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On Africa’s infrastructural landscape

By Chukwuemeka Idam
06 October 2022   |   3:24 am
Achieving sustainable development is at the forefront of policy formulation and action across many African countries.

Achieving sustainable development is at the forefront of policy formulation and action across many African countries.

The realisation of goals to reduce poverty, inequalities, and environmental pollution whilst simultaneously enhancing health, social inclusion, economic opportunities, and fairness is pivotal for the structural transformation needed to uplift the lives of a significant portion of the 1.2 billion people on the continent.

Although the nexus between sustainable goals and quality of life is not in doubt, making meaningful progress has been a tall order in Africa. The Africa Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Progress Report 2021 by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) asserts that Africa is on track for 13 indicators out of the 244 measurable indicators of the global SDGs indicator framework. These areas include progress on Under-five mortality, Birth attended by Skilled health personnel, HIV infections, Protected marine areas, and Debt service. Still, 13 out of 244 is an abysmal score. The missing trigger for meaningful progress? The correct guess is Infrastructure.

At the Infra4Dev Conference, jointly organised by the World Bank and the International Growth Centre in March 2022, experts emphasised the role of infrastructure in stimulating development. According to their findings, investments in energy, telecommunications, transport networks, and other infrastructure types bore a direct impact on growth; considering their ability to facilitate the “physical mobility of people and products, remove productivity constraints, and increase competitiveness.”

The reality differs in Africa, where there is an estimated infrastructure deficit of up to $107.5 billion a year, based on reports by the African Development Bank (AfDB). Furthermore, the Sustainable Development Goals Centre for Africa (SDGCA) argues that the continent is the worst performing in the world in terms of the quantity, quality, and cost of inclusive infrastructure. Based on their report, just 1 in 4 African road networks is paved compared to 1 in 2 for the global average.

World Bank’s data on electricity access suggests that West Africa ranks as one of the regions with the lowest rates of electricity access in the world; given electricity availability to only about 42% of the total population. The World Bank’s prognosis is that 263 million people in West and Central Africa will lack electricity access in ten years because of low investment in power infrastructure.

In the UN Sustainable Development Goals report, 2021, data on the proportion of individuals using the internet as of 2019 ranked Sub-Saharan Africa at 28.3%, underperforming the global average of 51.4%. Only Central and Southern Asia (26.4%) recorded a lower internet population percentage.

Data on other indicators such as rail networks, airports, hospitals, pipe-borne water, 4G and 5G penetration, only emphasise the depth of infrastructure deficit in Africa. The root cause of these gaps can be linked to low financing capabilities of governments, lack of political will, social unrest, neo-colonialism, and corruption. Notwithstanding the cause, the impact of the poor infrastructure climate is dragging progress on sustainable development and deepening poverty. In fact, SDGCA estimates that nearly 460 million Africans will remain poor in 2030 – the deadline for achieving the 17 SDGs. By implication, Africa will be home to 8 out of 10 of the world’s poorest by the end of the decade.

Borrowing a leaf from the AfDB, “achieving development goals remains an unfinished business for African countries”. In my view, there is much that can be done to move the needle with respect to improving the infrastructure landscape in Africa and advancing sustainable development.

My recommendation is that first, there is a need to stimulate more public-private sector partnerships for infrastructure. The fiscal constraints challenging many African governments, especially since the outbreak of COVID-19, require innovative financing solutions to promote infrastructure creation. Rather than self-finance or borrow heavily, deals can be negotiated to allow the private sector to fund high-impact projects. Data from Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) suggests that between 1990 and 2016, 861 Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) projects worth $314 billion reached financial close in India.

Another consideration for policymakers would be to develop and promote quality homegrown and eco-friendly solutions, where applicable, to optimise cost and improve access. The challenges of infrastructure are not only limited to the cost of building because high maintenance or operating costs could lead to the deterioration of said infrastructure – which is the case in many African countries. Consider the example of installing streetlights around a town that is struggling with epileptic power supply; such infrastructure would become redundant, and that might result in a waste of public funds. But when the streetlight runs on solar or wind-powered technology, that investment would be beneficial for the community; and the fact that the energy is renewable would reduce the burden of generating on-grid electricity.

Lastly, the issue of corruption and lack of political will should be addressed squarely by African countries before meaningful progress is made in infrastructure. The looting of public funds, as well as the lack of transparency and accountability, is a disservice to the goal of achieving sustainable development. Therefore, our institutions must be independent, focused, and empowered to ensure the effective use and management of available resources.

In summary, considering the worrisome projections of rising poverty and inequalities over the next decade, sustainable development is a necessity for Africa. To make great strides, policymakers must recognize the role infrastructure plays in catalyzing development in Africa – as is the case elsewhere in the world. Therefore, the availability of amenities like good roads, electricity, hospitals, quality internet, and the like should take centre stage in conversations around accelerating sustainable growth on the continent.

Idam is a sustainability advocate. Follow on Instagram @Mekkha, LinkedIn on @Chukwuemeka Kelvin Idam, and Twitter @Mekkhanik

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