Tuesday, 24 December 2002

The Economist on African infrastructure

The Economist can always be counted on for a few fascinating articles, even when it arrives in your mailbox a week after it's been published (the downside of living in the boonies). One of the Christmas edition's gems: this article on a 5-day Guinness delivery in Cameroon (subscription required) — one that in Western Europe or North America would have taken six hours on a bad day. Among the stats: 47 roadblocks, a U-turn due to a washed-out bridge, three flooded-out sections of road, and a largely unpaved route. Their conclusion:

But there is no substitute for building and maintaining better infrastructure. In some areas, such as telecoms, private firms will do the work if allowed to. Thanks to private investment, mobile telephones have spread throughout Africa with the pace and annoying chirrups of a swarm of locusts. In Cameroon, Guinness now finds it much easier to contact employees than it did a couple of years ago, although the firm also frets that mobile telephones are gobbling up scarce disposable income that might otherwise be spent on beer.

The private sector does not, however, spontaneously provide roads, because the beneficiaries cannot easily be charged. Tolls can meet some of the cost of maintaining highways, but it is hard to squeeze money out of peasants on feeder roads.

The World Bank estimates that at least $18 billion needs to be pumped each year into African infrastructure if the continent is to attain the sort of growth that might lift large numbers of people out of poverty. Investment currently runs at less than a third of this. In the current economic downturn, private companies in the West are in no mood to rush into risky investment, least of all in Africa. The gap can only be filled, the Bank reckons, by governments and foreign donors.

In short, the governments of poor countries ought to pay more attention to their roads. A good first step in Cameroon would be to lift those road-blocks and put the police to work repairing potholes.