Since the initiation of the Belt and Road Initiative(BRI) by China in 2013, a massive infrastructure initiative stretching from East Asia to Europe, some global powers have attempted to offer competing models. First was the US through the Blue Dot Network, and most recently, the European Union’s Global Gateway announced by the EU’s President during the 2021 State of the Union address.
Questions that have arisen in regards to the above include: How do African countries centre their infrastructure needs and financing in these apparent reactionary approaches ( by the US and the EU ) to the BRI? Given what BRI has achieved so far on the continent, will the approaches by the US and the EU deliver for the infrastructure needs of African countries? Should the need for infrastructure, as part of African countries industrial development, be more urgent that Africa than geopolitics?
What are the Components of BRI , Blue Dot Network and Global Gateway
BRI was coined in 2013 China’s President Xi Jinping, who drew inspiration from the concept of the Silk Road established during the Han Dynasty 2,000 years ago– an ancient network of trade routes that connected China to the Mediterranean via Eurasia for centuries. BRI has two components. Firstly, it comprises a transcontinental transport network that links China to several parts of the world namely South East Asia, south Asia, Central Asia, Russia and Europe by land. Secondly is a sea route connecting China’s coastal regions with south east and south Asia, the South Pacific, the Middle East and Eastern Africa, all the way to Europe. It is also worth noting that BRI does in fact go beyond the listed infrastructure. It covers not only infrastructure connectivity, but also coordination of policy, unimpeded trade, financial integration and connection of people.
Blue Dot Network
Launched by USA, Japan and Australia, Blue Dot Network is a is a mechanism to certify infrastructure projects that meet robust international quality standards. While the proponents describe it as ‘a multilateral effort to promote principles of sustainable infrastructure development around the world’, the initiative does seem as a standard -setting mechanism in relation to global infrastructure. According to the US government, ‘Blue Dot Network certification will serve as a globally recognized symbol of market-driven, transparent, Paris Agreement-aligned, and financially, socially, and environmentally sustainable infrastructure projects.’ It is instructive to note that the arrangement is, from a cursory look, OECD focused and this is evidenced by the fact that its proponents are currently working (or intends to work) with OECD.
The Global Gateway
This is the most recent approach to global infrastructure. Announced by the European Commission in 15th September 2021 during the State of the Union Address , the Global Gateway has been described as the EU’s grand strategy.
Most poorer countries of the world certainly need infrastructure to boost their productivity and competitiveness. A good number these countries are in Africa and whereas there have been some efforts address the continent’s infrastructure challenges like filing the infrastructure financing gap, these efforts still fall short of what the continent really needs. Yet there have been, and there continue to be, announcements by Africa’s development partners (both from the developed world and from other Global South powerful nations) regarding cooperation on infrastructure development. These announcements have taken the forms elucidated above.
Against this backdrop, this piece looks at how African countries can collectively integrate their infrastructure ambitions with what is being offered, and while doing so, what options are worth embracing. The key argument here is the need for infrastructure (and infrastructure financing) in Africa is so important and urgent that African countries should not be caught in the geopolitics of infrastructure. Rather the discussion should really be how the African Union can deliver its infrastructure ambitions through workable partnerships.
Africa’s infrastructure Challenges and Needs
Nowhere is Africa’s’ infrastructure ambitions laid down like the Programme for Infrastructural Development in Africa (PIDA), which is one of the African Union’s Continental Frameworks. PIDA, according to the AU, provides a common framework for African stakeholders to build the infrastructure necessary for more integrated transport, energy, ICT and trans-boundary water networks to boost trade, spark growth and create jobs. Just what is Africa’s infrastructure financing gap? According to a report by Infrastructure Consortium for Africa (ICA) report titled “ Infrastructure Financing Trends in Africa 2018” financing of infrastructure in Africa reached a new high of $100.8 billion in 2018, a jump of about a quarter on 2017 and 38% up on the 2015-2017 average. However. the report notes that there are still gaps. According to the African Development Bank’s CEO Akinwumi A. Adesina there ‘here is an urgent need to close Africa’s infrastructure financing gap of $68-108 billion a year to support the continent’s accelerated growth and development.
So, what pathways for Africa in bridging this gap? There is already considerable traction in the construction of infrastructure on the continent. This is currently being led by financing from China and even the World Bank through concessional loans being advanced to several African countries. Some of the China -led projects are being done in line with the BRI ambitions and are crucial for opening up the continent especially in light of the aims of BRI. YiKe Fu and Ovigwe Egeugu in their piece China’s BRI and the AfCFTA: Potential Overlaps, Complementarities and Challenges argue that one of the challenges facing integration under AfCFTA and its successful implementation include poor infrastructure (such as road and rail networks that should be connecting production and trade hubs across the continent. These challenges can be surmounted if certain steps are taken. These suggested steps include entrenching BRI by implementing it fully, African countries prioritising infrastructure that connects countries and Africa’s Regional Economic Communities (RECSs), and by Africa’s other development partners e.g USA and EU coming up with real solutions as opposed to reactionary approaches. These suggestions are elaborated below.
On BRI and the RECs, there is no doubt that China has been a major contributor to Africa’s infrastructure since the 2000s. This is due to the fact that China, through its state owned banks and construction companies, has been leveraging on its capacity to not only finance and to actually develop the various infrastructure projects. China’s Infrastructure footprint in Africa include roads rail, ports, power, dams, water and sanitation. However, most of these projects are within the territories of individual countries hence do not necessarily address the needs of Africa’s Regional Economic Communities. Going forward, the AU needs to align these projects with PIDA so as to focus more on regional projects across the continent.
As regards Blue Dot network and the Global Gateway, African countries need to ask themselves whether they are addressing the continent’s infrastructure needs, or whether they are simply a reaction to China’s BRI. There is already debate on the latter. For instance Etsehiwot Kebret in her recent piece in the Diplomat asks whether the Global Gateway is a response to China (read BRI) or a solution for European problem. She correctly points out that data clearly points to a stagnating economic relationship between the EU and many African countries and this latest venture could be an attempt by the EU gain some lost (trade ground) in Africa.
It is also worth noting that Blue Dot Network is simply about ‘ standards setting’. The questions that should arise as far as Africa is concerned should be who sets the intended standards for infrastructure? How will these standards advance AU’s ambitions (a set out in PIDA), and will these standards entrench or diminish Africa agency?
As African counties interact with BRI , Blue Dot Network , and the Global Gateway it is important to take into account AU infrastructure framework and how it can beneficially integrate with what Africa’s development partners are offering. That is the only effective way of centering Africa agency in realizing the continents industrialisation ambitions.