Kigali: there couldn’t have been a more appropriate place for the African Development Bank to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
It was just 20 years ago that Rwanda’s entire economic and political soul was destroyed by genocide. Twenty years on, Rwanda has reinvented itself to boast one of the most stable democracies and robust economies on the continent. It has become a shining example of how post-conflict countries in Africa can survive and flourish.
Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, announced at a high-level debate on “The Africa we want” at the annual meeting that while people must make use of what they are given, the continent needs to work together to achieve the development and prosperity that it deserves.
Integration within the continent is crucial for this structural transformation. Initiatives including the East African Community (EAC) and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) have been built to realize this goal. Indeed, the benefits of a successful EAC and seamless trade routes would be a great boon to land-locked Rwanda.
But serious physical barriers to integration persist. Africa’s road densities, for instance, are the lowest in the world. Rail networks are unreliable and weak. The movement of goods and people is often thwarted because of this, hampering regional trade, economic growth, and global competitiveness.
While physical boundaries are one problem, cognitive boundaries are another. Despite initiatives such as the EAC and Ecowas, rules and regulations have not been harmonized within regions.
Generally speaking, African countries trade more with Europe than they do with each other; even where roads are good, rent-seeking opportunities widely plague popular trade routes, with officials hoping to benefit from bribes at the expense of their neighbours. Tension is rife throughout these routes where those undertaking trade and officials are pitted against one another – often on the basis of national differences.
Long-term investment is greatly needed to combat the infrastructure deficit on the continent and big changes to streamline policy are needed. Although there is money available to fund bankable infrastructure projects, the achievement of meaningful integration will be increasingly difficult in a fractured continent where differences abound and tension is rife. Policymakers will need to be aware of these obstacles.