Who Wants What Where? African Infrastructure Demand: How Policymakers Can Respond

In Burkina Faso, where most live on less than $2 a day, people want better infrastructure even more than they want jobs. In Benin, Guinea, Liberia, Mozambique, Tanzania – some of Africa’s poorest nations – it is the same. In fact, the cry for more and better basic services is heard in nearly every African country. It is a top-tier economic, political and social issue. Investments in transport, power and sanitation are widely viewed as critical for promoting growth, increasing economic opportunities and improving social services such as health and education. Much has been written about African infrastructure demand but, until now, few studies have examined the nature of that demand: who wants what where?

In a new CGD paper, we draw upon Afrobarometer survey data from 33 African countries to provide at least partial answers to these important questions.

Our analysis shows us:

  • People in poorer African nations are more concerned with infrastructure (or lack thereof) while citizens of wealthier countries tend to emphasize jobs and income-related issues.
  • Specifically, transportation and sanitation are the biggest infrastructure demands.
  • Some countries don’t follow the trend, e.g., Mali and Niger where food security are major issues. In others, electricity and housing top the list of peoples’ greatest concerns. 
  • Within countries, citizens’ priorities transcend demographics, even gender and urban/rural divisions. 
  • Infrastructure rollout often follows a pattern: first mobile phone services, then piped water and electricity, then paved roads, and finally, in wealthier areas, sewage services.
  • Africans living in areas without infrastructure services are significantly more likely to say it’s a national problem – and the more people want better services, the lower they tend to rate their government’s performance in providing them.

In this study, we attempt to move beyond topline estimates of infrastructure access rates towards a more nuanced understanding of broader service availability and citizen demand across African nations. This analysis also allows us to identify several potential implications for policymakers. We’ve listed some of these after the graphs below, which highlight what the survey data tells us about Africans’ most pressing concerns. 

Figure 1 – Most Frequent First Response, by Country Income Level (% of Respondents)

Figure 2 – Most Frequent Second Response, by Country Income Level (% of Respondents)

Figure 3 – Most Demanded Type of Infrastructure, by Country Income Level 

Potential Policy Implications

The politics of infrastructure can be both charged and highly nuanced, depending on citizen demands, sub-national differences in service availability, and past government investments. Readily available time-series data can help inform policymakers’ investment strategies and reform agendas. This information is likely most useful for deepening policy discussions and informing political decisions within African countries. However, there also are potential lessons and applications for global development partners, including bilateral and multilateral agencies. These include:

  • Public attitude survey data can be a tool for better understanding political economy issues within and across African countries.
  • Mapping infrastructure service availability to household access could help to highlight impediments, and also possible solutions, for improving service outcomes. For example, Afrobarometer data can be cross-referenced with DHS household data to identify geographic areas with available services but low access rates. This information could help narrow potential public policy options, such as first considering why millions of people are living under the electrical grid without power instead of pursuing massive capital expenditures for grid extension.
  • Donor agencies should be cautious about pushing priorities from their capitals, instead of responding to pressing priorities emanating from African citizens and their governments. Previous research has illustrated how US development assistance is not aligned with African citizens’ most pressing concerns. Comparing citizen demands with service availability (infrastructure, schools, clinics, etc.) can help shape and inform donors’ investment decisions at the regional, national, and sub-national levels.
  • Service availability and citizen demand patterns reinforce the need for customized infrastructure investment strategies that reflect countries’ unique circumstances. Beyond this, when considering large infrastructure investment projects, African and donor governments may wish to compare plans against infrastructure rollout hierarchies within that country, for both urban and rural areas.

We readily admit that the relevant survey data has its limitations. For instance, it only provides a snapshot in time of service availability and citizens’ most pressing demands. Yet, this information may provide an important, yet often overlooked, insight into highly localized political and social dynamics. Such dynamics should be considered much more systematically when African governments and their international partners are making important decisions about how scarce resources should be invested.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.