The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Greg Foster, Area Vice President, Habitat for Humanity Europe, Middle East and Africa

I am currently packing my bags to return to my homeland in New Zealand. After spending the last 22 years in developing countries including 15 years in Africa working in the humanitarian field, I wanted to take a look back at my time in Africa and reflect. I can honestly say, during my time in Africa, my teams helped more than 3 million people. But, what bother me, and, while I’m not sure exactly why, I thought about how development in Africa is like a merry go round. Each year, the music is pretty much the same; the animals go up and down; and children laugh and cry with equal measure. From one year to the next, the only difference is that there may be a new song or two, some of the animals get a paint job; and the children have gotten older. It’s basically the same merry-go-round. It goes round and round (when it is working) and never leaves the same spot.

Year after year we hear about how poverty has been reduced; children are healthier; and there’s been a lowering in the incidence of disease. But, unfortunately, many of the same troubling issues also regularly come up. There’s not enough development aid to do all the work that’s needed. Drought, floods, and man-made disasters take their toll. And, the social situation of communities is deteriorating. What is clear is that there’s a relatively fragile balance between progress and disaster.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe we should stop trying to do things in a piece meal fashion and attack the big issues head on. Stop the merry go round and make real change happen by taking a planned step-by-step approach that builds from the ground up and uses much of the great work already in place. We need to create a win-win situation and move away from trying to do good in an unsustainable way and focusing on two very crucial areas that will make both social and economic change happen.

Many of you will know that when you fly over Africa at night, there are very few lights on. The current energy deficit in Africa is alarming. More than 645 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and roughly 70 percent of the region’s population do not have access to electricity, according to the African Development Bank. Many studies have shown the lack of electricity is stifling development and economic growth. For example, McKinsey’s report“Powering Africa” states that to “fulfill the economic and social promise of the region, and Africa in general, depends on the ability of government and investors to develop the continent’s huge electricity capacity.”

Thankfully, there are six big electrification initiatives covering everything from traditional fossil fuel to renewable energy projects in progress. However, it is estimated that it will take an investment of $490 billion in generation and $345 billion in transmission and distribution—just under a trillion—to electrify Africa. Again the number may appear staggering but it isn’t. By investing in and building planned and sustainable electrification projects, the continent will be transformed. It will also do something else—it will put a lot of people to work in formal employment. That’s a win-win because for every dollar spent less will be needed in the form of aid and more generated through economic development. It will also transform the marketplace. Formal employment means tax dollars to build schools, hospitals, and all the other services as well as develop a true middle class. It all so means that people will spend money on improving their housing and will invest in education.

We should also look at eliminating ‘Africa time’. Africa needs lots of roads and rail links to connect rural areas to cities, improve the flow of goods and services and help keep the economy ticking along. The inordinate amount of time it takes to get from one place to another is only getting worse. I can’t tell you how many traffic jams I have been in that have meant important meeting s are cancelled, the number of flights missed, and the amount of energy wasted. A recent Economist article, stated that African governments are spending about $6.8 billion per year on transportation when they need to invest closer to $10 billion. That’s a substantial difference but not one that is overwhelming. More investment in transportation would cut travel time and transportation costs, and make it easier for children to get to school, the sick to hospital, and build a sustainable economy. It would also create jobs—lots of jobs.

This may be the time to look back at what has worked in the past and what would help propel economic development once and for all. By focusing on electrification and transportation real change can happen. There are 677 million people living in sub-Sahara Africa that are at risk of crisis. They live in poverty. Have no homes to speak of. Barely make enough to live on. How many of them wouldn’t benefit from electricity, roads and transportation and from the jobs these projects will create?

This means re-thinking of how ODA (last year it was $36 billion for sub-Saharan Africa) and how the $20 billion pledged for UN aid for Sub-Sahara Africa is allocated. It also means that some things will not move forward. That’s a hard decision because it means that many of the things that have been done year after year with little or no result or impact will need to be cut back or stopped. Many may say this is too radical of an approach, but is it?

Let’s stop the piecemeal unsustainable expenditure of hard to come by funds. We have talked enough about coordinating efforts, especially in the EU. A truly transparent process for planning and allocating funds needs to be established. It’s time to act. OECD and others have started thinking about providing funds to the private sector. This may be a good idea but we need the allocations to be planned, oversight put into place and truly an international and regional commitment to success. If we were to manage and implement these programs properly, we could, once and for the foreseeable future, make a difference and give some of the 677 million an opportunity to develop and be pulled out of crisis. It would stop the merry go round—finally.

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