Public Service in Developmental States and the Ethiopian case

(Berhanu Tsegay)

A major effort directed at establishing the relationship between public administration and development was undertaken by the United Nations recently. The UN’s Report (2005) stated that “no matter how organized and constitutional a government is, it would not get very far in the absence of public administration system capable of translating its broad political intentions, enforcing its laws and delivering services needed by the people. Without a professionally competent public administration, the state cannot count on making those things happen which it wants to see happen or on pre-empting undesirable developments”.

Various studies indicate that the public sector is responsible for the:-

* Design of public policy. (In other words, they translate vision of elected officials into policy);

* Implementation of policies and programmes of governments to achieve sound economic development;

* Raising of revenue (and overseeing public expenditure);

* Management of accountability

These functions are performed by the public sector in all states. But in the developmental state, because of the dominant role of government in providing the Rostowian pre-conditions of take-off (Rostow, 1968), and the relative weakness of (indigenous) private sector, the public sector takes on an even greater role in national development.

Contrary to the prepositions of liberal economists that getting the price righter relying on the market, leaving productive activities to the private sector, and limiting the role of the state to creating the conducive environment for other operators are the keys to development, today there is a strong body of literature that shows that the neoclassical approach is not valid (Stiglitz, 1996). Indeed development has been is the deliberate creation by the State and public services. If the private sector is the engine of growth, in a developmental State, the driver is the government supported by the public service. Therefore, it is possible to label the government of a particular nation is as the father of developmental State, while the mother is no doubt the public service of the country.

The litmus test of effective public service in the developmental State however, goes beyond formulating and implementing policies. The test is on:

1/ The capacity of the public service to support government to draw up a long term vision and agenda and to implement that consistently over time.

2/ The ability of the State to adapt such policies in the light of changing circumstances. For example, while African countries and their Asian counterparts both started with import substitution, the former were not able to transit into an export orientation mode when the need arose because of the low capacity of their public services.

3/ The development of an environment that is conducive for non-state actors to produce efficiently.

4/ The achievement of overall human development.

Experience from the Southeast Asian Countries


Singapore developed from third world to first world in one generation and that does not cease to fascinate the many. What is often missed is that the public administration in Singapore is probably the most educated professional body among public servants in the world and constitutes a major explanatory factor in the meteoric rise of that country. And to the extent that there was deliberate effort directed at building the public service since it became independent in 1994, the average earnings of a public servant is higher than their private sector counterparts.

As a guided democracy, the bureaucracy of Singapore played a key role in rolling out the vision of President Lee Kuan Yew. It managed the resources of the State with minimal corruption and high level of accountability (John Weiss, 2005). That effectiveness of the Singaporean Public Service may be attributed to:

1/ National leadership that provided the vision, agenda that gave clear direction to the Service. The leadership expressed confidence in and used the Service.

2/ Continual reforms of the service adopting best practices in recruitment, training and motivation. The Service became an object of continual reform especially in the 1980s focusing not only on technical competence but work ethic and values, transparency and accountability. The Prevention of Corruption Act was passed in 1960. (M. M. Khan, 1998).

3/ An important aspect of public service reforms in Singapore has been the emphasis on meritocracy in recruitment, promotions and continuous training.

The result is that today the Singapore Civil Service is one of the most efficient and least corrupt in the world. Moreover, the Public Service of Singapore has managed various policy transitions and innovations effectively. These include a pension scheme that makes Singapore one of the top nations in terms of savings as a proportion of GDP. It also managed epochal shifts in trade policy from labor intensive import substitution (1959-1964), through labor intensive export promotion (1967-1973) and upgrading of production and export structure (1973- 1984) to an economy that exports high technology products today (John Weiss, 2005).


Malaysia is another country which has experienced transformation of its economy through a combination of visionary leadership and strengthened public administration. The country reformed and strengthened its public services and that has enabled it to emerge as one good performing development states today even though it continues to face some problems and challenges including corruption, inefficiency, procedural delays in service provision and lack of professionalism according to Noore Alan Siddiquee (2007).

Dr. Mohamed Mahathir, the Prime Minister “underscored the importance of innovative and dynamic public service in the context of its new roles and provided direction for its reform with clear emphasis on the development of clean, efficient and effective administration. His Vision 2020, the national strategic plan for Malaysia to become fully developed in 30 years time, and major economic policies have called for fundamental shifts and improvements in public governance” (Siddiquee, 2007).

