Lack of Infrastructure in Africa as a Problem of Resource Allocation

Lack of Infrastructure in Africa as a Problem of Resource Allocation
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像

In mainstream Western media, a surge of articles highlighting the economic growth and potential of the African continent has appeared in recent years, and in particular, the relatively politically stable East African region. Articles point out the possibility of low-end manufacturing shifting away from an increasingly expensive Asia to this region, where a youthful and underemployed labor force will be ready to pick up the slack on the cheap.

But the major problem, the same articles would unequivocally note, is the dearth of necessary infrastructure to support mass manufacturing. Electricity is intermittent in major cities like Dar es Salaam, where even household and office demand, not to mention industrial needs, far outstrip meager supplies, ensuring blackouts for hours every day. Narrow and under-maintained roads cannot adequately keep up with an explosion of motor vehicles, causing non-moving traffic jams for most of the morning and evening hours.

Such under-investment in vital infrastructure means all large businesses, without exception, have to tolerate high prices of running their own electric generators and massive delays in moving goods from point A to point B. The result is, without a doubt, a persistent bottleneck for the continent to sustainably achieve its lauded economic potential.

However, after traveling in Africa, I have come to realize that the lack of infrastructure is not often simply a matter of not having the money to build. More likely, the issue is how limited government resources earmarked for infrastructure development is inefficiently allocated, with vast amounts of money wasted on projects that do not inherently benefit private economic actors that can most efficiently push for faster and more inclusive development.

Instead, the money is spent for purely political reasons, helping politicians in power secure patronage and goodwill, keeping the same politicians in office and in power.

My experience traveling to Dodoma, Tanzania, serves as the perfect example of such inefficient allocation for infrastructure development, for the sake of politics.

Being the nation’s young capital city, Dodoma is becoming a small city with a big political heart. Extending beyond the obvious presence of political buildings, such as the grand headquarters of the national parliament and its ruling party, the power of “political money" is starting to permeate every aspect of an otherwise plain and dusty population center of 150 thousand people. Just by looking at its surprisingly orderly cityscape, I can comprehend the enormous efforts politicians put in sprucing up the capital so that it is fitting for what they consider East Africa’s most potential-filled nation.

Nowhere is this deliberate political effort more obvious than in the outskirts of the town, where the massive campus of the University of Dodoma (UDOM) sprawls over several arid, barren hills covered with no more than red dirt, dying shrubs and a couple of rundown villages.

The word “monumental" is certainly not an overstatement for buildings of this enormous campus. In a country where two-to-three-story rough and unpainted concrete buildings are the norm even in modern townships, UDOM has amassed more than two dozen ten-story brick buildings painted so white that they shine brightly under the afternoon sun against the red dirt on which they stand.

A newly paved tarmac road neatly graced on both sides with fully functioning streetlights (a rarity even in the “modern” city of Dar es Salaam) connects downtown Dodoma and the campus. In contrast, the broken thatched huts of the rundown villages are still only served by dirt paths so rough and narrow that it is completely out of question for a car to pass through.

It is not at all a surprise, then, that when I was heading over to the campus from the town in a dalla-dalla (local version of minibuses), I observed the clear sense of desensitized dismay his fellow passengers (i.e. residents of those “couple of rundown villages") displayed as they glanced at the monumental buildings of UDOM.

It requires no elaboration the amount of investment the government poured into this state-owned university. It is likely government officials see this massive, modern school as a quick way for the new capital to catch up with the old one at Dar es Salaam, which remains the undisputed cultural and economic center of Tanzania.

But to see the politicians’ grand aspiration backed with such rash way of tossing around taxpayer money raises more than an eyebrow. And the school’s modern physical infrastructure compared to the complete lack of it just around the corner is but one, very visible, downside.

Worse are not seen by the eyes, in the form of damages to social infrastructure. My friend-cum-tour-guide for the trip describes how more money spent on buildings meant less loans and scholarships for the students. And rash planning and unrealistic ambitions of the physical infrastructure meant that capacity of these new buildings grossly exceeds the number of students willing to live and study in a place so remote that the nearest sundry and clothing shops are a half-hour, infrequently available dalla-dalla ride away.

Yet no one in the local area seems to be consulted in the process or dares to openly question the government’s wisdom in constructing UDOM in this way.

Such is perhaps the misfortune of becoming the capital city by the stroke of a pen (as was the case for Dodoma back in 1973). Sure, disproportionate amounts of money will flow in for the construction of physical infrastructure, but local people no longer have control over how their town will be changed.

By virtue of the city becoming a political representation of the whole nation and the government skills of ruling politicians, Dodoma will get its share of progress and development. All the while, unseen parts of the city will continue to be neglected, as is the case for most towns in the country.

Indeed, in a poor country where capital is limited, a few white elephants like UDOM’s empty buildings can mean a complete lack of infrastructural development for some of those neglected areas, whose resources were reduced and diverted to build those white elephants.

Even within Dodoma itself, an underdeveloped public transport system can only get a person to a nearby suburb in one hour or more. Lack of safe public housing and law enforcement means theft is both commonplace and not properly dealt with by the police. And urban-rural economic divide means villagers just outside the showcase capital town live in a completely different world.

Yet, it is precisely the government’s negligence toward real issues of developments in the remote corners of the country that cause the concept of fair allocation of resources to remain blissfully absent from the decision-making process. This is just too accentuated in Dodoma, where modernity, courtesy of the government only, incompletely masks the real obstacles of everyday life due to lack of decent infrastructure.

Perhaps residents of Dodoma can call themselves lucky because excess government attention means they do not face as much urban development problems that other provincial towns of this country normally face. But, at the same time, it also means they may be more cynical, having seen firsthand how taxpayer money from the whole nation is spent on infrastructural developments that only benefit a selected few.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original piece was published on the author’s blog here: The White Elephants on Top of Red Dirt