Issues to consider going forward for B3W
The U.S Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently made comments on the U.S-led "Build Back Better World" (B3W) initiative reminding us that it is remains a part of a China-focused U.S foreign policy. Given the continued lack of clarity on what B3W will exactly entail after almost a year from its announcement, perhaps there is room to integrate a view from Africa on issues to consider as the initiative is built out:
What is the offer to Africa, really: Infrastructure development in Africa has become a nexus of great power competition with the B3W framed as a counter to China’s BRI. This is a concern because whereas African governments view infrastructure as a crucial enabler to economic progress, B3W does not seem attuned to this framing. Does the B3W really care about African infrastructure development or is it purely a counter to China’s BRI? The answer to that will inform whether African views and priorities will be centred, how B3W will be implemented, and therefore whether the B3W will be of value to Africa. Will the continent matter in and of itself, or will Africa just be seen as a pawn with no care given to the welfare and priorities of Africans, as was the case in the Cold War?
Language and framing matters: In just about every conversation I have had on B3W, commentators from Europe and North America always point out how Africa has to be ‘de-risked’ for B3W to work. Language such as ‘de-risking Africa’, stating there are ‘no bankable projects’, lecturing on governance and corruption come across as not only intellectually lazy but ideologically imperialistic. And this matters because it reflects a heritage steeped in colonialism and imperialism which were based on the infantilisation, brutalisation and dehumanisation of African peoples. The language, framing and tone integrated into B3W matters and will signal the intellectual style being brought to the table. Governments in African capitals will continue to take note.
Build out updated capabilities: To the point about de-risking and project bankability, perhaps some self-reflection by the G7 may be useful. Is it that a whole continent with 1 billion people must be ‘de-risked’ or is that the tools and capabilities of the B3W are not fit for purpose? Or outdated? Or old-fashioned? Will we continue with 80% of infrastructure projects particularly from Europe and North America failing at the feasibility and business-planning stage, or will there be some updating to modern realities? Frankly it seems imprudent to stick to strategies that have proven ineffective. More importantly, will African governments trust B3W to deliver on the scale and complexity of builds required? Much of the low hanging fruit on infrastructure builds has been absorbed by BRI over the past 20 years. So, the requirements on projects by African governments going forward will be likely be more sophisticated and demanding. Will African governments trust that B3W can get the job done?
Statecraft in 21st century Africa: To the point about capabilities, there are questions as to whether the B3W has updated abilities to effectively interface with the political economy of African technocracy or what I call the 6 Cs of statecraft in Africa namely managing capacity, context, coordination, commitment, corruption, and competition. I do not have time to go into these here, and the specific articulation of each of these levers depends on the country and sectors of focus. But project/activity success will be informed by how these levers are managed. If the intellectual style of the G7 in B3W remains stuck where it seems to be, namely paternalistic and sometimes even bigoted and self-righteous, things won’t move. African governments continue to say that they expect to be treated, addressed and handled as equals. Will B3W take this feedback seriously?
In closing, the G7 can use B3W as a conduit for outdated intellectual approaches or use it as an opportunity to forge a new way with Africa that is cognisant of, respects, and leverages Africa’s 21st century capabilities.