Ineffective Public Projects

01.23.2006

This week Sudan is hosting the African Union Summit. The African Union is a regional effort to bring together the resources of African nations to combat poverty and help African economies join the global economy.  It looks like Sudan has been preparing for the summit, clearing the streets of the informal traders and beggars:

The government of the Sudan has cleared the streets of Khartoum of every beggar, every lay person, every casual worker waiting for daily jobs, every street vendor and for the three days of the summit the word in the street is that they will block all the bridges to Omdurman and all the entry points from the places with the highest population density. The government is planning to announce a public holiday during the days of the summit and to restrict people’s movement in and around the capital. Police in blue and black police trucks mounted with large guns litter the streets of Khartoum and are at all the major entry and exit points of the capital city, they are also placed outside all the major governmental offices and around the governmental palace, police in uniforms are placed around all the major and minor streets of Khartoum waiting around with their police cars flashing swirling blue lights.

BBC News also has an interesting story on the summit, describing the improvements in the capital in preparation for the event.

Along the route dusty roundabouts have been transformed into lush gardens, peeling buildings repainted and huge adverts put up to hide construction sites. No-one wants to say how much it has all cost. “New roads, new buildings and beautiful things have come with the summit,” Ahmed Mohammed, a student from Khartoum, told me. “We are proud to have it.”

But not everyone is convinced. “The government just wants to show off. Cities in Sudan are not equal – you just have to go outside Khartoum to see how poor people are,” said Jak Mahmoud, who comes from north-eastern Sudan. “It’s not a good way to spend money.”

Extravagant spendings on public projects and measures to “clean up city streets” ahead of major events in developing economies have always puzzled me.  More often than not, these projects are not cost effective and do not solve the underlying problems, rather creating an illusion of something that is not.  They also have a tendency of angering some citizens.  Remember preparations ahead of the celebrations in St. Petersburg, Russia a few years ago? 

Why, they ask, is the city’s only airport being shut down for the three days of the summit and why, when so many roads and houses are in desperate need of repair, are hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on a presidential palace just outside the city?

Why not invest that money in institutional reforms instead? The results may not be that visible at first sight, but return on investment in the long term will be much higher.