ACCORDING TO TONY Blair and the report of the Commission for Africa, what Africa needs most is more roads. Roads are more important than health care, HIV prevention, security or better governance. Roads will help to jump-start the stalled economy of a continent.

The Commission’s diagnosis is simple: Africa is poor because its economy has not grown. Improving its transport infrastructure would make its goods cheaper and allow Africa to break into world markets and to trade its way out of poverty. Of the US$75 billion needed to implement the Commission’s recommendations, 27% would be spent on infrastructure, mainly for transport, compared with 10% on education.

If road building is seen as the solution to African poverty then we have learnt nothing from history. For the past two centuries, Africa’s roads have led to its impoverishment. Its earliest export was the indigenous population consigned as slaves to the Americas. The trade ended in the 1860s only to be succeeded by a new wave of exploitation. European traders realised that Africa’s cheap labour could be utilised to extract its abundant minerals and to grow cash crops such as cotton, cocoa and coffee, to export to Europe. To this end, Europe had to control Africa, and so the colonial invasion began. By 1900 conquest was complete and Africa was divided between the imperial powers. African labour was now used to create wealth from Africa’s resources for the benefit of Europe.

In his economic history of Africa, Walter Rodney describes how its transportation infrastructure was developed to that end. “There were no roads connecting different colonies or different parts of the same colony to meet Africa’s needs and development. All roads and railways led down to the sea.”

The improved transport system enabled foreign companies to make profits, but the companies funded the costs of construction through foreign loans, thereby putting in place the foundations of African debt. Even in 1936, the government of the Congo was spending 40% of its revenue on debt repayment to foreign lenders for this purpose.

The demise of colonialism in the second half of the 20th century brought rewards – but the haemorrhage of African wealth continued. Africa was locked into a global economic system rigged by the rich countries in their own interests. Colonial Africa provided raw materials for European factories rather than adding value to these materials by producing finished goods. Post-colonial Africa followed the same strategy. Trade barriers erected by the rich countries ensured that Africa was denied its share of the value added in the manufacturing process, not least because the commodity market was controlled by foreign companies, resulting in low prices for African exports but high prices for imports. Locked into exporting more and more for less and less in return, its transport infrastructure proved inadequate and so its dependence on loans remained. Currently, transport accounts for over 25% of World Bank lending to sub-Saharan Africa: around US$5,367 million in 2005. Most of this is for building roads.

Blair and the Commission for Africa want this figure to increase. More roads are proposed on the assumption that ‘business as usual’ is good for Africa. We are expected to believe that if Africa could have a more efficient transportation system it would be able to export more effectively to affluent Western countries, thereby enabling it to expand its economy – as if the process were only one-way! We are given a grand illusion: lowering the cost of transport would reverse the historical flow of wealth, but this time to Africa’s advantage. The African economy would develop along the same lines as the carbon-hungry affluent world but somehow without putting the health of the planet in jeopardy. Poor Africa would succeed where Western economies had failed. It is a tall order and it’s not going to happen.

THE COMMISSION ON Africa warns that climate change is the “one final factor which will obviously be a major influence on Africa’s future economic growth.” Its weather is becoming more volatile, temperatures are rising, northern and southern latitudes are becoming drier threatening agriculture. And rising sea-levels raise the spectre of floods and loss of low-lying arable land. The Commission argues, amongst other things, that developed countries should therefore “help African countries adapt to the risks of climate change.”

Indeed, climate change changes everything. Its only practicable and equitable solution is the Global Commons Institute’s framework proposal, Contraction and Convergence. This is based on two fundamental principles: first, that global emissions of carbon dioxide must be reduced to an internationally agreed level (contraction); and second, that global governance must be based on justice and fairness, which requires global convergence to equal per capita carbon-emission shares. A key element of the proposal is trading of carbon-emission rights. Carbon-profligate countries will have to buy unused allocations from the more carbon-thrifty ones. As one of the latter, Africa will be rewarded.

However, whatever model of development is proposed, the income from selling carbon-emission rights must go to the people, so as to avoid the risk of it being pilfered by corrupt governments. By these means, the world will be able to look to Africa as a source of huge wealth, one which would be sacrificed by the proposed ‘philanthropic’ intervention.

Blair and the Commission for Africa mistakenly believe that more road building would enable Africa’s economy to prosper. However, reducing transport costs would, as the Commission acknowledges, greatly increase traffic volumes, thereby worsening climate change as well as danger, pollution and other undesirable side-effects of traffic. And Africa would experience some of its most severe impacts.

Climate change turns the world on its head. Contraction and Convergence changes the direction of policy from aid for road building to the transfer of payments to the poor of Africa for their unused carbon rations. This process will enable the African economy to develop, but in a uniquely African way. To “pave paradise and put up a parking lot” along US lines would not be in Africa’s interest because Africa’s carbon revenues would dry up if it did so.

The affluent West can and should repay some of the wealth it has stolen from Africa. Funding for health care, HIV prevention, education and security is urgently needed. But Africa does not need the crumbs from the white man’s carbon banquet to build more roads. As the world’s most carbon-thrifty continent, Africa has massive natural wealth. We must learn from the mistakes of the past and follow the only equitable and effective route by which Africa can prosper.