It has been said that the crisis of Africa is a crisis of governance. While this is true, I sometimes wonder at the astounding naivety of African governments when it comes to encouraging investment and industry. The partnership with China in Africa has exposed this naivety to a degree greater that I have seen for many years. Make no mistake – China is building infrastructure on a grand scale in many African countries. So what is wrong with that? Surely better infrastructure can only be a benefit to the economy and help to support industry? Unfortunately it’s a bit more complex than that – when it comes to supporting industry, policy and governance are more important than infrastructure. Building airports and roads in the hope that they will somehow magically generate jobs and support a sustainable economy is pointless. In the long term it undermines our own ability to govern.
A good example of this folly are the new airports in Livingstone and Victoria falls. Following the UN World Tourism Organisation meeting in August 2013, there has been a flurry of building. Livingstone has a shiny new airport, Victoria Falls is building a second runway and separate international and domestic terminals. There is even a newly surfaced road from the town of Victoria Falls to the airport 20 kilometres out of town. A new international bus terminus has been constructed in Livingstone, with the first escalators ever to appear in that dusty colonial town. All of this makes it sound like tourism is one of the regions thriving industries. Except it isn’t. The tourist industry is suffering the effects of a global economic slowdown, the continued portrayal of Africa as a war torn, terrorist haven where disease outbreaks threaten the lives of millions and where hundreds of girls are kidnapped with impunity. On top of these problems (which are unfair portrayals of Africa fed to millions of ignorant Europeans and Americans, most of whom believe all of it) are the problems which African governments erect themselves. The continued charging of visas for tourists is a barrier to entry. It’s as simple as that. Tourists hate visas. The cumbersome arrangement of the so called Uni-Visa – where one can enter both Zambia and Zimbabwe for the same price, is having an unexpected effect on tour operators. Zimbabwe doesn’t charge VAT on activities like white water rafting and microlight flights over the Victoria Falls – but Zambia does. As a result the activities are cheaper in Zimbabwe and the Uni-Visa means that tourists in Zambia can take a quick taxi ride over the border to get a cheaper rate. At the time of writing the Zambian Government has not agreed to restore the zero rated VAT status that activities used to enjoy. Although some efforts have been made to clean up the town of Livingstone, it is by and large a grubby place, and doesn’t compete with any tourist town that I have ever visited. Tourist towns may seem contrived and artificial but in a global market you have to compete globally and Livingstone does not even come close. The magnificent Victoria Falls are simply not a sufficient attraction on their own to drive large numbers of tourists to Livingstone. Victoria Falls town in Zimbabwe is a very good tourist town, with interesting shops, pleasant sidewalks and clean streets – but the political situation in Zimbabwe keeps all but the most determined tourists away.
The upshot of all of this is that it cannot be fixed by building airports. The level of delusion about what these structures are going to do to turn the tourist economy around is astounding. In Zimbabwe I was told that 4 large international carriers had agreed to provide direct flights to Victorial Falls airport from European and Asian capitals. This is a fantasy. A small regional airport that seldom has more than 4 flights a day is never going to be transformed by building another terminal building. As for building another runway – that is just laughable. Johannesburg International Airport, the largest airport in the region, only has two runways. It services hundred of flights a day. There will be no direct flights from London, Paris or Hong Kong to Victoria Falls or Livingstone unless there is a large and sustained demand for them over a period of a few years so that carriers can be confident they will have the business to justify laying on the aircraft. This demand does not come from building a new airport. Building a new airport is done to service this demand which is created by an astounding tourist destination with attractive hotel prices, a welcoming, attractive and clean environment, a minimum of fees and red tape, a wide range of cheap activities and good, reasonably priced restaurants and a safe political environment. Neither Victoria Falls nor Livingstone have any of these qualities which is why there are so few tourists. It’s a failing of governance and of vision and of planning that these facilities don’t exist and building new airports and bus stations with escalators is not going to solve the problem. There is some evidence that even the governments who accept these donations don’t really believe they will achieve anything. The newly surfaced tar road to Victoria falls airport ends about 100 metres past the entrance to the airport and the road becomes a pot-holed mess again. I don’t suppose the UN delegates who fuel these dreams turned right out of the airport gates to see rural Zimbabwe. They turned left to the expensive hotels, driving on the road which was laid to support their delusions and fantasies.
I would argue that building new infrastructure under these circumstances is a move backwards. Without the large numbers of tourists coming through these new buildings they will not be able to generate the revenue needed to maintain them and they will deteriorate due to lack of maintenance. I predict that in 5 years the air conditioning will not be working, the escalators will be broken, the gardens and lawns will be unkempt and the toilets will resemble those in a medieval mental asylum. This won’t be through incompetence – it will be because there is no money. Don’t forget both these countries each inherited a very good airport and runway at independence. The collapse of their respective economy’s meant that there was no money to maintain the structures and they deteriorated. Parachuting an infrastructure from China into a situation where policy and governance does not allow for the maintenance of this infrastructure creates resentment, despair and further erodes confidence in the long term. We need the reverse – we need good governance, open, flexible policy that quickly adapts to changing circumstances, and we need to grow our industries organically so that we build confidence in our ability to do this over decades. Many Africans lack confidence in their ability to govern. The response is often to be autocratic, or to do nothing, or to merely satisfy the expectations of their immediate superiors in government. This is no doubt a product of colonialism and subsequent decades of failed post-independence economic policy. When I say that the Chinese are damaging Africa by building infrastructure this is what I mean. We need to stop dreaming of rich foreigners coming to solve all our problems, and develop the policy and governance structures that allow business to grow so that when we commission a new airport it’s because the old one is bursting to capacity with tourists and the hotels are full. Not the other way around.