This blog post is part of a series for the 'Bureaucracy Lab', a World Bank initiative to better understand the world's public officials.
“Why? Why do we always fail the people of this country?” So reflects the public official who plays the hero in my graphic novel on governance in the developing world. The story, set in fictional Zanzarim, follows the struggles of the ‘Director’ up to that point, as he labours to implement policy that will help his fellow citizens. His exhausting — and frequently unsuccessful — attempts to succeed mirror the many such struggles I have witnessed in the governments of developing countries across the world.
We live in a time when public trust in government is at historically low levels. Many citizens ask the same question as the Director – why does government fail to serve us? These concerns are particularly well-founded in the developing world where service delivery is often patchy or non-existent.
The answer to these questions lies in the many complex levels of the policy chain. At each step, the Director must fight to ensure that good policy isn’t warped to help special interests, or weakened at the request of unresponsive or overburdened bureaucrats. And at each step, the effectiveness of policy is chipped away. In the end, it is only because of the Director’s dogged determination that anything happens at all. He represents one of the heroes of development that populate public services.
After working in government in a range of countries, I began to wonder how I could immerse others into the world of officialdom that I experienced, so that they could meet those like the real-life Director. One way is to paint a picture of officialdom using available statistics, as I do here. Another (perhaps a bit more engaging) way is to partner with a Nigerian comic book artist and write ‘Water Get Enemy’, a graphic novel illustrating governance in the developing world.
The more I talked to others in service around the world, the more I realized how similar our experiences were. And the more time I spent in service, the more affected I was by the common saga unfolding around me. To share that story with the world in a visceral way, I created ‘Water Get Enemy,’ with graphic artist Albert Ohams.
“Isn’t a graphic novel on governance where street cred goes to die?” asked a colleague of mine. Perhaps, but it also provides , and the threats that cause government failure.
So put yourself in the Director’s shoes, and walk into his steaming office (the electricity is down, so the AC is off). Follow him through days brimming with absent statistics, episodes of political interference, gross bargains for funding, and the failures of the private sector and communities that buffer those of the public sector. Feel his frustration and relief at the world in which he must work. When the Director’s Permanent Secretary asks him to change the location of some public wells so that they are in his friends’ communities, what should he do?
In ‘Water Get Enemy,’ the Director’s world is a difficult one. But the story is not intended to bemoan the state of the world and its dysfunctional bureaucracies. Rather, it’s meant to highlight that there are passionate and competent people in governments throughout the developing world. They may be continuously challenged by the environments in which they work, but they still get done what has to be done. They change the way these governments work from the inside out. The story is thus a salute to battle-hardened public officials; the real-life heroes of development.
To the numerous heroes and heroines I’ve worked with, here’s one attempt at illustrating your struggles and many successes. Though mine, at the very end of the book is not my best look, I hope you like your cartoon likeness.
‘Water Get Enemy’ (named after the Fela Kuti song of similar name) is freely-available online at www.watergetenemy.org