Thinking outside the box: an innovative solution for Africa’s infrastructure woes

African countries should deploy their militaries to building infrastructure on the continent, said Professor Calestous Juma, director of science, technology and globalisation at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Calestous Juma speaking at last week's World Economic Forum on Africa, held in Cape Town.

Calestous Juma speaking at last week’s World Economic Forum on Africa, held in Cape Town.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum on Africa, Juma suggested that African defence forces should become development armies.

This, he noted, will help the continent develop infrastructure projects faster.

“The biggest threat to Africa is not invasion by neighbours; it is poverty. I am interested in seeing the extent to which defence ministries can participate in expanding road networks in Africa,” said Juma.

It is estimated that Africa will need about US$93 billion every year for the next 45 years to develop the needed infrastructure. Many African countries are starting to increase their infrastructure investment with some allocating up to 10% of the GDP to infrastructure projects. This is however, not enough.

Poor transport, communications and energy infrastructure is slowing down Africa’s economic development and has hampered the growth of various sectors like agriculture.

“African governments need to be creative about how they leverage domestic resources to support infrastructure investments. I would like to see large sections of the African military devoted to infrastructure projects. Most of these militaries have some of the best engineers and equipment,” said Juma.

According to Juma, Senegal has a very long established tradition of the military helping to build infrastructure, while large sections of the armies in Eritrea and Ghana are also engaged in development activities. In Uganda, a defunct college has been revived and converted into the University of Military Science and Technology managed by the Uganda People’s Defence Force. The university has already started graduating railway engineers.

African countries, he added, need to take a step further and develop public policy interventions on military involvement in development, to leverage the assets the continent already has.

“This should be done by policy, not by accident,” he explained. “We allocate large portions of our budget to defence; to me the first defence is economic defence.”

According to Juma, Africa’s fascination with China is based on the ability of Chinese companies to build infrastructure quickly. Although China is building a lot of the infrastructure on the continent, African countries need to build the capacity needed to maintain the infrastructure.

“African countries must be thinking seriously about building capacity in engineering on a large scale. Line ministries should build their own engineering schools. For instance, the ministry of water should build a water engineering school. This is how China built up its engineering capabilities,” he said.

African universities, Juma said, should also equip the next generation with skills to solve practical problems, particularly, in engineering sciences and entrepreneurial activities.