Connecting the Dots between Change Agents in Guinea-Bissau

How to create networks of innovation and integrity in a post-conflict setting

By Tjark Marten Egenhoff, Resident Representative, UNDP Guinea-Bissau 

When Maria N. decided to speak up, she understood the weight of that decision: she would go against many of her colleagues who were violating ethical and transparency standards of the government institution she was working for. Amadou S., a young Guinean civil servant, tried in vain to get his institution to develop financial services for all citizens. Convinced that only innovative solutions can provide a way out of the country’s status quo, he now develops a fintech solution on the side.  

Access to financial services for Bissau Guineans is almost inexistent. Outside of the capital, there are only a few bank branches, and fintech solutions are absent. Similarly, basic public services in education, health, or justice are out of reach to most citizens in the regions. The country is persistently among those with the lowest Human Development Index, and currently ranks 175th out of 189 countries (2020). Poverty is persistently high, with an estimated 70 per cent of the population living below the poverty line, half of whom are women.

UNDP is helping improve inter-community relations through communal dialogues in the region of Cacheu. Photo: UNDP Guinea-Bissau/Joana Rodrigues


Over the past years, this atypical Small Island Developing State (SIDS) has been able to keep its solid social fabric alive. Its economic potential goes well beyond the mediocre growth rates of past decades and its dependency on cashew monoculture. But recurrent crises have crushed the hope of most citizens for sustained change, for peace and prosperity while networks of patronage have made a different future hard to imagine. Weak institutions, which keep the status quo, impede citizens and civil servants like Maria and Amadou from becoming the agents of change they aspire to be.  

An overwhelming part of the formal workforce is employed by the Government of Guinea-Bissau. And while the public sector is the first choice when it comes to social mobility, it both benefits and suffers from the current system characterized by a lack of transparency and ineffective service delivery – just like the nascent private sector.

Community members in the region of Oio identify their main priorities to improve community life. Photo: UNDP Guinea-Bissau/Joana Rodrigues

THE QUESTION IS HOW TO ENSURE THAT FUTURE MARIAS AND AMADOUS FEEL THAT THEY CAN CHALLENGE THE STATUS QUO. We at UNDP Guinea-Bissau asked ourselves how agents of change can be empowered to gradually change institutions and start defining systems that enable people who are advocating for the public good. 

A KEY COMPONENT IS CONNECTING CHANGE AGENTS ACROSS INSTITUTIONS AND SECTORS. Preliminary data shows that over one-third of the 80 respondents in a survey carried out by UNDP to better understand needs and entry points for change are ready to be part of a bigger change project within public institutions in Guinea-Bissau, provided that they are not alone. 

UNDP works with women and women-led associations in Guinea-Bissau to support their participation in local decision-making spaces. Photo: UNDP Guinea-Bissau/Joana Rodrigues

The need for change agents to feel connected to others in a safe space is key in post-conflict settings. The recently launched Leadership Academy provides exactly that: a space where shared experiences, debates with different stakeholders and network opportunities online and offline foster co-creation and interconnectedness. These nascent informal networks are the backbone of a new definition of leadership for Guinea-Bissau.  

The Academy can help build islands of integrity and innovation for the public sector and beyond, by providing a platform for different actors to come together to push the limits of the status quo. This initiative is currently in the making and we see that individuals and institutions are showing a growing interest in the approach. 

ANOTHER DIMENSION IS DIVERSITY. The National School for Administration and UNDP, the two ‘promoters’ of the Leadership Academy, are working to include courageous talent from all regions. Traditionally excluded from accessing professional networks, young Guineans from outside the capital who take on leadership roles in their communities can now be connected through three networks at the regional level, where they exchange ideas on how to address root causes of women’s exclusion from the decision-making or how to access education and learning initiatives in remote areas.  

Public servants from various ministries are trained on “Leadership and Public Service” in the context of the Leadership Academy hosted by the National School of Administration. Photo: UNDP Guinea-Bissau/Joana Rodrigues


A young woman from the Gabu region recently told me about the stigma she faced when attending a mentorship program for young entrepreneurs in the capital. She fought the notions about what girls can do, and now coordinates a group of innovators across four regions, all connected through the community-driven Na Nô Mon platform (“in our hands” in Creole). Youth is key to overcome stigma and exclusion as they are more aware of their rights and better equipped and better equipped to challenge norms that have excluded large parts of the population for a long period of time.

Both the Academy and the Na Nô Mon platform are initiatives developed by our governance cluster in partnership with the Accountability LabImpact HUBInstituto Pedro Pires, and multiple other UN agencies, among others.  

From the start, we took an integrated approach guided by the 2030 Agenda in analyzing the various aspects of development, beyond building a cadre of change agents: economic opportunity, gender equality, financial inclusion, access to knowledge, employment creation through innovation, community dialogue and peacebuilding. 


This work, inspired by data on potential clients and their needs, has drawn the interest of various partners, both internationally and nationally, making the change agent networks, the Academy, and the Na Nô Mon platform central pieces of UNDP’s action on the ground. Our work on digital disruption, including the E-Governance strategy for the Government and the start-up center for innovation and social entrepreneurship in Bissau, are also connected to the Academy and ground initiatives across programmes – all of which are based on our theory of change: if we connect a diverse group of change agents, we will help decode the current system which has not delivered on the promises of development for Guinea Bissau.