The Malaysian Public Service, has one of the most well-structured schemes of service training with the national public service school, INTAN. The Malaysian Public Service, as in Singapore, has been at the forefront of rolling out the Government’s agenda 2020 vision for the past two decades. Malaysia like Singapore, demonstrates the power of combined quality leadership and efficient public service in a developmental State.

The Malaysia civil service played a significant role in the country’s achievement of economic growth and equity and policy shifts. Starting with import substitution in the 1960s the economy shifted to a relatively open economy in the 1980s and 1990s successfully.

The patterns of reformed public services playing strategic roles in national transformation are also evident in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. For example, South Korea witnessed systematic improvement in the economy especially during the two decades after President Park Chung Hee declared a national emergency in 1971 despite the fact that Parks and his successors ruled the country with an iron fist because of the quality of the public service they nurtured. Because of its efficient public service, the country did not suffer the declines under similar regimes in Africa. The National Economic Bureau of South Korea brought the government, public servants and the private sector together with the backing of the intellectually strong Korean Development Institute to oversee transformation of the country from a low productivity agrarian nation to one of the foremost technologically and industrial countries in the world today (Adei,  2008).

The public services of South Korea were strengthened through a series of reforms to implement national policy. Major reforms included:

* Open and competitive recruitment;

* Open job posting system with positions open to all applicants

* Systematic and mandatory senior civil service development programmes and certification;

* Annual merit based incremental programme.

These elements coupled with relatively efficient and capable public services and led by visionary political leaders, the South East Asia countries implemented national vision and policies that guided and caused the development and growth of the economies. That is why rightly, Stiglitz (1996) attributes the fast growth of the Asian Tigers more to political governance than economics. He notes that the Asians used incentives and organizational design to improve their countries, established institutional framework and structures to transform their economies and ensure sustainable growth. In short, the Asians had effective States and effective States are underpinned by effective public services (Gyimah-Brempong, 2008).

Similarly, Kumssa and Mbeche (2004) indicated that South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore- the four dragon – have managed to realized that a professional, meritocratic and qualified public service is essential to ensure effective and efficient delivery of public services and combat bureaucratic corruption, then became successful in their overall developmental endeavors.

In sum, an effective civil service for good governance; includes being:-

* efficient and effective in delivery of services

* highly professional and capable

* operating according to merit-based principles, combined with sensitive management practice

* loyal in the execution of the policies of the government; and

* strongly committed to public interest

Today the Asian Tigers are among the most competitive economies in the world with high human development indicators. On the global competitive list Singapore ranks 5th, Hong Kong 11th, Taiwan 13th, South Korea 24th and Malaysia 26th. African countries if they do appear on the list at all rank beyond 100. Similarly the Asian Tigers hold themselves up on the table of human development indicators with all of them among nations classified as having high human development indicators.

Generally, it is important to note that the political leadership of the Tiger Asian Countries believed that “state authority and intervention are key factors in the development of a nation” and thus it was necessary “to have an adaptive domestic political economic structures” which in turn is premised on strong, motivated and efficient public services (Chang and Ottinger, 1985). In other words, the developing State must have capacity to manage its development beyond the liberals open borders approach.

What is missed in the Ethiopian Public Service?

As many authors have pointed out, the whole process of effective New Public Management (NPM) requires, among other things, a macro institutional/governance environment which is characterized by the presence of institutions that could provide checks and balances and enhance accountability (Pirotta 1997; Warrington 1997). It also requires a system of rule of law reflected by the existence of a credible and independent judicial system as well as openness and transparency. NPM also demands that appointment and promotion be made on the basis of merit rather than political and personal loyalty.

When considering the Ethiopian situation, the above preconditions for NPM are yet to be fulfilled. Rather, it lacks a clear border among the executive, legislative and judiciary bodies. There is also a deficiency of appropriate institutions or fora for citizens to express their views collectively or individually on public issues. Effectively functioning opposition political parties and strong interest groups seem to be non-existent. The mass media and independent press are underdeveloped and the practical implementation of the rule of law is highly questionable.

As a result, the country’s governmental institutions can be characterized by inadequacy of a system of accountability, responsiveness and transparency. Moreover, despite the optimistic reform, there is still no guarantee that the best candidates are selected to be employed in the civil service and that those most capable of managing will be allowed to do so. Given these, the effective implementation of the civil service reforms becomes questionable.

