The G-7 Summit and Africa’s Infrastructure Gap

The G-7 Summit and Africa’s Infrastructure Gap

China has a significant advantage over the West in developing African infrastructure. Yet, there is still an opportunity for the G-7 to compete on its own terms. 

The leaders of the seven-member states, as well as the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, along with other invited leaders and representatives of international organizations, including even Pope Francis, will convene from June 13–15 at Borgo Egnazia, a luxury resort in the southern Italian town of Fasano, for the fiftieth summit of the Group of Seven (G7) of the top Western democracies and advanced economies. Keeping the promise made earlier this year by the summit’s host, Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, that Africa would be “given a place of honor on the agenda of our Group of Seven Presidency,” the continent figures prominently in the scheduled discussions as will the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) announced during the G7 Summit in 2022. The opportunity, as well as the challenge of this week’s gathering, will be for the G7 to move beyond the rhetoric and forge a true partnership with African countries.

It has long been recognized that one of the key obstacles to Africa’s economic takeoff has been, according to the African Development Bank, the continent’s “insufficient stock of productive infrastructure in power, water, and transport services that would allow firms to thrive in industries with strong comparative advantages.” The bank estimates that the continent’s infrastructure needs add up to $130-170 billion a year, with an annual financing gap in the range of $68–108 billion. While the need for significant investments in traditional infrastructure—including roads and railways, power plants, and water supplies—remains, African countries are increasingly also thinking about more modern infrastructure. World-class telecommunications, secure data centers, research centers, and social infrastructure will facilitate the sustainable growth and innovation that the region needs to provide for its burgeoning youth population. Within the next quarter century, one in every four people on the planet will have been born in the African continent.

Of course, for all the declarations about the PGII being “values-driven, high-impact, and transparent,” the initiative is ultimately also about the economic and national security interests of the United States and its six allies in the G7, specifically, the need to respond to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the recognition of either the fragility or Chinese domination—or both—of existing supply chains for critical minerals and other strategic resources. 

Every single member state of the African Union is part of the BRI, with the exception of Eswatini, Taiwan’s sole remaining diplomatic partner on the continent, and Somaliland (which is still seeking international recognition of its sovereignty). Thus, Beijing has had a long head start on G7 members in developing, financing, and controlling infrastructure across the continent. However, the weaker-than-expected recovery of the Chinese economy following the country’s strict “zero-COVID” shutdown, the collapse of the domestic real estate market, and issues related to its demographic crisis have all contributed to a decrease in its ability to finance infrastructure projects in Africa. 

After splurging on discounted Chinese credit, mostly for infrastructure projects, a number of African governments had to seek suspensions of debt payments in 2023, notably Ethiopia, Ghana, and Zambia, among others. Not surprisingly, Chinese financial institutions, already buffeted by internal challenges, responded by cutting off additional lending. As a consequence, the commuter light rail network in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa that had once been hailed as a centerpiece of China-Africa cooperation is nowadays running at approximately one-fifth of planned capacity for want of spare parts, a consequence of the Export-Import Bank of China withholding a supplemental $339 million loan after the earlier default, canceling a credit facility that would have included $60 million that would have gone to procure needed spare parts.

In addition to competing with China’s BRI, the G7 countries have come to recognize the importance of diversified and resilient supply chains for a whole host of key goods, especially the critical minerals needed for the energy transition and advanced technologies. And, increasingly, as I recently wrote here, Africa plays a vital role in not just sourcing but processing these strategic materials. Thus, the rationale for initiatives like the Lobito Corridor linking Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zambia, providing not only a shorter transportation route from the mineral-rich interior to the eponymous Angolan port on the Atlantic via a refurbished and expanded railway but also the buildout of telecommunications and clean energy infrastructure. This will, in turn, support mining, processing, and value-addition to extracted minerals. The European Union’s €300 billion “Global Gateway” infrastructure fund, half of which is earmarked for Africa, has subsequently joined with U.S. development finance institutions in supporting the corridor effort.

Addressing the first-ever Italy-Africa summit in January, Prime Minister Meloni acknowledged: “Certain distorted narratives need to be dismantled first, like the one of Africa allegedly being a poor continent, because that is not the case. Africa is not a poor continent at all: it has 30 percent of the world’s mineral resources and 60 percent of its arable land. Sixty percent of its population are under the age of 25, making it the world’s youngest continent, and this also means it has enormous potential in terms of human capital. Italy, Europe, and dare I say the entire world, cannot think about the future without taking Africa into due consideration. Our future inevitably also depends on the future of the African continent.”

She then went on to propose a new partnership: “Italy’s goal is to help African nations that are interested in producing enough energy to meet their own needs and then exporting the excess to Europe, combining two needs: Africa’s need to develop this production and generate wealth, and Europe’s need to ensure new energy supply routes.”

President Joseph Biden was less overtly transactional when he spoke at the launch of the PGII two years ago at the G7 gathering at Schloss Elmau, Germany. Nonetheless, he insisted that investment in infrastructure was “not just a humanitarian concern,” but “an economic and a security concern for all of us” as well.  

By aligning the interests of African nations and G7 members in securing the traditional and cutting-edge infrastructure the continent needs, both can respond to China and other competitors as well as secure access to critical minerals. Then, it will be up to America and its partners to identify and actually deliver the resources required to build out the edifice of greater cooperation. 

Ambassador J. Peter Pham, a Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council and a Senior Advisor at the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy, is the former U.S. Special Envoy for the Sahel and Great Lakes Regions of Africa. Follow him on X: @DrJPPham.

Image: Chris Van Lennep Photo /