Regional projects: Utopian pipe dreams or are they of benefit?

Naivasha SGR railway station

Regional collaboration is an effective way of realising economies of scale and can be more cost-effective, reducing the burden of individual countries.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Regional programmes or projects involve two or more countries and deal with cross-border issues that benefit from cooperation among neighbouring states.

Management of water and other natural resources, control of environmental degradation and pollution, prevention, monitoring, and management of communicable diseases and natural disasters, combating international crime syndicates, and facilitation of regional trade and transport are among issues that require neighbouring countries to work together.

Successful regional programmes can be benchmarks for best practices for future initiatives. They can strengthen technical cooperation and the sharing of information and expertise. Regional collaboration is also an effective way of realising economies of scale and can be more cost-effective, reducing the burden of individual countries. There is no doubt that an interconnected region such as Africa should make maximum use of regional projects.

The multi-country nature of regional programmes makes them complex to design and implement. Not only do they require considerable confidence and trust among participating countries, but they also demand consensus where such important aspects are concerned as benefits and distribution of costs, resource mobilisation, and governance arrangements.

Impossible to achieve

This complexity inclines many to regard them as utopian and, thus, impossible to achieve.  However, successful regional programmes are entirely feasible and can be very useful for regional development.

First, lack of strong political will is often a key stumbling block for regional projects in Africa. Where participating states have committed themselves to supporting a programme, projects frequently suffer delays when governments fail to deliver on their promises, especially with regard to counterpart financial obligations.

Political will and commitment are needed on the part of the signatories to regional project documents to ensure that they will not only provide counterpart funds but will also create an enabling environment for any reforms necessary to enable the smooth implementation of the projects.

Secondly, and related to the above, cross-border programmes must have the endorsement of all participating countries from the onset. The highly successful West Africa River Blindness Campaign (1974–2002) had full support from all 11 participating countries. Member states contributed money, information and data, and staff to the project secretariat.

Early endorsement

In the case of migratory pests, such as locusts, early endorsement by all affected countries is crucial; the invasions will not be contained unless all the countries are fully on board. Although the ongoing Roll Back Malaria initiative is making progress, support from all member countries has not yet occurred, challenging the effectiveness and sustainability of the campaign.

Thirdly, evidence strongly suggests that joint funding, where donors and participating countries share the funding burden, is the surest road to a successful outcome. When the project budget is prepared, it needs to be shared between donors and participating countries. This happened with the West African River Blindness Campaign, where the countries also worked as funding partners and their buy-in heightened their interest in the project.

But in many cases, participating countries invest no funds themselves in the project, resulting in the downscaling of the projects or countries simply dropping out, rendering the projects much less effective.


Lastly, it is essential that regional programmes don’t fall into the trap of being donor-driven. When a programme’s agenda does not support or complement the national vision or development plan, that country should not agree to participate in it. The experience of Singapore is an exemplary demonstration of this strategy.

It rarely agreed to participate in any regional projects. But when it felt that a regional project supported its national vision, it earmarked counterpart funds and mobilised resources. As a result, it was able to move from a third world country to a highly successful first world economy.

African countries should take regional projects seriously and not see them as utopian undertakings that are doomed to fail. This notion should be replaced by an awareness supported by compelling evidence that they are worthwhile initiatives with tangible and positive impacts at both the regional and country level.

Beyond that, they can also serve as a vehicle for regional integration.

Dr Kakonge is a development expert and former Kenya Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN Office and WTO in Geneva. [email protected]


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