By Maxime Weigert
A recent post discussed highlights from the African Economic Outlook 2015 (AEO) report, indicating a difficult scenario for the West African Region, but also some encouraging signs. Indeed, against all odds, the region has demonstrated a palpable dynamism. This strand of optimism, however, must not mask the numerous challenges ahead to make growth more inclusive across the region. Spatial inclusion—discussed in detail in the AEO special theme —is among the major challenges.
Like the rest of the continent, West Africa is confronted with strong regional disparities. The prevailing model for countries in the region concentrates economic activities and administrative services in main hubs—mainly economic capitals located in coastal areas like Abidjan, Dakar, Lagos and Lomé (see map). Lacking infrastructure, peripheral regions are not well connected to these hubs, resulting in uneven development between cities and the countryside; capitals and smaller cities; coastal and remote areas.
In disadvantaged spaces, such inequalities pose problems of food insecurity—notably in the Sahel—as well as access to education, health services, and social protection, as the Ebola fever epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia tragically revealed. They also entail economic migration to the main cities, which increases population pressure, urban poverty, and the problem of informal housing. Finally, these inequalities are a factor in perpetuating rural poverty: by limiting the potential for the development of productive areas—agriculture in particular—that are disconnected from consumption and export areas.
Faced with these challenges, several West African countries have developed policies focused on spatial inclusion: Senegal, Benin and Guinea to name a few. Some have introduced programs that target marginalized areas. Ghana, for example, has created an office to accelerate the development of the savannah (Savannah Accelerated Development Authority) and to transform the Northern Savannah Ecological Zone (NSEZ), where 80% of the population is poor. In addition, at the regional level, several transnational development projects have already had a positive impact, such as ECOWAS’ SKBo program, which covers the triangle formed by the cities of Sikasso (Mali), Korhogo (Côte d'Ivoire) and Bobo-Dioulasso (Burkina Faso), not to mention the W Regional Park, jointly governed by Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso.
All of these initiatives have contributed to the development of good practices, but the sum of their parts does not alone constitute a territorial development strategy. To hasten the structural transformation of West Africa, it is important for states in the region to implement integrated territorial development policies, combining sector strategies with spatial strategies. These policies would ideally cover both the expansion of national and transnational infrastructure networks and the reinforcement of administrative decentralization, with the objective of increasing the autonomy of each region’s territorial development strategy. In addition, an improved knowledge of local resources, including at the statistical level, is essential for developing effective and inclusive policies. In fact, there is an urgent need for a more comprehensive understanding of certain areas. This is key in order to both support their development and to prevent instability, especially in the "ungoverned spaces" of the Sahel, where jihadist terrorism and arms trafficking are aggravated by the Libyan crisis.
Naturally, any territorial development strategy would have to be developed on a country-to-country basis and would combine a variety of approaches, depending on an individual countries’ economic and demographic problems, as well as on the uniqueness of its spaces. For nearly all countries involved, however, the financing of territorial development will require a much greater effort in the mobilization of domestic resources at the national level, and in the improvement of fiscal legitimacy at the local level.