Below is a viewpoint from the Foresight Africa 2022 report, which explores top priorities for the region in the coming year. Read the full chapter on technological innovations.
Weak infrastructure is widely accepted as a fundamental limitation to growth in Africa. Governments in the region struggle to meet the basic needs of residents, including access to food, education, health, and livelihoods, much less invest in critical, reusable infrastructure that could provide long-term solutions to social problems.
Philanthropy alone will not lead to the sustainable infrastructure and employment needed to secure long-term health and financial security for individuals and economic prosperity for all African nations. Yet, the development community tends to focus on funding shortfalls, calling for increased official development assistance (ODA), increased government spending despite Africa’s rising budget deficit problem, and calling for the private sector to “collaborate,” “partner,” and “step up”—often euphemisms for donations. Instead, we should focus on the operational, legal, and commercial barriers to deploying sustainable infrastructure, and how we can invest more wisely to overcome those challenges. We need sustainable commercial models that enable service delivery and provide employment at scale.
By design, private sector solutions must be commercially sustainable in order to deliver at scale and long-term. We would be better served as a global community to entice, encourage, and de-risk private sector engagement in the infrastructure challenge by channeling existing ODA, private philanthropy, and government resources towards creating an enabling environment for the private sector to innovate, deliver, and employ.
Philanthropy alone will not lead to the sustainable infrastructure and employment needed to secure long-term health and financial security for individuals and economic prosperity for all African nations.
One such example, where I have experience, is digital infrastructure. Digital infrastructure is not only a means to deliver aid and other critical services, but also enables commerce and, thus, the means for economic growth. Digital inclusion, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, has proven critical for filling gaps in physical infrastructure that leave the most rural and marginalized communities behind.
Developing and managing secure digital solutions requires extensive knowledge across issues like data privacy and security, interoperability standards, franchise management, biometric tokenization, device security, and more. This knowledge resides with the private sector companies that are investing billions to continually innovate, to prevent fraud, and to prevent bad actors from accessing personal data.
However, four fundamental challenges to private sector engagement in fragile contexts persist:
Helping communities across Africa access the critical services they need would benefit the entire world. So much more can be done with existing aid flows to build sustainable infrastructure and create employment—if private investment is incentivized. We need to create an efficient and effective model to deploy the private sector resources we have now—and in the digital age that must begin with the construction of a more effective digital infrastructure that can leverage the capabilities of private industry.
The Brookings Africa Growth Initiative receives support from the Mastercard Foundation.
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