What is needed for universal & sustainable infrastructure?

Development Policy25 Jun 2013Julian Doczi

A new report by the ODI investigates the practical challenges facing the proposed High Level Panel goals on water, energy and transport. While the report welcomes the ambitions of the Panel, it illustrates that to ensure their realisation in practice, efforts should be redoubled.

Sustainable development advocates like me were never very pleased that the original MDG framework largely ignored any focus on the crucial topics of sustainable infrastructure services, especially water, energy and transport. So, with the recent publication of the High Level Panel’s report, I was happy to see proposed goals (not just targets!) on universal access to water and sanitation and to sustainable energy, as well as a target on universal access to transport. The report has been well received in general. It marks a key milestone in the post-2015 development process, as it illustrates the beginnings of some convergence of opinion on fundamental principles and broad ideas for goals, and happily includes a stronger focus on sustainability this time around.

However, it is one thing to make grand political commitments, but quite another thing entirely to translate those commitments into practical action on the ground – as we’ve seen with the poor progress toward meeting the MDG target on sanitation. So, are these ambitious new goals on sustainable infrastructure services achievable? With the focus of debate now shifting from the High Level Panel to the Open Working Group, where further discussions are taking place on these future goals and targets, now is a good time to begin asking this question.

Leading the way on this analysis is a new working paper by ODI that we are launching today in New York, as part of a high level event discussing how to turn this post-2015 evidence into action.

In this new working paper, we focus specifically on what would be necessary to achieve High Level Panel-style goals and targets for water, energy and transport, if these were to be eventually adopted by world leaders. In all three cases, much of the advocacy – and the proposed High Level Panel goals – have emphasised the need to strive for universal and sustainable access to at least basic levels of services from these sectors. Adopting this as our starting point, we discuss what it would take to achieve this universal and sustainable access from four key perspectives: governance, finance, capacity development and the environment.

The results?

Governance and political will, more than anything else, is still the main impediment to development progress in these sectors. A stronger – and sustained – political commitment to universality is essential, especially given the often lengthy lead times and lifespans of infrastructure investments. But other key tasks should also include better institutional coherence, operational and fiscal decentralisation, incentivising further private sector investment, anticorruption efforts, bureaucratic incentives and new legal frameworks, to name just a few. That said, though, we are only beginning to understand how the differing interests and incentives of the various political stakeholders in these sectors determine where, when and how these potential governance reforms could successfully pave the way for progress toward universality.

On finance, although the investment levels that will be required to achieve these goals are significantly higher than current levels, they are nevertheless small portions of the overall expected investment in each sector. The key challenge – both for developed and developing countries – will be on the sustainability of services, since operation and maintenance costs have continually suffered from underinvestment. And from an equity perspective, the cost burdens of universally achieving and maintaining minimum basic levels of service across these three sectors are substantially lower than the cost burdens of maintaining and expanding advanced services in the developed world. We, in the developed world, would need to sacrifice only a few percent of our own sector spending on advanced services to be able to finance basic universality for the rest of the world. Likewise, tackling the huge inefficiencies in current developing country spending in these sectors – while appropriately balancing the necessary financial inputs from different stakeholders – could significantly contribute to the necessary funding for universality. Our focus should thus be on seeking more equitable, efficient and better governed finance for all three sectors.

Capacity development ties in very closely with these governance and finance challenges. Only with qualified and motivated practitioners on the ground will we ever achieve any progress at all, yet this capacity – especially at the local level – is often sorely lacking. That said, capacity development solutions will only be achieved at scale if similar improvements to political will and investment are made alongside them, and in a way that breaks the vicious cycle where low human resource capacity engenders a similarly low capacity to appropriately finance and govern the sector. Evidence shows that an incremental approach to sectoral training and investment can help break this cycle to advance on all fronts.

Finally, we also considered the environmental implications of universality in these sectors. As could be expected, the additional consumption of basic water, energy and transport services by currently unserved households will generally not have a significant environmental effect, though growing demand for higher levels of service most certainly will. The goal of universal access to basic services is likewise consistent with a 2°C global climate change goal, but is in itself insufficient to achieve it (and our window of opportunity to do so is rapidly closing).

In short, if the post-2015 process intends to set goals on achieving universal and sustainable access to infrastructure services, ‘business as usual’ activity will not at all be adequate to achieve them. At the very least, these ambitions require a sustained political commitment, backed up with smarter investment, a commitment to capacity development, and a cognisance of the environmental implications of different service levels. While I remain happy that the global community is striving for ambitious goals, our study illustrates that we development practitioners must redouble our efforts, to ensure that these ambitious words on paper are supported by equally ambitious actions to achieve them!