Africa needs more and better infrastructure. About 600 million Africans, almost two-thirds of the continent’s population, have no access to electricity. They continue to rely on biomass for fuel, which poses both health and environmental risks. Roads offer the main mode of transport, yet 53 percent of the road network is unpaved, which hinders people’s access to basic education, healthcare and economic opportunities. Nearly half of all Africans still don’t have access to clean water, and two-thirds lack access to sewerage infrastructure. With the world’s second-highest growth rate, and a rapidly urbanising population, the projected demands in the region are equally daunting. Improvements have been achieved over the last decade, with infrastructure-related expenditure on an upward trend and China’s emergence as a major investor in the transport and energy sectors. But according to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa alone needs infrastructure investment of about USD93 billion per year. With just over half that amount currently being spent, a financing gap of USD45 billion or more remains.
The good news is that, after decades of neglect, infrastructure is back at the top of the international development agenda. Infrastructure development is a top priority in the Multi-Year Action Plan released in 2010 by the Development Working Group of the G20 forum of industrialised and emerging economies. Since then, the G20 and multilateral development banks such as the World Bank and the African Development Bank have launched numerous initiatives to increase infrastructure investment in the African continent and elsewhere. These include, among others, the G20 Global Infrastructure Hub, the World Bank’s Global Infrastructure Facility and, most recently, Germany’s G20 proposal for “Compacts with Africa”. The initiatives generally follow the same thought process: 1) Africa’s infrastructure deficit is hampering the continent’s economic development and long-term stability; 2) increased infrastructure investment will lead to higher economic growth and prosperity; 3) as public resources and capacities are insufficient to fill the financing gap, the private sector needs to come on board both as a financier and project developer; and 4) more funds need to be invested in project preparation and “de-risking” projects in order to attract private investment in so-called “bankable” projects.
In tandem with these initiatives, African governments and institutions have developed ambitious national, regional and continental infrastructure master plans and instruments for which they hope to attract international public and private support. Prominent among them is the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA), a pipeline of regional mega-projects in four sectors (energy, transportation, water, and information and communications technology) that seeks to boost regional integration and trade. Progress on many of these projects has been slow, due in part to a lack of committed resources and investment readiness. Yet they will move forward, and critical questions need to be asked and answered from the start. Who decides, and who should decide, about which projects are selected to go ahead? If infrastructure development is to serve both economic growth and people’s needs for services, how will those two objectives be weighted? What social, environmental and climate safeguards need to be in place? Do mega projects indeed offer appropriate solutions to the prevailing infrastructure challenges? How have different models of public-private partnership (PPP) worked in various sectors and countries? And how, and by whom, are the regulatory and legislative frameworks for PPPs to be negotiated and enforced?
This edition of Perspectives contributes to the ongoing debate by sharing snapshots of experience from around the continent, exploring questions about democratic participation, the role of human and environmental rights, and economic transformation. The collective tenor of the articles is clear. If the current big push for infrastructure development is to make a positive impact on the lives of ordinary Africans, their priorities and concerns have to be front and centre when the decisions are being made.