Africa’s infrastructure issues

3 Dec 13
Matt Andrews

The crane-dominated skyline of many African cities suggests an infrastructure revolution is taking place. But this is far from the truth – very few projects get beyond implementation and those that do are generally funded by international donors or the private sector

Recent commentaries suggest that Africa may be on the cusp of a public sector led infrastructure revolution. This is a continent where the need plus the demand plus the money yields huge potential for such development – of transportation networks, water and sanitation and energy plants, and more.

Reflecting this potential, each week a new government announces novel and impressive construction plans. When one looks at the crane-dominated skylines of many African cities it is easy to believe that these plans hold the key to modernising the continent and making it a new Asia. But then we need to think about contrasting evidence, and the real and demanding challenges most African governments face in this domain.

My first concern is that the infrastructure plans announced by African governments may mean a lot less than they suggest. These governments are known to signal about their good intentions much more than they act to make these intentions a reality. In the past, this has meant that many infrastructure strategies were developed that were not implemented.

If we considered lessons from the last decade, in most countries, I think we would find a legacy of projects that were: (i) Announced but not initiated; (ii) Initiated but incomplete or partially complete; (iii) Complete but unused; (iv) Complete but poorly maintained; and (v) Complete or incomplete but with major cost over-runs, and benefits under-runs (if such a concept does not exist, it probably should).

I would suspect that a quarter to a half of the announced projects on the continent in the past fell into the first two categories, and another quarter to half probably fell into the other three categories. The result: many promises with fewer initiated projects, few useful projects, and very few projects that prove useful over a medium-to-long-term period.

Beyond this concern, I worry about the current lack of state capability in the area of infrastructure management. Most of the cranes one sees spotted on the horizon in Maputo or Kigali or Accra are not cranes working on public sector infrastructure projects, or being operated by local people working for the government or on a publicly funded contract.

The vast majority of projects making up the infrastructure revolution to date have been funded and managed by international donors, the private sector, and the Chinese (at least in Africa, one cannot talk about construction without mentioning the Chinese).

This means that we have very little evidence of revealed state capability in this area (beyond the capability to signal and make promises). How will states lead a revolution if they don’t have the technical knowledge to plan, contract, monitor and manage?

I assume that many people will take issue with my views, especially in the institutions lined up to finance new infrastructure – often at the expense of future generations of Africans. I offer a simple challenge to all those who disagree: provide the data that shows how past and present public sector infrastructure projects are working, and the evidence that African governments have the functionality to produce large-scale infrastructure.

I am certain that there are very few countries (if any) that would perform well in respect of such challenge. In fact, I expect observers would discover very few countries (if any) where they could find evidence about either the performance of past and present projects or the functionality of governments.

This reflects my third concern about infrastructure development in Africa: no one really cares if state-sponsored infrastructure works or not, or if governments have functional processes through which new construction is announced, initiated, implemented and maintained.  The major goal is to announce a new road and find financing for such.

I don’t believe we will have an African infrastructure revolution until this situation changes, and more governments find the need to care about building the state capability to produce, maintain and use infrastructure. This is one area where signals and promises are simply not enough and it is time to get real about making governments actually work better than they did in the past.

Matt Andrews is associate professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government

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