Posts Tagged ‘infrastructure’

Maintaining your investment

In my last two posts I queried how donors may fail to sustain otherwise successful projects that cannot make the grade to self-sustainability. Many others, of course, are handed over to the host country government, who proceed to run them into the ground.

These, however, are not the only things that the government (local and national) here fails to invest in. Basic infrastructure is repeatedly failing without any adequate back-up or emergency planning. Every time it appears to take the authorities by surprise. E.g. despite chronic power failures the water supplier’s stand-by generator has not been maintained and so power shortages automatically equal water shortages. Fine for a few hours, crippling for a couple of weeks!

Interestingly, there is one counter-example. After what I imagine is years of pushing by donors tired of funding new roads only for them swiftly to fall into various states of disrepair, the government is actually now quite good at repairing pot holes and the like. But alas this proactive approach does not yet appear to have spread to other parts of government.

It is temptingly easy to blame the government for all these failures, and slam them we do, but the problem is wider than that, as anyone who has rented property around here can attest. Landlords tend to build a house and then sweat their asset for all its worth, typically refusing to carry out any repairs.

This does not have to be totally irrational if one thinks of a boot-strap situation: a landlord may build a house and rent it to cover the costs of sending their children to university. Here the expectation of long term returns from education may far exceed that from property, and thus it may be appropriate to thus sweat ones asset. But I see many examples where clearly the landlord is not that poor.

Lack of credit and a poorly functioning financial system at large almost certainly do not help either, but I find it hard not to conclude that there is a culture of not maintaining one’s investment. How common this is in other developing countries I do not know (if you do please weigh in with a comment), but I can see it being a significant drag on economic development. Especially while the government cannot manage to keep the lights on!

(The big donors, too, could offer rather better examples than they do.)

Development Thought for the Day

New roads (or at least newly surfaced roads) are a staple of development, e.g. this, and with good reason since they reduce barriers to market access and catalyse economic growth. Unfortunately, round here, after a few years, many new roads start to crumple into corrugations, subside around bridges and develop potholes. Two causes are blamed:

  1. Sloppy work by the contractor in the first place, and
  2. Overloaded lorries causing unnecessary strains on the highway structure.

In order to solve the second problem there are weighbridges at various points along the way to stop overloaded lorries. Unfortunately this does not work since the police are easily bribed, and one regularly sees ridiculously overloaded vehicles careening along the deteriorating roads. Overloaded lorries also pose a public safety risk, so stopping them would definitely be worth doing. However, I suspect the social engineering required to institute honest policing of traffic regulations hereabouts is a far bigger job than the structural engineering involved in building a new road. Now I am no engineer, but I wonder whether, given the overloaded lorries seem to be a fact of life out here, why don’t they build roads to withstand those loads in the first place?

Ps. I should also like to say a big “Hello!” to all my new readers courtesy of the Guardian Development site. I’m flattered to have been selected as one of their featured blogs. It’s great to see this new portal for all things developmental, and which should hopefully bring the many issues of aid and development to a wider audience. So kudos to the Guardian.

Beaten by Geography

A couple of issues recently have gotten me thinking about the limits of what we can achieve in development, especially when combined with conservation.

Being an organisation that has such dual aims we work in some pretty remote villages, a long way removed from infrastructure such as tarmac roads, electricity supplies or banks and markets. To complement our work, and also to build financial literacy, we have been looking at introducing a microfinance scheme into the villages. We talked to a local expert, and he emphasised that it is best if a substantial proportion of loans go to local enterprise development (IGAs = Income Generating Activities, in the jargon). I was curious as to what enterprises in remote villages such as those in which we work could benefit from a small injection of capital. His response, which included things like vegetable gardens and coconut collecting, did not fill me with much optimism. These are livelihood strategies which might help a little bit, but are not going to lift people out of poverty. Moreover, so far from a main road and markets, they are never going to get a good price, and will always be confounded by the costs of taking their produce to market. Lack of capital is not likely to be the principle barrier to enterprise development.

A friend of mine has worked in an even more remote National Park. There she was involved in a small project trying to link the tourists lodges more into the local economy; mostly basic food stuffs but also some local crafts. The problem? A remote NP such as this is very expensive to visit so they do not get many visitors, = not many opportunities for the local communities. Some aspects of the project they ended up winding down because they just didn’t make business sense, and/or were wholly dependent on my friend to market the products (i.e. not very sustainable).

These kind of stories will be familiar to any development economist. In their respective books Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Collier both talk about the severe challenges that the geography of the area of your birth can impose on your chances of participating in economic development. Generally speaking the solution is the creation of more waged jobs in urban areas so that food prices increase to a point where farmers can make a decent living. (All presuming that food prices are not subject to the myriad political controls that is the reality all over the world.)

Organisations aimed principally at poverty alleviation can choose where they work (although many do appear to ignore the basic criteria of economic geography), but conservationists much more frequently find themselves working in remote places; that’s usually where the best biodiversity is to be found. In our desire to help those communities, we need to remember these important lessons. Even the best resourced projects cannot overcome basic facts of geography.

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