Infrastructure investments necessary, but at what cost?

The Daily Nation (Nairobi) Sunday, February 1 2009


Let me say at the outset that I am not one of those people who believe that Kenya’s physical beauty and biodiversity will be dented by the encroachment of physical infrastructure such as roads, ports, railway lines, and airports.

I think infrastructure investments – whether private or public – promote urbanisation, which encourages people to concentrate in smaller areas rather than spread themselves on larger tracts, which is neither productive, nor provides the economies of scale that makes investments in infrastructure viable.

Urban areas currently take up less than 4 per cent of the total land surface of this planet and hold half the world’s population. So the argument that urbanisation encroaches on valuable arable land is false.

A preliminary analysis of the fastest growing cities in the world by UN-Habitat shows that more than 40 per cent of these cities benefited from the diversification, expansion or improvement of regional or national transport and communication infrastructure, which increased the overall productivity of not just the cities, but the regions surrounding them.

It is for this reason that I am all in favour of expanding and improving Kenya’s rail network, the building of international airports in tourist destinations such as Malindi, and the building of an efficient port in Lamu, a historic but dilapidated island that lacks even the most basic of services.

Unlike sceptics, I also believe that the development of the Tana River Delta for large-scale agriculture, using modern irrigation systems, is probably good. However, while I am all for infrastructure projects, the way these projects are being conceived leaves a lot to be desired.

One, they are shrouded in secrecy. Two, this being Kenya, it is not clear who will benefit most from the projects – some corrupt politician or the people living in the areas where the projects are being implemented. Three, the investments seem to have an invisible foreign hand whose motives are not always above-board.

This is nothing new. For centuries, Africa has been selling off its people, its minerals and its land to foreigners who have benefited most from the transaction.

From the days when the first slave ships docked in West Africa to the present day, African chiefs and leaders have had no qualms about giving away their wealth for a song. In Kenya, land was stolen under dubious agreements and treaties that relegated the indigenous population to guests in their own land, or pushed them into “reserves”.

Africa's history is littered with stories of land grabbing and pillage. Colonisation of the continent – otherwise known as “the Scramble for Africa’’ – was the biggest land-grab witnessed in recent history. One would think that independent African nations would be more wary about leasing or selling the land they fought so hard for to foreigners.

But it seems they have not learnt from history. Our leaders are now looking to sell off or lease arable land to a new breed of rich investors, which has led to what Jacques Diouf, the head of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) refers to as a new form of neo-colonialism where poor nations produce food for the rich at the expense of their own people.

With rising food prices, the scramble for arable land in poor nations is likely to get even more intense. A recent report reveals that the proposed leasing of 40,000 hectares of the River Tana Delta by the Kenya Government to Qatar is just one of many land-grabs by rich nations.

In November last year, South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics company said it would invest about $6 billion to develop 1.3 million hectares of land in Madagascar to produce corn and palm oil for its own consumption. Meanwhile, Madagascar, like Kenya, is dependent on food aid.

Land grabbing is becoming rampant in many poor Asian countries as well. The French news agency, (AFP) reported recently that Kuwait has granted Kampuchea a $546-million loan in exchange for crop production.

The Philippine government is also considering leasing 100,000 acres of agricultural land to Qatar. Those opposed to the deal feel this will aggravate the problem of landlessness among Filipino peasants, forcing people to migrate to cities.

FAO is already sounding alarm bells over the loss of land in countries where the rural poor rely on it for subsistence and where unequal access to land is potentially an explosive political issue.

The Bangkok-based advocacy group, Focus on the Global South, says that such deals are often struck in dysfunctional and corrupt countries where private parties are using state contracts to enrich themselves. The group is also not convinced that these projects will bring in much-needed jobs and infrastructure. Who will prove right in all these cases remains to be seen.

Ms Warah is an editor with the UN. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations. ([email protected])

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