Infrastructure: It’s not boring, it’s essential!

Is “infrastructure’ a boring word to you? Because sometimes when I first mention it in conversations people don’t seem that interested. Building a concrete road or putting up an electricity pylon doesn’t seem quite as exciting as giving a small child a lifesaving vaccine, does it? However, in reality building that road could be just as lifesaving and transformative for the village at the end of it -– it can allow villagers to reach hospital in lifesaving times, it can open the village up to new markets and opportunities to trade, and it can ensure the delivery of life-saving health care and food in times of need.

powerlines in Africa

In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) a lack of physical infrastructure is not an inconvenience, it is a daily hardship stunting economic growth and poverty reduction. Many regions of sub-Saharan Africa are still missing the essential physical required for human development, market generation and poverty alleviation. Approximately 70 percent of the population has no access to electricity, 95 percent of agriculture is without irrigation and the majority of the rural population is not served by roads to market. Rural women walk an average of six miles a day to get firewood and water -– water that may not even be safe to drink. A lack of infrastructure in Africa means poor people too often pay heavily in time and money to access vital services such as sanitation, health care and education -– binding achievement of the Millennium Development Goals closely to infrastructure access.

It is not all gloom though — more recently there have been huge infrastructure success stories in the region. Telecoms have boomed largely without state support and companies have made considerable profits in this and other sectors. In addition there has been significant progress on infrastructure projects in some major cities, coastal regions and around natural resource extraction sites. However, further infrastructure development in sub-Saharan Africa is essential for human development, poverty reduction and for Africa to realize its economic potential.

The good news is that the G20 countries, a collection of the most powerful economic countries and the European Union, have realized this fact!

Last year, as part of the G20 Seoul Development Consensus, these countries recognized the important role infrastructure plays in poverty alleviation and economic growth. A High Level Panel was set up to look at infrastructure funding and how best to mobilize and scale up financing for this important underfunded sector.

Next month this panel will report back to the G20 with recommendations. However it is important when this happens that they appreciate that some infrastructure is more effective at alleviating poverty than others. To take an extreme example — a clean water delivery pipeline to isolated village where there is currently no safe freshwater will be much more beneficial than a broadband internet cable to the same village who don’t even own a computer. Both are types of infrastructure but one is obviously more beneficial to the village people’s essential needs. To be most effective at tackling poverty reduction the High Level Panel should be aware of how best infrastructure can help alleviate poverty and the ways to ensure infrastructure benefits for the poorest. ONE has tried to ensure the panel considers this and recently sent a submission to them explaining the ways their recommendations and the G20 can ensure this. You can find our submission online here.

ONE will be pushing to make sure governments appreciate these points and keep a strong focus on Africa’s infrastructure need in the coming years, because — frankly — infrastructure isn’t boring, it’s essential.