Chinese Infrastructure Investment: Paving a New Road in West Africa?
November 27, 2012
Proposed intra-African highways (Wikimedia).

National infrastructure planning is not always a topic that excites widespread policy debate, but in the case of China's growing investment in West Africa’s transportation architecture, the subject is becoming difficult to avoid.

While Sino-African relations have been much discussed over the past decade, China’s commitment to mega-infrastructure projects is set is increase with the recent announcement of support for a 2,000 km coastal highway that will stretch from Dakar to Lagos, crossing through nine West African countries in the process (see map above).

The project has been hailed as a step forward in ending bottlenecks that restrict African trade with the outside world, and hamper commercial links between participating countries. The cooperative intra-African component of the highway is also important as the tentative agreement was negotiated between Chinese trade officials and representatives from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Many of the modalities of the agreement are unclear, but China has suggested their financial contribution is contingent on a comprehensive proposal from all nine participating countries. The capacity of ECOWAS governments to complete such a complex deal, even with Chinese financial backing, will therefore be a test for West African economic and political integration.

Also helping to ensure the deal gets done is the poor state of existing infrastructure in the region (see here for how West Africa measures up against other regions according to the 2012 Logistics Performance Index). Given the obvious need to improve transportation in West Africa, China’s involvement in its improvement can also be viewed as filling a gap left by Western countries.

The increasing scale of the Sino-African investments and volume of trade, however, points to a strategic decision on the part of Chinese leaders to play the long game in benefitting from Africa’s resource boom.

According to former World Bank Senior Economist David Dollar “[The West has] by and large, gotten out of hard infrastructure sectors. They channel their assistance overwhelmingly to social sectors or to infrastructure sectors such as water supply and sanitation that have direct effects on household health.” He goes on to explain that, when they cut ‘hard’ infrastructure aid in the 1980s, Western countries expected the private sector to step in. This ultimately proved to be wishful thinking on the part of Western policy makers as private finance never filled the void.

As such, transport infrastructure across much of Africa is not only historically underdeveloped, but it also does not reflect the present demand for travel and trade. Antonio Estache, also of the World Bank, argues that the fiscal adjustments of the 1980s were “often blind to the sectoral allocations needed to support growth” (PDF).

Regardless of the West’s past role in Africa’s infrastructure deficit, today it is China filling the gaps, literally paving new roads by combining cheap credit with commercial investment. This raises an obvious question pertaining to Chinese involvement in African mega-projects: why are they willing to take long-term bets on infrastructure in countries with high political and economic uncertainties?

In official statements, Chinese trade officials maintain their country’s interest is mainly humanitarian. As the Vice Minister of Commerce Li Jinzao recently said, “Our gain is not in material or financial terms but the satisfaction that we are contributing to the progress and development of other people.”

The increasing scale of the Sino-African investments and volume of trade, however, points to a strategic decision on the part of Chinese leaders to play the long game in benefitting from Africa’s resource boom.

As Lucy Corkin, former Project Director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, puts it, “China came to this stage of [advanced economic] development late, and needed to look for regions where there are not already strongly entrenched interests, and Africa still has space for the Chinese."

A recent graduate from the London School of Economics, Andrew Duffield is an Africa Portal blog contributor with previous experience at the Songhai Advisory, an Africa-focused intelligence consultancy, and the World Food Programme in Rome.

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