Infrastructure Is Crucial to African Development

(A regional and continentwide approach is essential) (894)

By Charles W. Corey
Staff Writer

Washington - Infrastructure development is an essential building block in Africa's long-term economic growth and development, and that goal can best be accomplished through both a regional and continentwide approach.

This was the overriding theme expressed by a variety of specialists and experts attending the 2008 U.S.-Africa Infrastructure Conference, entitled "Connecting the Continent," which took place in Washington October 6-8.  The event was sponsored by the Corporate Council on Africa.

Addressing the conference were U.S. Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary and retired Vice Admiral Thomas J. Barrett and retired U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, who has worked in more than 70 countries worldwide and now serves as an executive vice president in charge of business development for DynCorp International

While Africa is a continent of great potential, "unlocking that potential remains complicated and an enormous challenge," Barrett told his audience of business executives and potential investors.

"To make the most of the many opportunities and the great potential that is there," he said, "Africa is candidly going to have to become a continent much more on the move. The inefficiencies and the deficits with respect to transportation infrastructure are going to have to be worked on and overcome a bit if the potential of the African continent is to be realized."

To that end, he said, the U.S. Department of Transportation has been working both in the United States and Africa to establish some effective transportation partnerships - "partnerships that can be effective and that can make a real difference in terms of transportation networks and the people of Africa."

During a recent African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Transportation Forum in Cape Town, he said, both government and business representatives "renewed a commitment to growth" and agreed on a series of principles to aid in the development of integrated transportation networks.

Integration of transportation networks is important, Barrett said, because one of the major problems now facing Africa is port infrastructure.  He cautioned that the issue is not just getting goods to the docks, "it's getting stuff off of the dock into the country or from the interior of the country to the dock whether by rail, road or truck." For that to be successful, he explained, networks must be integrated and work collectively.

Barrett saluted African governments for realizing the important role that transportation plays in developing economies and building nations.  "If you look ... back in the history of the United States, back to our founding, you will see things like the development of canals, transcontinental railways and interstate highway systems - networks if you will - to connect the country.  We think that encouraging that type of progress is essential and a necessary precursor to growth."

In the United States, he said, an increasing number of public-private partnerships are helping to expand infrastructure in the United States.

"We think that [approach] can be done highly effectively in Africa as well, if done well," he said. "What we see ... are projects delivered faster ... at lower costs. We see projects that make more sense to the businesses that have to operate on those networks so they become effective and efficient."

Barrett pledged to help Africa "embrace a similar approach." While working and investment capital is often in short supply in the public sector, that is not often the case in the private sector. With its knowledge and funding commitments, the private sector can be employed to help Africa enhance its transportation networks. Whether it is road, rail or ports, "the opportunity is there" to be seized, he said.

The role of government, Barrett said, is to "set the conditions for successful investment by these private partners. You need positive and reliable conditions for investment ... to succeed," within a reliable environment where contracts are honored and the rule of law is observed.

A regional approach and alliances to minimize costs and maximize benefits and safety are also advantageous, he said.

In closing, Barrett reminded his audience that "transportation is an underpinning of economic growth. ... Working on those networks, making them efficient, safe and reliable, is a path toward economic development and growth."

Also addressing the opening session, Zinni identified four key factors necessary for Africa to build infrastructure and encourage investors to become involved:

. One - The use of vision and strategic design on a regional basis to construct commercial corridors that not only transport goods from point to point but also feed smaller businesses and spur economic growth all along the network. "It is important," he said, "to mobilize subregional organizations" that already exist across Africa to address the issue of transportation infrastructure.

. Two - Building skills locally to develop capacity. "The ability to plan, train, educate, to deliver the work force" from the local population is essential.  Local people must be invested in the system, he said.

. Three - The securing of resources and the encouragement of investors to build for the long term in such a way that those networks benefit both investors and the local population.

. Four - An environment of effective governance, security and regional coordination, which is essential to any investor. At this point, he said, everybody has a role, from African governments to investors to the donor community, in ensuring that projects are meaningful, risks are acceptable and transportation networks are sustainable.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.  Web site: http://www.america.gov)

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