Can COVID-19 be that change that tips the scales towards transformation in Africa?

By Eunice G. Kamwendo, Strategic Advisor, UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa

April 20, 2020

Africa is sitting on an infrastructure gap of about $108 billion per year across electricity, water, transport and telecommunications sectors. Photo: UNDP Guinea Bissau / Gwenn Dubourthoumieu

Like most pandemics, the COVID-19 outbreak will have long lasting and mostly adverse consequences in all countries. The disease unleashed by the novel coronavirus has already altered the world order in ways beyond contemplation. School and business closures, travel restrictions within and between countries, or bans on social gatherings and interactions, are all social contracts being re-written in an effort to halt and contain the spread of the virus.

With many businesses, social interactions and social services rapidly shifting to online platforms and telephone services, I am convinced that having supportive soft and hard infrastructure is a necessity in order to survive and thrive in the new normal, and my hope is to see Africa continue to ride on the technology wave for its development.

The developmental costs of Covid-19

Going into lockdown in America meant shifting almost overnight to alternative business models through digital platforms, telephone and home delivery services. Even the supply of social services has changed, as attested by drive-through Covid-19 testing stations in many states and countries, or on-line schooling and church services.

Thanks to pre-existing supportive infrastructure, those shifts have been a little easier – although not perfect – in the developed world, where more than 80% of the total population has stable access to electricity, the internet and technology.

But can Africa afford lockdowns without experiencing reversals on human development?  With the pandemic raging and spreading fast across the continent, countries have had to respond with measures similar to those applied in the West and elsewhere. There are total or partial shutdowns in South Africa, Mauritius, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Uganda for example, with variations in measures. While the full costs of the lockdowns are yet to be counted – it is apparent that industries and whole economies are going to be hit hard with lasting effects on poverty and overall human development.

Africa is sitting on an infrastructure gap of about $108 billion per year across electricity, water, transport and telecommunications sectors. Access to electricity remains low at an average of 43% compared to 87% globally leaving more than 640 million people and businesses with no life line. Internet penetration is equally low at 37.2% and so are transport networks - severely limiting the adoption of life-changing technologies which serve the most basic needs as well as enable innovation and more ambitious ventures.

Apart from big and relatively well developed economies like South Africa, Gabon, Cote d’Ivoire and North Africa – the rest of the continent has significant binding constraints to adapt and ensure continuity of businesses and the provisions of social services – which places a high premium on the fight against poverty and sustainable development. This is not new, but COVID-19 certainly puts the spotlight back on infrastructure development and transformation as one of the key tenets for Africa’s development.


The case for infrastructure development

Gyude Moore couldn’t have said it better a few months ago at a joint UNDP and Brookings Institution event on understanding the drivers of inequalities in Africa and implications for human development: “The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) will remain a mirage in Africa unless investments in infrastructure are made that support technological advancements, increase African countries’ capabilities to contribute to human development and reduce the large inequalities we see on the continent today”.

Infrastructure development has never been more urgent.  This means both soft and hard infrastructure that can support the provision of health care, continued learning, and business continuity in an increasingly connected and digital world at all times, but especially during sudden shocks like the pandemic. This means increased access to electricity, the internet, telephones, roads, health facilities and other technologies that would enable rather than disable systems.

So far, we are seeing measures that are mostly health-related, economic, socio-economic and political, and rightly so, as COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on whole economies, societies and livelihoods. But I would argue that while the above responses are urgent and necessary, countries should not lose sight of long-term development issues, such as having an educated and skilled human capital, investing in infrastructure and taking pragmatic, risk-informed, measures to limit development reversals.

The Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) couldn’t have started on a more challenging note. COVID-19 brings to the fore once again the urgent need for transformative shifts in the way Africa invests, plans, prepares and responds to shocks - putting resilient infrastructure, integrated and contingency planning for sustained development at the core. The road to 2030 may be rocky, but the world as a whole has the opportunity to prepare, respond, recover and build back better. The choice is ours to take.