Interview Renaud Seligmann, New Governance Practice Manager for the MENA Region, World Bank

Congratulations on your new post as the Governance Practice Manager in MENA. How does it feel to move to the MENA region?


I feel both excited and somewhat humbled. The MENA strategy provides a unique opportunity to help address the underlying causes of conflict and violence in the region that has arguably had the biggest impact on global stability. This is an incredibly exciting challenge, but it is also immensely complex. So I would like to approach it with determination to make a difference, combined with a good dose of humility.


On a personal level, my first job for the World Bank a decade ago was as a short-term consultant working on public financial management in Egypt with you, Hisham, so it is really nice to come full circle.


You joined the MENA region after spending years in the Africa region. What are the lessons from the Africa experience that might be useful to MENA countries?


I would say that the first lesson is that ‘ready-to-wear’ (or a pure ’best practice’ approach) does not work well in development — you have to go for ‘made-to-measure’ (or a more tailored approach). While it is really important to know what has been tried, as well as what has succeeded and failed in other countries to solve common challenges, it is even more important to really take the time to understand the local context. Who are the players, and what are the historical, geographic, social and political forces at play?


This is certainly relevant in MENA, where there is a very diverse set of clients, from conflict-affected to oil-producing and transition countries. In this respect, I have found that the Bank tends to under-utilize the depth of knowledge of the local context that locally recruited staff have. Tapping into this resource, and connecting it with global expertise of the World Bank is certainly going to be critical to success.


Another key lesson is the importance of focusing on the ‘how’ of reforms, not just on the ‘what’. Knowing what should ideally be done to reduce extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity requires analytical rigor, and we generally know how to do it well. The difficult part is figuring out how to implement these reforms in the real world. This is an issue that I have grappled with extensively in middle-income, low-income, resource-rich and fragile country contexts. So, I look forward to applying some of this knowledge in MENA, while also sharing experiences with others and learning from our clients and staff.


A number of countries in the MENA region are affected by conflict. What are your thoughts on advancing governance reforms in such difficult circumstances? 


Some of my most fulfilling professional experiences have been in fragile, conflict- and violence-affected States, for instance working on the Ebola response in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone; on governance in Somalia; on the first re-engagement Development Policy Operation in Guinea after four decades of authoritarian rule; or on reconstruction and recovery in the Nigerian North-East affected by Boko Haram.


Failed states are not a fatality.  Indeed, progress is possible over time, but it requires staying the course, adapting to constantly evolving political and security contexts.  It also requires innovation in the Bank’s approach to post-conflict intervention.  Just to take two examples, if you compare Somalia today to 10 years ago, or the Central African Republic to what it was like in 2013, it is clear that very significant progress has been made. This is in large part due to the incredible work of the teams working on a daily basis in very risky environments. This is of course an unfinished agenda, but the progress we have seen is hugely rewarding and impactful.


I see governance and institutions as an essential foundation for the package of interventions needed to strengthen state legitimacy and move toward reconstruction, recovery and reconciliation. Of course, governance interventions are needed to build core public sector institutions that function at a basic level — collecting taxes and spending these funds for the public good, for example, by paying teachers, health workers, security personnel and other civil servants.  Ultimately, good public financial management and public sector reforms are at the core of building state legitimacy.


Inclusive governance is also a critical complement.  It is essential to move away from decades of neglect of certain groups or geographic areas that have led to grievances and a sense of exclusion. This requires an open mind with regard to service delivery models, and a strong focus on inclusion, voice and accountability for service performance. This should be conducted and supported in partnership with the World Bank’s multiple Global Practices and Cross-Cutting Solution Areas.


A sound fiduciary assurance framework is also essential in high-risk environments. It plays a key role in helping build development partner confidence and ensuring that projects achieve their objectives. This needs to be designed with an eye for the long-term sustainability of international development assistance. Thankfully, our teams have a lot of experience in this area.


The cover story of this issue of Connecting Voices is “Corruption and Development.” What are your views on this topic?


The corrosive impact of corruption on growth, equity and state legitimacy is well documented.  However, the abuse of public resources for private gain also plays a social function, as it can be used to ‘buy-off’ certain parts of the population and consolidate the power of the elite. When corruption is part of the social fabric, the demand for control of corruption is also weak. This makes it very tricky to effectively implement anti-corruption strategies or build credible anti-corruption institutions.


The risk is to create weak copies of formal Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) institutions (including supreme audit institutions, anti-corruption agencies, anti-money laundering legislation, and so on) that mimic their form, but do not perform any meaningful function. This does not mean that these institutions and actors should not be supported, but in doing so we should pay attention to the actual function they perform.


In parallel, helping create greater demand for accountability at the same time as we build the supply-side institutions of governance is a very important aspect of how we can approach the issue. For instance, the emergence of the middle-class in Brazil has played an important role in increasing the demand for accountability at a time when the Supreme Audit Institution and the judiciary were also becoming increasingly independent and assertive. This is the context in which the Petrobras scandal was uncovered, as well as the accounting tricks that eventually led to President Dilma’s impeachment.


Of course, the rise of the middle class plays out in different ways across MENA.  In this context, public sector transparency has the potential to become both more radical and less controlled in the era of the ‘Panama papers’ and Wiki-leaks. This is why many governments in MENA see a strict State control of digital communications as essential to maintaining social order. The question however is the extent to which this will be technologically, socially and economically sustainable. The upcoming World Development Report on Governance and the Law (World Bank 2017) should shed some interesting light on this issue.


Another important aspect of what we can do is to push for more inclusive public sector institutions. Increasing the number of groups and individuals who are included with regard to access to quality public services should help stimulate citizen expectations in relation to public sector performance and accountability. Exclusion in access to public services takes many different forms, but at its core it reflects the belief that some have a right to public resources while others do not. So in a sense, corruption can be conceived as an extreme case of social exclusion. Therefore, building more inclusive institutions is an important part of what we can do to fight corruption.


I would add that some of the most critical opportunities to work on anti-corruption may be in sectors. Working with the World Bank Global Practices from the three clusters, our team has the skills to help identify institutional and governance bottlenecks to service delivery, including corruption and weak accountability. One of the most useful roles we can play is to connect Ministries of Finance to their sector counterparts to help diagnose and solve difficult problems affecting governance in sectors.


Any concluding thoughts?


I would just like to take this opportunity to thank you personally, Hisham, and the whole MENA team for the great welcome I have already received, and to wish you all the best for the journey ahead in Africa!




Renaud Seligmann is currently Practice Manager in the Governance Global Practice of the World Bank, where he works on the Middle East and North Africa Region.

A French national, Renaud started his career as a member of the Court of Accounts, the French Supreme Audit Institution, where he focused on aggregate fiscal risk in the public sector, performance budgeting and the evaluation of public sector reforms. He then became Deputy Director of External Audit at the United Nations (UN) Board of Auditors, where he led the first UN-wide audit of the response to the South Asian Tsunami and was in charge of the audit of the UN Secretariat, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other funds and programs.  He joined the World Bank in 2007 and was based in Washington, DC and Pretoria, South Africa and worked mostly on public financial management. From 2011 to 2015, he was a Sector Manager for Financial Management, and then Practice Manager in the Governance Global Practice, working on the Africa region.

Renaud holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree (honors) in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University, a Master's Degree in Political Sociology from Sorbonne-Paris I University and a Master's Degree in Public Policy from the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences-Po). He is also a graduate of the French National School for Administration (ENA) Executive Leadership Program. Renaud is on the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s “Public Financial Management in a Changing World” executive education course led by Matt Andrews. He is also an Honorary Fellow, as well as a Council Member of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountancy (United Kingdom).