Gabon, the small but oil-rich nation on Central Africa’s west coast, has seen the writing on the wall. Oil is predicted to run out in a decade and President Ali Bongo Ondimba — who took over in 2009 after his father’s death ended a 40-year rule — wants to put the country on a new path, that of an emerging economy.
That’s ambitious, to say the least. Gabon has a population of just 1.5 million people. On paper, at least, it’s a relatively well-off country, with per capita income above $13,000 per year. But inequality and underdevelopment persist, and a third of the population lives in poverty. Like a handful of other small, family-run countries around the world, oil seems to be the only game in town.
Nonetheless, soon after taking office, Gabon’s president embarked on a determined development plan named “Le Gabon Émergent” that aims to deliver $25 billion in new investments by 2025 — equal to 125 percent of the country’s annual gross domestic product. To help realize this vision of a diversified and growing economy, the government did something unusual: It brought in a private company, not as a contractor but, the government insists, as a partner. The company, whose staff has been integrated into the government and work hand-in-hand with officials, is Bechtel, the largest construction and engineering company in the United States and one of the biggest infrastructure and project management companies in the world.
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to sit down with Walker Kimball, Bechtel’s general manager for infrastructure, and Michael Moussa-Adamo, Gabon’s ambassador to the United States, before a conversation they led at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C. Both men said the government’s plan is working and they see enormous opportunities ahead. There’s a major airport in the works designed to be a hub for West and Central Africa. Huge untapped mineral resources can be unlocked as roads and ports get built. Gabon’s already substantial health infrastructure continues to grow, with teaching and oncology hospitals recently completed and more are in the works.
Can Gabon become a Qatar or Dubai of Central Africa? Not without a modern and highly capable government. When embarking on a massive infrastructure push like the one this plan calls for, procurement processes need to be standardized, quality requirements must be high and the environment has to be protected. That’s why the core of Bechtel’s involvement is to bring much-needed capacity to the government but then to “roll back” its expatriate staff as Gabonese professionals become equipped to take over.
The hope is that early successes and a new sense of high competency and low corruption will attract foreign investment. Since the plan became operational in 2010, the government has let contracts totaling $2 billion. That’s substantial, but a long way from its $25 billion goal. To help bring in the needed foreign investment, the partners are emphasizing the transparency of the procurement process, the openness to working with the best contractors no matter where they come from (the ambassador said they have “changed the perception that Gabon is a French backyard”) and the desire to both empower the Gabonese and attract the very best foreign companies.
This is where the development community could come in. Some implementing partners of the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.K. Department for International Development and World Bank have taken their skills to markets like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They are finding that expertise around developing health infrastructure or building high-quality education systems is relevant even in countries that can afford to purchase their services directly. Gabon could be a similar case.
In fact, the four pillars that underpin the president’s plan include not just infrastructure but also human capital, an improved business framework and access to markets. So while Bechtel is in the infrastructure business, there will be many opportunities to contribute to the country’s development on what is commonly considered the “softer side.”
So far, major donor agencies aren’t engaging. The ambassador spun it positively — “donors don’t like success stories” — but he acknowledged that the government does “need more engagement from these institutions.” And now that Bechtel has had four years to institute processes and procedures that meet international standards, Kimball thinks the time is ripe for greater foreign investment, whether from multilateral banks and donor agencies or private investors. For Gabon, he insisted, “the legacy of half-completed, unfinished projects is over.” Should this plan meet that standard, it could remake a country and create a model for partnering with the private sector.
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