Ratio Blog: Dam over Bednet
Friday, 11 February 2011
I have a lovely friend who lives at the other end of town. And between us stand the ridiculous Nairobi traffic and the fact that we both have been very busy, so unfortunately I don’t see her very often. And it doesn’t help that we’re both quite skilled procrastinators with a solid sideline in displacement activity. Faced with several deadlines, I have just started a thorough round of sorting out and cleaning up corners in my house instead. And my friend is very good at truffling the internet. By now, I can usually guess from the links that she sends me how busy she is. If it’s a Youtube clip with ‘Archbishop’ Gilbert Deya interviewing someone whose decaying genital he has saved through the power of prayer, things are bad: Very busy, deadline for large report staring her right in the face. Recently, I gather that her workload has been a bit mixed: On the one hand, a clip of Deya in singing and dancing performance against a fantastically 1980s inspired, retina-searing computer background seemed to indicate that yet another serious deadline was approaching rapidly. On the other hand, she sent me an article with just the briefest ‘Gets up my nose. Yours, too?’ comment. Clearly not a day with a critical workload, at least for her.

But since I had a deadline that had become so pressing that I was easily led astray, I had a look: It was an article that criticised African participants at Davos for lobbying for the Grand Inga hydropower dam on the Congo River. Clearly the writer didn’t like this project one tiny little bit. The Inga project, the largest dam in the world if completed, was a huge investment gamble, she said, as the Congo was one of the riskiest places in the world to invest in: ‘The biggest obstacle to the project succeeding in a way that benefits ordinary Africans is corruption..’. She went on to argue that despite the huge power supplies that Inga could generate, most Africans would still live too far from the grid to have access to this electricity, as only around 6% of the population had access to the grid: ‘If built, the dam will power big mines and industries, not small businesses, homes and hospitals.’ Her recommendation is therefore: ‘The USD80bn Grand Inga would buy a lot of clean cook stoves, micro-hydro turbines, small solar panels, drip-irrigation systems, clean LED lanterns, malaria nets and the like. These are the kinds of investments that would help ordinary Africans.’

I agree that DR Congo is by no means an easy place to invest in. That is as obvious as saying that water is wet, or that Kenya is a swamp of flourishing corruption. And it is also clear that if the country, and its utility SNEL, were better managed, more people would have access to electricity. As with similar mega projects elsewhere – Lamu Port, anyone? –, my concerns would be around whether the tendering, construction etc can be managed to make the whole project work, and avoid that it ends up as a white elephant with massive amounts of money lost. This would by no means be easy, and infrastructure investments of this scope are usually impossible to do just within the private sector, without some public-sector and multilateral financing.

But I have no, absolutely no issues with the Inga Dam powering big mines and industries. Because industries with reliable and affordable power don’t run themselves: they employ people, and those people earn a salary that would, just imagine!, enable them to buy cook stoves, solar panels, malaria nets and such things if they so desire – they wouldn’t have to sit around and wait for some NGO to distribute those items, and they would have the liberty to decide which ones they want. Also, those factories could conceivably pay taxes, which the government could a) steal, or b) reinvest. In, say, transmission lines to extend the grid, or mini-hydros, or drip-irrigation systems. And a power provider selling the vast electricity generated by Inga could also use those revenues for rural electrification.

The bottom line is: Unless such basic, yet essential infrastructure issues as roads and power are sorted out, or at least improving, it will be difficult for a country to pull itself out of its current level of poverty. That this won’t be easy, and that it will intimately tied to improvements in governance, is clear, too. It will necessarily be a gradual process. But unless this happens, the so-called ‘ordinary Africans’ will remain at the mercy of NGOs distributing bednets and cooking stoves and all sorts of other bits and pieces.

Reprinted with kind permission by the Star.

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