Are east African belts tied too tight?


by Sophie Rickard

For decades, heads of states, politicians, development partners and academics have discussed the potential of resource corridors. These extractive sites, like a mine or an oil field, are connected to a seaport through purposefully built infrastructure to provide multiple economic activities to drive growth. By boosting trade and attracting investment, opportunities to diversify and improve livelihoods and bring communities out of poverty present itself. But poor planning and a lack of community engagement has so far led to limited achievements; nothing close to proposed results.

Planning and policies

The Maputo Corridor was initially planned in 1993, connecting mines and agricultural sites with ports in Mozambique through shared infrastructure including roads and railways. While of course hugely – and often fundamentally – important to the success of an extractive project, transport infrastructure can also catalyse significant economic opportunities along the corridor and connect previously isolated communities and economic activities. The Maputo Corridor is seen as one of the most successful of its type, spurring investment and generating export revenue.

However, while the emphasis on infrastructure is important, it is not the only dimension to corridor planning. Policies and plans applied to infrastructure development within corridors, inevitably lead to fundamental changes in regional governance, policies, settlement and transport patterns, land rights, and access to resources. Currently there is an expectation that the full benefits of the corridor follow naturally. This is certainly not the case.

A resource corridor requires effective strategic planning otherwise it has the potential to negatively impact the ecological, social and economic character of the host region.

Community concerns and conflict

In 2014, the Lamu Port Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor Development Authority took on the ambitious task of developing a shared infrastructure network in pursuit of significant economic gains. Talks at community level exposed the project’s risk to conflict that could potentially spread along the corridor and derail the project. The efforts of active community and civil society groups to develop community protocols has gone some way, but the importance of engaging and working with communities from the beginning cannot be underestimated. By the same token, realistic expectations of the roles and responsibilities of private sector companies must be clear, which is not – and never is – the same as government.

To satisfy some of the current gaps in planning, a new platform for coordination and learning between corridor projects now exists to encourage the effective use of existing resources. The Integrated Resource Corridor Initiative (IRCI) will provide integrated resources and services to support the improvement of corridor planning and implementation. The IRCI aims to pilot these products to support existing and potential corridors, initially in Africa, to maximise development benefits.

Maximising investment through community relationships

Now is the time to invest in establishing good community relations to obtain a social licence to operate, to make thorough assessments of environmental impacts to ensure the costs of repair are not greater down the line and to ensure corridors are strategically planned to maximise their benefits. The key vision underpinning IRCI is transformative and inclusive. By bringing all those involved and different disciplines together, resource corridors will survive beyond their pilot projects to provide lasting benefits to their host communities and countries.

In central Asia, the One Road, One Belt initiative aims to connect previously remote regions to markets. Crossing three continents, the initiative reduces transportation costs and could potentially generate $2.5 trillion over the next decade in additional annual trade to the countries along the belt. The scale of the challenges and rewards of resource corridors are immense.
The opportunity is compelling for the private and public sectors alike, and can truly generate transformative growth, if planned effectively. Key industry players must come together and learn from what is, and develop what could be. It is time for resource corridors to deliver.

Adam Smith International is working with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to promote integrated planning of resource corridors.