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Africa’s ports race is hyped as ‘improvement’ but additionally creates pathways for plunder

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Ports have lengthy been integral to Africa’s connectivity with the remainder of the world. But over the past 15 years, a brand new stage in maritime infrastructure planning and improvement has begun. Between 2004 and 2019, over US$50 billion was spent on this infrastructure – roughly 13 times more than was spent between 1990 and 2004.

Ports replicate greater than easy financial imperatives. They’re essential in creating and reinforcing social, political, and cultural methods. Infrastructure generally is a helpful lens to grasp what explicit teams in society worth and the way political elites goal to construction the social order. Certainly, port funding makes seen the linkages and disconnections between completely different agendas (these of leaders, world capital and civil society).

In a lately revealed paper, we explored two key questions on port funding and building. What explains the large improve? And what does this inform us concerning the nature of financial progress and political change throughout Africa?

We argue that the most recent section of port infrastructure improvement – the “ports race” – is formed by (and concurrently shapes) three Africa-specific macro developments.

The primary is reliance on the massive scale export of pure sources (“extractivism”).

The second is an embrace of state-led improvement methods that privilege giant scale infrastructure.

Third is the repackaging of narratives that hyperlink financial progress and world connectivity. Elites do that to bolster their home energy and legitimise processes which are usually socially or environmentally harmful.

In essence, the ports race is the results of each new alliances between African political elites and world financial circumstances that favour large-scale infrastructure constructing. These could also be drying up post-COVID-19, nevertheless.

Fashioning the ports race

African international locations have lengthy relied on major commodity exports. This technique, which started throughout the colonial interval, largely continues immediately. The vast majority of African economies are nonetheless arrange round two manufacturing methods: the export of oil and minerals, or the export of tropical agricultural merchandise (there are a number of exceptions, together with Morocco).

The ports race is symptomatic of a brand new sample in nationwide improvement.

African politicians are aiming to make use of the export of unprocessed sources and commodities to develop pockets of home value-addition in sure strategic industries. This technique has develop into ubiquitous beneath the umbrella of “resource-led improvement”. But it creates the situations for the continued plunder of African sources and for massively environmentally or socially damaging processes.

An excellent instance is Ghana’s US$2 billion bauxite-for-infrastructure agreement with Sinohydro, a Chinese language multinational. Bauxite might be processed domestically for export markets. However at the least a part of the Atewa forest reserve, the place the bauxite is positioned, might be destroyed within the mining course of.

The necessity for higher export capability additionally drives port growth initiatives throughout Africa. More and more, states are looking for to draw capital and bolster their legitimacy at residence and overseas by creating “protected areas” for funding.

For instance, Djibouti has attracted over $4 billion for infrastructure improvement up to now 10 years alone. But, this has accomplished little to cut back Djibouti’s poverty charges or enhance employment ranges. As a substitute, new infrastructure has served to collect worldwide assist for Ismail Omar Guelleh’s repressive regime, as company and state actors current the port of Djibouti as a safe regional pivot for transhipments.

The home stability wanted to draw capital to Djibouti was realised by means of the erosion of press freedoms, harsh crackdowns on dissent and non-competitive elections. It’s within the alliance between the pursuits of native political elites and overseas capital that the developmental results of port initiatives are outlined.

Because of rising levels of indebtedness and rising competitors amongst African states to draw overseas funding, this isn’t an enduring answer.

The financial and political penalties of pricey infrastructure initiatives falling quick in delivering progress and improvement could be disastrous. As an illustration, loans may not be repaid, or funding could possibly be directed away from initiatives with higher potential social impacts.

The ports race is a “dangerous enterprise”. How, then, do African elites legitimise port improvement domestically?

They do it by associating infrastructure with modernity and connectivity. In essence, they create an concept of a future with high-tech port operations, easily paved roads and uninterrupted flows of products.

Infrastructural visions are carefully related to extractivism and state-led improvement. They communicate of “unlocking” the potential of particular African areas by connecting them with world commerce and capital flows. They usually painting home peripheries as “unproductive” and in want of infrastructure improvement.


Contemplating the variety of large-scale maritime infrastructure initiatives presently beneath manner in Africa, we view the ports race as an ongoing course of. Main world occasions like COVID-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine may have an effect on it, although.

Not all port initiatives are dangerous for progress and improvement. The developmental results of ports and different maritime infrastructure are advanced and various. They rely upon native elements and whether or not initiatives are tied to overarching plans.

For some international locations, port building or growth could improve the implementation of commercial coverage frameworks by decreasing transport prices and inefficiencies. But this isn’t a given. Furthermore, building of a number of ports in the identical area making an attempt to achieve the standing of transhipment or gateway “hubs” signifies that some will definitely fall quick. There might be extreme political and financial penalties.