The lack of public utilities disrupts African economic activity. At the same time, the performance of existing utilities is disrupted because of competing interests of stakeholders or inappropriate institutional settings. The panel explores the underlying causalities and ways for improvement.
Public utilities such as electricity, water, transportation or telecommunications are the backbone of any economic activity, and their absence disrupts the economy. There can be no industrialisation without a reliable supply of electricity that would enable production, or transportation infrastructure that would allow exchange of goods. A lack of access to drinking water involves high opportunity costs and explains informality of labour and poverty. Due to tight budgets, governments find it difficult to address needs in terms of utilities and infrastructure. Hence, they might implement Public-Private Partnerships, hoping that the private partner will provide the missing finance, or turn towards international donors. In that respect, China has become a major player who constructs dams, power plants, bridges and other infrastructure in many Sub-Saharan African countries. Are these effective solutions to the problem of non-existing utilities disrupting the economy? In addition to these developmental obstacles, many of those utilities that do exist are low-performing and hence, in a sense, are disrupted themselves: electric utilities are plagued by frequent blackouts, transport services are unreliable or dangerous, and major water losses make water provision unsustainable in the long-run, especially in a context of climate change. This kind of disruption from within the utility might be explained by organisational or institutional factors, such as low-performing contracts, corruption or the political economy that governs donor-recipient relations. The panel invites both empirical and theoretical papers in order to explore the underlying causalities and constraints, and possible solutions to the issue of disruptive and disrupted utilities.