Senegal’s Generation of Concrete

    Dakar. From the air, this sprawling city looks like a metropolis on the move, a buzzing quadrilateral jutting into the Atlantic. Cars speed along a supple, newly reconstructed four-lane highway that hugs the rugged coastline. Cranes dot the seaside, building luxury hotels and conference centers, as investors from Dubai revamp the city’s port, hoping to transform it into a high-tech regional hub.

    But on the ground the picture shifts. Jobless young men line the new highways, trying to scratch out a living by selling phone cards, cashews and Chinese-made calculators to passers-by. The port is full of imported food that is increasingly out of reach for most Senegalese. Dakar will soon have a glut of five-star hotel rooms, but rising rents have pushed the city’s poor and even middle-class residents into filthy, flood-prone slums.

A growing sense of malaise is in the air as the benefits of the eye-catching infrastructure investments fail to reach the poor. President Abdoulaye Wade is determined to transform Dakar into West Africa’s mini-Dubai with the stated goal of benefiting young Senegalese he calls the “Generation of Concrete.” But his expensive undertakings have so far failed to truly make it the Generation of Concrete Change. In fact,

    A Gallup survey completed here last year found that only 29 percent of respondents said they had a job, down from 35 percent the previous year. Most telling, 56 percent of those surveyed said they would leave Senegal permanently if they could.

Senegal needs urgent reforms that could change that, incorporate the country’s vast informal sector into the formal economy, and make the Senegalese political system more responsive to the needs of its citizens, especially those underprivileged ones. Local reformers are aware of those needs. For instance, CIPE’s partner, the Union Nationale des Commercants et Industriels du Senegal (UNACOIS) – a business association representing 100,000 members – has been working to bring the government’s attention to the plight of shopkeepers, petty traders, and small-scale industrialists.

Yet the government seems to be primarily concerned with investing in physical infrastructure of questionable utility to the poor, rather than reforming the country’s institutional infrastructure that would make it easier for the poor to reap the benefits of legal entrepreneurship. This can understandably lead to social discontent.

    Indeed, many Senegalese wonder whether the money to rebuild the capital was well spent. Amadou Ndiaye, a hawker who sells cheap Chinese-made shoes on the sidewalk, said that little of the new construction will benefit him. He has no car, and the new roads don’t go anywhere near his slum home. “We can’t eat roads,” Mr. Ndiaye said. “We can’t afford to sleep in five-star hotels. So for whom is all this? Not for the ordinary Senegalese man.”