corruption, or overwhelming international reprobation.

So the announcement from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation last week that it would award the 2010 Excellence in African Leadership prize to no one at all created a little bit of a stir. The prize, worth $5 million over the first three years plus $200,000 a year after that to the right former African head of state, is going unclaimed for the second year in a row.  (It went to Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique the year it was announced in 2007, and to Festus Mogae of Botswana in 2008.)

But consider the Ibrahim prize eligibility requirements. Candidates have to be 1) democratically elected heads of state who 2) served within their country’s constitutional term limits (Sorry, Museveni and watch out, Kagame) and 3) have left office within the last three years. There were only three candidates seriously considered for the 2009 prize (Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, John Kufuor of Ghana and Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo) and none were judged worthy of the prize. Since no leader left office in the months since, no new candidates have emerged. With this in mind it seems perfectly reasonable—in fact necessary—that no winner would be chosen for this year.

In an editorial in the Financial Times, Mo Ibrahim explained:

Whether there is a winner of the prize or not, the purpose of the foundation is to challenge those in Africa and elsewhere to debate what constitutes excellence in leadership. The standards set for the prize winner are high, and the number of eligible candidates each year is small. It is always likely there will be years when no prize is awarded.

Consider also that if we were expecting Ibrahim to make an award every year, perhaps we’re simply not used to an international organization setting high standards and sticking with them even in the face of apparent failure. Maybe aid agencies could even take a cue from Mr. Ibrahim and start setting higher standards for non-humanitarian aid that goes to governments rather than just doling it out again year after year regardless of whether improvements are made or conditions are met. How unfamiliar, how refreshing, for someone to actually enforce the conditions of the award, not robotically disburse aid because it has already been earmarked and budgeted for.

Still, it is discouraging that no good candidates can be found. And this year’s African presidential elections will not produce a wealth of better retirees for the 2011 or near-future prize. Ethiopia’s Meles who “won” recent elections has disqualified himself many times over. Leaders in Burkina Faso and Niger have altered their constitutions to extend their term limits, and leaders in Madagascar and Niger weren't democratically elected in the first place. Rwanda’s Kagame will likely win another seven-year term, while President Nkurunziza is currently the only candidate participating in Burundi’s elections.

We may be in for a much longer wait than just two years if Ibrahim and his foundation stand their ground.