A large majority of policymakers on the African continent complain about the poor state of their roads and bridges and the urgent need to construct schools, hotels and hospitals.
In many such conversations with me, they also highlight the growing social and political demands to boost electricity generation and coverage, especially in rural areas.
But while there is a huge demand for the development of public infrastructure on the continent, there is also widespread dissatisfaction with the alternatives available to finance and implement such complex and expensive projects.
In particular, African leaders and bureaucrats highlight Beijing’s attempts to address their country’s infrastructure needs, arguing that apart from China, no major economy in the world has shown much interest in this sector.
Several influential scholars such as Branko Milanovic have echoed similar sentiments, arguing that affluent nations of the world have largely withdrawn from the so-called “hard” aspects of development and tend to focus their efforts on “soft” areas such as direct budget support and funding initiatives that promote governance, transparency and empowerment.
But the recent push for infrastructure development under the auspices of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched by Beijing in 2013, is often viewed with suspicion in Western capitals. Countries and organisations tend to interpret BRI variously—national vision, Communist party propaganda, quest for world recognition of China’s might, investments in concrete projects to enhance world trade, major shift in development policy, platform for global cooperation.
The Western media has in recent months highlighted growing concerns that BRI-financed infrastructure projects will create a new era of highly indebted countries that will require bailouts. The recent experiences of Zambia and Kenya are frequently cited in this context.
I recently had a long conversation with W. Gyude Moore, the former minister of Public Works in Liberia. While he recognised certain challenges associated with Chinese-funded projects in Africa, he argued that criticism of Beijing’s ambitious BRI will ring hollow in the absence of viable and State-led alternatives from the West.
He claimed that the West can easily match, if not exceed China’s BRI if it wanted to.
But Gyude also claimed that the West appears to be satisfied with “virtue signalling” when it comes to Africa’s prosperity rather than offering concrete alternatives.
Thus, it should not come as a big surprise when African governments do their best to avoid being drawn into any rivalry between the major powers such as the United States and China and prefer to rather maintain a broad coalition of partners.
But most importantly, he pointed out, “If China has built more infrastructure in Africa in two decades than the West has in centuries, China is also our friend”.