Africa’s ‘infrastructure gap’ – why we should be cautious about ‘win-win’ solutions for African cities

Why ‘plugging’ infrastructure gaps through international finance can generate new problems for African cities

Big infrastructure projects are always controversial, as the UK’s decade-long HS2 dispute has made painfully clear. Yet in parts of the world associated with severely deficient infrastructure, the positive value of major infrastructure investments is often taken as a given.

This assumption needs to be subjected to much greater scrutiny, as I argue in a new article that explores the policy discourses concerning Africa’s ‘infrastructure gap’, building on research in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Uganda. On top of the questionable link between infrastructure and economic growth, research with people affected by major internationally-financed transport infrastructure reveals confusion, anger and a range of rather perverse local impacts.

In Nalumunye, a suburb of the Ugandan capital Kampala, some people are so angry about the new expressway carving an impassable barrier through their lives that they refused to take part in our survey. This is more than mere NIMBYism: populations living near the road are furious on the grounds that it is useless to them, has inflated land values for some other people while cutting off their land and swamping it in dust, and offers no easily accessible entry points.

On one side of the road, commutes into the city have hugely increased in length as many people have to travel miles in the wrong direction before reaching a crossing point. On the other side, people are cut off from land and families on which their livelihoods depend. Meanwhile, the social character of the area has changed as speculators swarmed in to build luxurious villas, many of which remain empty as the promised local benefits of the road fail to materialise. Even if they can access the road, ordinary people fear that the toll payments (once finally introduced) will be unaffordable for them.

Of course, the expressway has its benefits for regular travellers between the capital and Entebbe airport – though there are growing concerns about continuing low usage a year and a half after its opening, even without the disincentive of the toll. Dubbed the world’s most expensive road, it provides just one among many examples of large, expensive infrastructure projects where the benefits are increasingly being questioned within Africa.

Africa is often presented in international media and policy as being held back by absences that need filling, without much attention to different experiences of this ‘need’ or who benefits from it being addressed in particular ways. The idea of a yawning African ‘infrastructure gap’ is the ultimate example of this, with shortfall in African infrastructure often estimated in hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars.

While true that there are major infrastructure challenges in many parts of Africa, we need to also need to look carefully at the motivations behind the increased emphasis on this ‘gap’ by a range of financial actors.

Since the financial crisis, major global financial actors have been looking for new varieties of asset to invest in, leading to the increasing framing of Africa’s infrastructure gap as an investment opportunity. The fact that African governments pay disproportionately high interest rates in international debt markets is clearly part of this appeal.

While it is often Chinese-financed infrastructure like the road described above that is currently most visible, on the horizon is a further wave of infrastructure financed by private international capital from the West. But the idea that boosting the global financing of African infrastructure represents a ‘win-win’ for investors and African populations is problematic. There is evidence that the infrastructure that global financiers want to fund (such as toll roads) is not the kind that is most desperately needed, or which reaches the poor.

Meanwhile, as the Kampala case shows, big infrastructure investments often push up the value of land as speculators and high-end developers come in, frequently displacing pre-existing populations.

The rising cost of land and property in urban Africa, especially in rapidly-transforming peri-urban areas, is also associated with rising land conflicts in cities such as Accra, Lagos and Kampala. In West Africa particularly, it is common for groups of men – known as ‘landguards’ in Ghana or ‘Omo-Onile’ (‘children of the soil’) in Lagos – to base their livelihoods around violently extorting resources from people attempting to build on urban land, citing ancenstral claims to the land as justification.

The boost to land prices provided by infrastructure investments is likely to exacerbate these practices, if not carefully managed. As one Nigerian landowner noted, ‘Land is the crude oil of Lagos’. Just as many people believe in the idea of a ‘resource curse’ through which oil abundance can generate violent conflict, valuable urban land can also constitute a ‘resource curse’. As a class of wealthy urban property-owners cashes in on increased land values, they also form an important political lobby that can block progressive reforms such as increased property taxation. Ironically, this starves city governments of the resources to provide the infrastructures that really matter for the poor.

Instead of presenting African cities as places characterised by absences, it is crucial to understand the interests and socially-embedded practices that exist in these supposed ‘gaps’. Otherwise solutions financed by international investors seeking high rates of return will not only offer limited prospects for the poor, but could even generate new forms of political instability through the amplification of inequality, displacement and the stoking of land-based grievances.