Is Infrastructure the Key to Africa's Economic Transformation?

21 March 2017

It is widely recognised that infrastructure has a crucial and multi-faceted role to play in promoting sustainable development, particularly in the world’s poorest countries where the infrastructure gap is the largest. In light of the urgent need to bridge this shortfall for potentially tremendous gains, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted in 2015 calls for the development of “quality, reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure, including regional and transborder infrastructure, to support economic development and human well-being” (SDG 9.1) among other infrastructure-related objectives and targets. If Africa is to succeed in its development ambition, putting in place the right “hard” and “soft” infrastructure should thus be at the top of African policymakers’ priorities.

From an economic and trade perspective, reliable and efficient infrastructure networks are of paramount importance. They are necessary to enhance the competitiveness of African firms and facilitate the flow of goods, services, persons, and information within and across African countries and regions. Appropriate infrastructure makes it easier to produce, do business, and connect to regional and global markets, thus contributing to galvanise the continent’s economy and position it on a path to economic transformation.

Although it has long been identified as one of the most significant structural constraints hindering Africa’s development, the infrastructure gap is not an easy problem to solve. In particular, due to their large scale and long-term nature, infrastructure projects require considerable amounts of investment which are often beyond the individual capacity of African countries. Addressing this issue is key, as it is estimated that the continent’s infrastructure financing needs amount to 100 US$ annually. In this context, what should African policymakers focus on in their efforts to develop infrastructure and maximise its benefits?

This issue opens with an interview with Kalilou Traoré, the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) Commissioner for industry and private sector promotion. In his answers to our questions, the commissioner highlights both the vast opportunities and the significant challenges associated with infrastructure development, and presents the various efforts deployed by ECOWAS and its member states in this area.

This interview is complemented by four articles, which look at the infrastructure-trade-sustainable development nexus from different angles. While Christian Kingombe explores how transport infrastructure can lay the foundation for the successful achievement of the SDGs on the continent, Niklas Malchow and Anna Waldmann look at the development potential of cross-border infrastructure from a job creation perspective. Yabin Wu and Xiao Lai, for their part, focus on China’s infrastructure development strategy in Africa, and reflect on its potential implications for African economies. Finally, Hans-Peter Egler emphasises the importance of developing sustainable and resilient infrastructure in Africa, while offering specific insights on the role of sustainability standards to meet that objective.

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