Closing the Gap: Focus on Basic Infrastructure to Meet the MDGs

Op-Ed / Opinion | 4 October 2010

As world leaders and development partners come together in New York next week (editor: September 20-22) to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), we would do well to focus our attention on roads, electricity, information and communication technology, and low-income urban housing. Because it is these basic infrastructure services - or lack thereof - that could make or break the achievement of the MDGs.

Unless appropriate attention is given to basic infrastructure, hundreds of millions of people will continue to struggle in poverty, poor health and deprivation. And without adequate roads, potable water and sanitation, electricity, information and communication technology and other essential services, developing countries will be hard-pressed to meet the MDG targets.

Let's take Asia and the Pacific as an example. Despite its challenges, this is a place where development works. In less than a generation, development, in its broadest sense, has changed the face of the Asia and Pacific region. Since the early 1990s, more than 500 million people have broken free of poverty.

Given its rapid growth, the region is likely to meet the goal of reducing by half the proportion of people whose income is less than US$1.25 a day. But other goals will be elusive in the absence of essential services. And it remains that, despite the region's successes, it is home to two-thirds of the world's poor.

Almost 1.9 billion people in Asia and the Pacific live without basic sanitation and 470 million without safe drinking water, both of which are critical to attain the health-related MDGs. About a quarter of the region's households still do not have access to electricity and much of the rural population lives far from all-weather roads. Lack of lighting for study and arduous travel distances discourage children from completing their education. Health centers cannot function properly without electricity, and the poor need transport to access health services. Deficient transport and energy systems also prevent farmers from improving productivity, diversifying crops, reaching wider markets and obtaining higher incomes. As a result, the rural economy suffers, children go hungry, and families remain trapped in poverty.

ven relatively small interventions can bring substantial results. In Nepal, over 40,000 people have better lighting, better health care, improved living conditions and access to technology thanks to the Khimti Rural Electrification Cooperative. In Bangladesh, Grameen Telecom's Village Phone program has connected more than 23 million people to health care services, information sources, and employment opportunities - benefiting women in particular. A simple farm-to-market road on Indonesia's Lombok Island is expected to help as many as 400,000 rural households transcend poverty.

To meet the MDGs, there needs to be more focus on the means to attain them. Infrastructure is essential for growth and job creation, which are critical to sustainable poverty reduction. Moreover, without aligning infrastructure investment to the MDGs, it will be difficult to reach the targets for child and maternal health, disease reduction, and women's empowerment.

The ADB estimates that the Asia and Pacific region will need a staggering investment of $700 billion each year until 2020 to meet its infrastructure needs. Securing the needed proportion of these investments to support the expansion of social services to poor and remote communities currently excluded is essential to meet the MDGs.

National governments need to take a big picture view - for example, by planning rural road networks along with main arterial roads to help focus attention on remote and vulnerable groups. They also need to improve governance and reduce the potential for corruption in the construction of infrastructure, plan and budget for maintenance and repair of roads and utilities, and decentralize management to encourage local ownership and respond to community needs.

Building and running infrastructure in "greener" ways can contribute to better environmental protection. Climate-proofing must be also built-in; nothing drives this point home more powerfully than recent tragic images of post-monsoon Pakistan, where schools, hospitals, bridges, roads and power lines have been swept off the map.

And let us not forget the importance of a regional or cross-border infrastructure. Even regions that are doing well are home to countries lagging in economic and social development. Linking these countries to larger subregional and regional markets will spur faster growth, create economic opportunities, and facilitate the sharing of regional resources, such as power and water.

Needless to say, governments alone will not be able to bridge the infrastructure gap. They will need to provide incentives for private investment and foster strong public-private partnerships. While challenging to implement, such partnerships are in fact quite possible. Multilateral development institutions are well-placed to act as an "honest broker" and steer private-public projects through commercial and cost-sharing negotiations.

The next five years will be the most critical for the global effort to achieve the MDGs by 2015, and for the Asia and Pacific region to meet the challenge of helping over 900 million people emerge from poverty. Investing in and managing basic infrastructure services must be given priority attention. If not addressed, the infrastructure gap will continue to widen, swallowing up our collective best efforts to free the world from poverty.