Most of the theoretical experiences in the Southeast Asian countries, could be easily taken. However, putting them into practice is still much farther than what they should be. In the Ethiopian government institutions, there is an acute shortage of effectiveness of the civil service for good governance. Due to the existence of poor technique of measurements of the public servants’ effectiveness and efficiency, successful delivery of services is not common characteristics of most governmental institutions of the country.

Staffing the highly professional and capable individuals is a rarely phenomenon. Nepotism and favoritism are already widely spreading as customary practices in most of the federal and regional government institutions of the country. This would undoubtedly jeopardize the actual application of democratic-developmental state model in Ethiopia. Merit-based recruitment is systematically discouraged and considered as an auxiliary rather than main criteria by sizable number of the institutions’ top leaders and managers who are infected with ethnocentrism and chauvinism mentality.    

Moreover, due to the prevalence of rent-seeking behavior, commitment to public interest is hardly in existence. Besides, because of lack of adequate knowhow about the concepts and benefits of democratic-developmental state model among the public servants, loyalty in the execution of policies of the government by the public servants is not as needed as required.


Modern states require good governance framework, efficient public goods and services and national competitive environment for non-state actors. The public service in a country plays critical role in all that: policy design, implementation and monitoring. There is no doubt that the prime movers of the Asian miracles were the visionary and transformational leaders that led their nations. However, the major institutional vehicles to deliver development were undoubtedly powerful agencies that prepared national development plans and coordinated their implementation and efficient public services. Seeing the pivotal role of the public services they became the focus of continuous reforms and improvement.

African countries will need the same triumvirate of visionary developmental transformational leaders; credible powerful, capable and committed national think tank; and efficient, motivated and transparent public services to develop. Effective developmental states are deliberately created and not the result of letting the markets decide in the face of market failures.

The Ethiopian governmental institutions should seriously and practically implement the previously expressed best experiences of the Southeast Asian countries. The poor technique of measurements of the public servants’ effectiveness in delivery of services should be improved. They should prioritize the highly professional, merit-based and capable individuals when staffing by at least minimizing nepotism, favoritism, rent-seeking, ethnocentrism and chauvinism mentality. And, they should provide their public servants with continuous orientations about the concepts as well as advantages of democratic-developmental state model that is being implemented in the country.


* Adei, S. 2008. Building a Capable Public Administration. Chapter 11 in Baffour Agyeman-Duah, Governance in the Fourth Republic. Accra: Ghana Center for Democratic Development. Digibooks Ghana Limited.

* Chang, Charlotte and Ottinger, Gwen. NICs Lessons of Economic Growth. Retrieved on January 2, 2017

* Gyimah -Brempong, Kwabena. 2008 Strategic Lessons for Africa’s Economic Transformation: An Overview. African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) Seminar on Growth in Africa, Accra July 7-8,

* Khan, M.M. 1998. Reform in the Singapore Civil Service. Lessons for Bangladesh. BPIS Journal 1914, page 337.

* Kumssa, Aster and Mbeche, Isaac M. 2004. “The Role of Institutions in the Development process of African Countries”. International Journal of Social Economics, Vol. 31 No 9 pp. 840-857

* Pirotta, G. A. 1997. Politics and public service reform in small states: Malta. Public Administration and Development 17: 197-207.

* Rostow, W.W 1968. The Stages of Economic growth: Non Communist Manifesto, Cambridge UP.

* Saddiquee, Noore Alan. 2007. Public Service Innovations, policy transfer and governance in the Asia- Pacific Region: The Malaysian Experience. JOAAG Vol. 2 No.1.

* Stiglits, J. E. 1996. Some Lessons from the Asian Miracle, World Bank Observer Vol. 11. pp 151-177

* United Nation. 2005. Public Administration and Development. Report of the Secretary-General, A/60/114.

* Warrington, E. 1997. Introduction. Public Administration and Development 17: 3-

* Weiss, John. 2005. Expert Growth and Industrial Policy: Lessons from the East Asian Miracle Experience. ADB Discussion paper No. 20.


Berhanu Tsegay is a resident of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and a Masters Degree holder in Development Studies. He can be reached at +251943-304555 or [email protected]

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