20 June 2014

Gambia: Infrastructure - Strengthening the Foundations for Africa's Development

The lack of modern infrastructure is a major challenge to Africa's economic development and constitutes a major impediment to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and other vital objectives, such as revitalizing agriculture.

The needs are enormous. From rural roads, railways and harbours to irrigation systems, telecommunications, clean water, sanitation, energy and such basic social infrastructure as health, education, banking and commercial services, hundreds of millions of Africans lack even the most fundamental amenities.

This is particularly true in rural areas, where the majority of the continent's 920 million people live. The burden also falls most heavily on women, who often must spend hours collecting wood for cooking and heating in the absence of electricity. Rural women walk an average of 6 kilometres daily to rivers and springs for want of piped water and wells.

According to assessments of Africa's infrastructure done in 2006 by the African Development Bank (ADB) and the intergovernmental Infrastructure Consortium for Africa (ICA):

less than a third of sub-Saharan Africans have electricity; only 56 per cent drink clean water; barely a third of rural Africans live near a road; just 4 per cent of Africa's farmland is irrigated; over 60 per cent of the population lacks basic sanitation facilities less than a quarter of paved roads per kilometre than other developing regions.

- In the decades since African countries achieved their independence, many governments sought to build on the meagre infrastructure left by the departing colonial powers. But those efforts were hampered by weak planning and management capacity, inadequate financing, corruption and a lack of integrated regional and transcontinental planning and cooperation. Poor maintenance has left much existing infrastructure in disrepair, particularly in rural areas.

Although the damaging economic and social impacts of Africa's infrastructure deficiencies were widely recognized, both African and donor investment in infrastructure declined relative to other priorities during the 1990s. In part, there was an incorrect assumption that private investors would step in to finance Africa's infrastructure requirements. "This was a policy mistake" the UK government-sponsored Commission for Africa declared in a 2005 report.

The result, notes Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in his report to the 22 September high-level meeting of the General Assembly on Africa's development needs, is that despite the continent's abundant natural resources, "Africa's potential is far from being fully harnessed." Moreover, the region is not on track to achieve the MDGs by the 2015 target date. Some 40 per cent of Africa's people, he notes, still live in extreme poverty. And while Africa accounts for 12 per cent of the world population, it generates only about 1 per cent of global gross domestic product and 2 per cent of world trade.

Guest commentary sourced from a "Backgrounder" for a UN high-level meeting on Africa's development needs.

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