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Mega projects have role in long-term growth

Last week I was in Abidjan to speak at the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (Pida), a joint initiative by the African Union, African Development Bank and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

Pida’s aims are to address the infrastructure deficit that hampers Africa’s competitiveness in the world market.

It is time to take Africa’s integration seriously. We need the Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) corridor and the standard gauge railway to open up South Sudan, Uganda and the Congos to create opportunities for greater intra-Africa trade.

In a continent where the median age is 19 and with intra-Africa trade standing at 11 per cent, we cannot overlook the importance of infrastructure in facilitating trade and thereby creating employment.

When bright economists like David Ndii argue against mega projects, they fail to highlight what ails us. Their behaviour is analogous to a doctor who misdiagnoses a disease and then brags about it.

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Our problem is not big projects; it is lack of big dreams and big projects compounded by poor governance, and a top-down approach to policy making.

Like the less productive countries (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) of southern Europe, much of Africa suffers from what Transparency International (TI) refers to as “strong influence of political party leaders within political parties.”

High-ranking party leaders decide if MPs remain on the party lists, not the constituents. MPs, therefore, have more incentive to be loyal to party leaders than to their constituents thus limiting their independent vote and deterring whistleblowing.

Closed voting lists also favour a system in which the party leaders maintain strong control over the representative bodies at the national, regional and local level.

This means that executive accountability is limited thus leading to substantial integrity gaps in law and practice.

The solution is to begin to disrupt archaic governance systems through open systems such as open data and open contracting.

Greece, for example, introduced legislation in 2010 requiring ministries and public bodies to post all decisions online. As per this legislation, no decision is valid until it is posted on the public database.

This measure requires all public institutions, regulatory authorities and local governments to take part.

Some of the recommendations made by TI to make Greece a better place include: strengthening private sector transparency requirements and tough rules obliging businesses to disclose information – especially on tax liability – and stopping the revolving door between government and businesses.

Politicians and civil servants should declare their private interests, assets and salaries. These measures should also be enforced.

Some of these prescriptions from TI are more relevant to Africa than Greece. We have focused our criticisms on one side when we really know that it takes two to rhumba.

When I raised this matter at the Pida conference, private sector players present were defensive on matters corruption. They were unable to explain why Africa’s mega projects fail yet they play a key role in their execution.

For Africa to succeed, we are collectively responsible and no one should sit comfortably and shift the blame to others.

Dr Ndii is doing his part highlighting system weaknesses but he fails by attempting to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Some of the Pida initiatives are beginning to be felt. The Abidjan-Lagos corridor – one of Pida’s flagship projects covering 1,028km – is underway. The project connects some of the most dynamic cities of West Africa including Accra, Cotonou, Lomé and Lagos.

The project also links vibrant seaports serving all the landlocked countries in the region, thus facilitating intra- and inter-regional trade. This is what makes Lapsset necessary for the east African region, which is poorly served by enabling infrastructure.

Roger McNamee, an American businessman, investor, venture capitalist and musician once said, “We need to stop thinking about infrastructure as an economic stimulant and start thinking about it as a strategy.

Economic stimulants produce bridges to nowhere. Strategic investment in infrastructure produces a foundation for long-term growth.”

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.

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