There can be little doubt that despite the far-reaching influence of globalisation, modern nation-states retain key actors when it comes to infrastructure development. National governments are not always willing or able to heed popular demand for greater investment in infrastructure – and all too often this puts the breaks on development.
Infrastructure is the node at the centre of the connection between power and people, between elite interests and public need, and between security and economic development. In most countries, public political discourse about infrastructure is highly polemicised. Investment in infrastructure was a key element in US President Donald Trump’s election campaign: He promised to develop 50 infrastructure projects worth a total $137.5 billion.
The One Belt One Road initiative is based on the principle of mutually inclusive development
Infrastructure is also a very useful prism through which to view countries, as the differences in their respective approaches to this vital sector speak volumes. Take for example the striking difference in approach to infrastructure seen in the United States and China. President Donald Trump’s inauguration speech promised an ‘American way of life’, and not long after that, he announced that the US was withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. At Davos meanwhile, Xi Jinping came to the defence of the benefits of globalisation and he has since made significant strides in pushing the One Belt One Road initiative forward.
This initiative is based in the principle of mutually inclusive development, and offers a new twist on the old paradigm of globalisation, which sought to impose a ‘one size fits all’ solution and was therefore doomed to failure. In parallel, Russia is developing its Trans Eurasian Belt, which Chinese experts consider to be on a similar level to other Eurasian projects.
It is also interesting to note that the Chinese One Belt One Road initiative and the Russian Eurasian Economic Union display numerous commonalities with the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development: Transforming our World. Adopted at a UN summit in New York in 2015, this marks a significant commitment by leading world powers to take joint steps toward strengthening a programme of 17 sustainable development goals. At least four goals deal directly with infrastructure, and the subject is indirectly connected to many of the others.
Key infrastructure areas highlighted by the UN include water supply and sanitation; access to electricity; sustainable infrastructure; and comfortable urban environments. Infrastructure problems like inequality, poverty, and development gaps are also a focus of the agenda.
There is a direct link between water shortage and poverty
Under a UN General Assembly resolution passed in July 2010, every person has the right to access as much water as they need for their personal and daily needs.The UN has identified high levels of inequality – chiefly between countries and regions – as a particularly significant. This can be seen in macroeconomic indicators and in other infrastructure development indicators. Infrastructure inequality is not only a limit on the economy, but also on people’s day to day lives. 1.1 billion people across the world currently suffer a lack of water supplies, and barely half the global population has access to drinking water at home.
There is a direct link between water shortage and poverty. First, water is a valuable resource. It is not only needed for agriculture and utilities, but also in industry and the energy sector. And second, research shows that the poorest portions of society pay the most for access to water resources. In some cases, accessing water can account for 20% of household expenses.
Access to water is one area in which infrastructure is under pressure all over the world, and it shows how sufficient infrastructure can radically change lives.
Similar impact can be seen when looking at other types of infrastructure. For example, take the transport systems built up in Africa during the colonial period. Built in accordance with colonial needs, they were not formed around local or regional opportunities or requirements. The lack of infrastructure developed with local populations in mind has a direct impact on markets and the fortunes of the people who live and work in these areas. Western colonialism in Africa is in many cases directly responsible for keeping people poor.
The lack of infrastructure in countries where incomes are low is one of the main obstacles to economic growth. High transport costs and convoluted routes to market suppress development in numerous sectors of the economy.
Of course, infrastructure is just one of a number of diverse factors that combine to keep people poor, so it should never be seen as a panacea or silver bullet to resolve all these complex issues. However, it remains a fundamental truth that intelligent investment in infrastructure brings opportunities for improved standards of living and economic growth to areas where people have previously struggled to meet their basic daily needs.
The lack of infrastructure in countries where incomes are low is one of the main obstacles to economic growth
The heart of the issue in today’s fast-paced, high-tech world is that infrastructure development has to be agile and responsive. It also has to foresee trends 40 years in advance in order to be able to meet society’s rapidly changing needs. On numerous occasions as both deputy transport minister and as CEO of one of the largest railway companies in the world, Russian Railways, the author of this text witnessed how the introduction of high-speed trains or the enlargement and renovation of critical transport routes positively impacted millions of citizens and huge swathes of the economy.
The brightest and the best, from every country and every region, need to be involved in charting the future of infrastructure.
We could help promote global best practice by setting up local and regional infrastructure task forces which would meet regularly – perhaps in person, perhaps online – to discuss the most pressing problems in each area and identify possible solutions.
This is something that I have taken a particular interest in. Indeed, I co-authored a brief report titled ‘Fostering cross-border infrastructure for sustainable development and regional cooperation’ which was presented and discussed at an international roundtable on ‘Infrastructure for Development and Agenda 2030’, organised by the Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI) at the T20 Argentina Summit.
In this report, we outline our proposal for the creation of specialised centres for infrastructure development. We propose locating these hubs both in G20 countries and beyond, since their prime function would be coordinating infrastructure development programmes. They would, of course, have wide-ranging impact both locally and regionally, and they would also amplify the efforts of the G20’s Global Infrastructure Connectivity Alliance (GICA) in its work with the World Bank and multilateral development banks.
Infrastructure investment always involves very large sums of money, and therefore usually large supra-national or state organisations. However, the channels through which this funding impacts people, and the projects funded, must be fully grounded in local interests and local benefits.