Jeff Sachs tells
Robert Zoellick, incoming president of the World Bank, that
there are "four areas where the bank can have a quick and dramatic success".
The first is food production: Sachs is a big fan of a Malawian voucher scheme
which he’d love to see rolled out across the continent, providing fertilizer
and high-yield seed. The second is, of course, anti-malarial bed nets. But it’s
the last two which interest me:
- It can help Africa achieve electrification by 2015. It is a cruel myth
that development without electricity is possible in the 21st century. Rather
than helping countries ship their oil abroad and then remain dependent on
wood for energy, the bank should be helping Africa develop its hydrocarbons
to support regional power grids.
- The bank urgently needs to help Africa finance roads and rail upgrading,
starting with a major highway (rather than a two-lane, broken- down road)
linking the port of Mombasa in Kenya with Nairobi and Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi,
and eastern Congo. A road and rail network would enormously expand trade between
Africa and the world.
The Bank certainly could get involved in major African infrastructure
projects, building roads and power plants. But if I were an African leader,
the World Bank would definitely be my second choice for such things. There’s
a new development power throwing its weight around Africa, and it’s called China.
The Chinese, I’m quite sure, could build roads and railways and power plants
much more quickly and much more cheaply than the World Bank – in fact,
they’d probably have started importing workers and actually building things
before the Bank had even got halfway through its process of environmental impact
There are downsides to letting the Chinese fund such things. For one thing,
China has a habit of using Chinese, rather than local, labor – which of
course doesn’t help the local population very much. And the Chinese don’t have
the same corruption controls and other checks and balances which are now part
of every World Bank project, which means that Africa’s physical infrastructure
would be improving much more quickly than its institutions were becoming grown-up
and sustainable. But Africa’s need for infrastructure is urgent, and any African
government should jump at whatever the quickest, cheapest option is. Right now,
that’s much more likely to mean looking east than looking west.