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DEVELOPMENT: Africa’s ‘New Hope’ Wins Prestigious Award

Stefania Bianchi

BRUSSELS, May 3 2005 (IPS) - Ousmane Sy, this year’s winner of the King Baudouin International Development Prize, has given new hope to Africa through the decentralisation programme in his country Mali, judges say.

Sy, a development specialist, was awarded the 2004-2005 King Baudouin International Development Prize in Brussels Tuesday (May 3).

The King Baudouin International Development Prize was created in 1978 and is awarded every two years to a person or organisation making a "substantial contribution to the development of countries in the southern hemisphere" or to "solidarity between industrialised nations and developing nations."

In awarding the prize this year, the King Baudouin Foundation says it recognised the vital role Sy has played in developing "future peace, stability and prosperity" in Africa.

The foundation was set up in the name of the king of Belgium.

Described by the selection committee as a "man of vision" and a "pioneer of action in relation to governance in Africa", Sy is a key figure in decentralisation and reform of governance in the West African country.

As co-founder of the ‘Governance in Africa network’ set up in 1994 to enable West African countries to share experiences and learn from processes implemented by other states, Sy has used the traditional communication network of village elders to reach the country’s 11,000 villages to build a consensus for democratic and locally-based governing systems.

Decentralisation involves the creation of new sub-national entities such as regions, districts and townships that are freely governed by elected councils. Since 1992 privatisation and trade liberalisation have accompanied this process.

When Sy began his work in 1993, Mali had only 13 municipalities; now there are 703.

Through a participatory process of decentralisation, and organisation of transparent elections, Sy has been praised for the originality of his campaigns in Mali and has succeeded in creating what the selection committee calls "an environment conducive to a better public administration and increased stability, two conditions that are crucial for development."

Dr Peter Piot, director of UNAIDS, the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, said in a statement Tuesday that Sy’s work was proof that "viable and workable responses" for Africa are coming from within the African continent. "Ousmane Sy is an inspiration to other Africans," he said.

Such responses are credited with having had an immediate positive impact on everyday life in Mali – women and children spend less time walking to collect water thanks to the creation of wells in many of the municipalities, which in turn means that children can attend the schools that have been created.

Municipal health centres have been developed to combat the country’s extremely high infant mortality rate.

Sy says Africans need to rethink how they manage their societies.

"Africa must imperatively find ways of governance that are based on African values and standards, while meeting the requirements of the modern world," he said at the prize-giving ceremony. "Beyond the organisation of democratic elections and the fight against corruption, decentralisation has produced a new vision of the idea of governance."

Until then, most people saw the aim of governance as an "extremely artificial notion, because the exercise of power, and thus the administration of democracy at national level, was concentrated in the hands of only a few hundred people."

Sy insists that decentralisation makes it possible to consolidate the democratic process by "widening its base." Decentralisation constitutes a "lever" to make the local economy more dynamic by moving the political decision-making level closer to local agents, he said.

"The decision-makers are now born and bred in the homeland, no longer people appointed by central government. Local authorities may also be challenged in regional languages. Decentralisation has acted as a synonym for the recognition of linguistic and cultural diversity," he said.

Sy says he has spent his life combating "afro-pessimism".

"In spite of negative images and headlines coming out of Africa, things have started to change. A new generation of Africans feel that they can put their past of colonisation or bad governance behind them," he said.

"It is time to take on the responsibility of organising a positive future built on policy models that work. It is Africa’s turn to find answers to this question which has created deadlock for so long," he added.

He remains optimistic about the possibility of more progress in Mali and for real change across the African continent.

"I work to continue to offer hope, to demonstrate to Africans that Africa can change. Embracing the responsibility for our own future is the only way forward because it is the only way to fight the weak governance which is stopping any real progression in so many of our countries. For me, finding governmental stability is one of Africa’s most important tasks."

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