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

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.