There is evidence that the infrastructure that global financiers want to fund is not the kind that majority of the population need
| TOM GOODFELLOW | Big infrastructure projects are always controversial. Yet in parts of the world associated with severely deficient infrastructure, the positive value of major infrastructure investments is often taken as a given.
This assumption needs to be subjected to much greater scrutiny, as I argue in new research that explores the narrative of Africa’s “infrastructure gap” and why different bodies are rushing to “plug” it. The nature of the relationship between infrastructure and economic growth is already contested. Despite their tendency to produce a short term boom, there is evidence that big infrastructure investments can exacerbate economic fragility.
But such negative impacts are more than economic. While some internationally financed transport projects are very popular with many city-dwellers – such as the light rail in Addis Ababa, regardless of its other failings – others can generate widespread anger and various perverse local impacts. The reality is that the kinds of projects attracting big finance are rarely structured to benefit those who most urgently require infrastructure access.
The mega-road as a barricade
In Nalumunye, a suburb of the Ugandan capital Kampala, some people are so angry about the newly opened expressway carving an impassable barrier through their lives that they refused to take part in my team’s research about it. This is more than mere nimbyism. Those living near the road are furious on the grounds that it is useless to them, has inflated land values for some other people while cutting off their land and swamping it in dust, and offers no easily accessible entry points.
On one side of the road, commutes into the city have hugely increased in length as many people have to travel miles in the wrong direction before reaching a crossing point. On the other, people are cut off from land and families on which their livelihoods depend. Meanwhile, the social character of the area has changed dramatically as speculators swarm in to build luxurious villas. Many of these remain empty as the promised local benefits of the road fail to materialise. Even if they can access the road, ordinary people fear that the toll payments, when introduced, won’t be affordable.
Of course, the expressway has its benefits for regular travellers between the capital and Entebbe airport – though there are growing concerns about continuing low usage a year and a half after its opening. Dubbed the world’s most expensive road, it provides just one among many examples of large, expensive infrastructure projects for which the benefits are increasingly being questioned within Africa.