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Africa’s Quest for Infrastructure Development

The African continent has discovered what the United States knew in the early days of its industrial renewal: infrastructure development is key to economic growth and sustained economic success. Representatives of African nations have a clear message to the international community: “Help us develop roads, railways, air traffic lanes, water transit systems, power productivity and market places, and we will have thriving economies that will benefit our individual nations, regions, continent and the world.” This is what Africans have learned from studying the development of US cities and the impact that well-developed cities have had on the United States and beyond.

Infrastructure development leads to industrial development. Nations cannot fully develop without the appropriate infrastructure and the systems and the will to maintain that infrastructure. Reliable power generation and supply are essential in sustaining infra-structure development and the industrial revolution made possible by that infrastructure. Infrastructure must be preserved and renewed. It must be repaired, modernized and continually refurbished. Therefore, capital—both human and financial—must be invested in the maintenance of a resilient infrastructure.

Any nation that does not develop world class infrastructure is doomed to be undeveloped or underdeveloped. Similarly, any nation that does not continually maintain a first class, modernized infrastructure is doomed to lose ground and risk being overtaken in influence, power and prestige. The United States became a global leader in part because it invested in infrastructure, which spurred one of the world’s most productive industrial revolutions. Our country developed the power supply and systems that fueled the world, making possible the combustible engines that moved goods and supplies. American ingenuity harnessed the use of natural gas and electricity, which enabled around-the-clock productivity in plants and factories. US leadership and vision inspired the building of a highway system that made possible travel from the east to the west coast and from the north to the south. Along these roads, towns and cities sprang up and flourished. Urban and suburban havens, which became centers of middle class wealth, symbolize the possibilities of US infrastructure development.

African economists and scholars know that the United States can trace the growth of its thriving cities to the early development of waterways, which transported people and goods from one coastal city to the next and made possible frequent travel. They also have observed that the westward expansion of the US economy is linked to the development of railways that connected land locked cities and states to trading opportunities created by the process of moving goods and services from the east and west coasts to the world. The transformation of rural areas to modern suburbs, which increasingly are becoming parts of greater metropolitan areas with phenomenal economic impact, is tied to the building of the interstate highway system and intrastate roads.

The evidence is clear. Infrastructure development is essential to economic growth and sustained progress. Asia understands this reality; witness the rise of the Asian economies. Africa also understands; infrastructure development is key to the continent’s economic impact for the rest of this century and beyond.

Africa is seeking aggressive, structured investments in its own infrastructure renewal. Africa is striving to build its infrastructure according to the model that created America’s once enviable infrastructure advantages. Beyond the immediate impact of putting massive numbers of people to work in meaningful, skill-building, tax-paying employment, there is a long-term benefit to national economies and economic standing when African nations and the continent as a whole can build a competitive infrastructure edge. Bridges, roads, and structures that are neglected will fall apart, and the economies they supported will suffer. If anything should bring about international cooperation and broad-spectrum consensus in the multifaceted and diverse populations of the African continent, it should be the unrestrained realization that just as infrastructure development helped create America as an exceptional nation the same can be done in Africa. Once developed, there must be ongoing investment to maintain cutting edge infrastructure. American standards for infrastructure development, including quality controls for safety and reliability, represent skill sets that American engineers and planners can share with Africa.

The fact that Africa wants to follow the proven strategy for economic growth and sustained development should be clear evidence that the model works. It is equally clear that the model has continued relevance for the United States and the rest of the world. The significance of infrastructure development is a lesson in sound investment. The long-term benefits of an exceptional infrastructure are indisputable.

If the 21st century is the African Century, it is logical that Africa aggressively seeks modern, reliable infrastructure to connect its vast and diverse geography by air, land, and sea. The Cairo to Cape Town vision is as essential to Africa as the New York to California vision was to America. Connecting Africa’s great cities and countries can be achieved through infrastructure development. Infrastructure development makes sense.

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Senior Advisor, United States-African Leaders Summit
United States Ambassador to the African Union, 2009-2013