Infrastucture and poverty

Make rural development happen

If poverty is to decline in remote regions, the communities living there will need transport and communication opportunities as well as water and electric power. Better infrastructure, moreover, has an immediate bearing on the performance of the health and education sectors.

[ By Kwadwo Asenso-Okyere ]

In many developing countries poverty is the number one enemy that has to be fought and defeated. In particular, poverty tends to be pervasive in the rural areas where most of the people live and farming is the main source of income. As Ahmed et al. ( 2007) have shown, the ultra poor (with incomes of less than $ 0.50 per day per person) live in remote rural areas – furthest away from roads, markets, schools and health services. Developing infrastructure for such communities is a prerequisite of fighting poverty.


Transport infrastructure is essential, if farmers are to get their goods to markets in time (see box p. 15). However, it does not only serve marketing purposes. Roads are also relevant in other respects. Inadequate transport infrastructure presents a serious health risk. Too many patients die because they do not make it to a hospital in time. This factor is at the root of the high maternal- and infant-death rates in many countries.

Some children have to walk for miles to get to school through the wilderness, exposed to snakes and other dangerous animals. Naturally, they are exhausted by the time they arrive, and their absorptive capacity is reduced. It is small wonder that absenteeism abounds among rural children. Building human capacities is the most important developmental task. Education and health services are indispensable for this purpose – and progress in both sectors depends, not least, on transport infrastructure. It is no coincidence that road infrastructure is often most deficient in remote areas with less favourable production environments, which are frequently populated by indigenous peoples and minorities (Rivera et al., 2005).


“Water is life” is a slogan of the International Water Research Institute (IMWI). It holds true for the survival of plants, animals and humans. Most investments in agricultural research in Africa have not yielded the desired effects of increasing productivity, because not enough water is available in the fields. Most Africans live in the sub-humid or arid tropics, with few rivers providing irrigation. Unlike in South and East Asia, there are no large alluvial plains that would permit cheap irrigation. As a result, the share of irrigated cropland South of the Sahara is the lowest of any major region of the developing world. Less than four percent of total arable land is currently irrigated, compared with 33 % in Asia and 29 % in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Heavy investments in irrigation and water management are essential in sub-Saharan Africa. The Green Revolution succeeded in Asia thanks to the availability of water for high-yielding crops. Moreover, water is needed to raise livestock. Unless African farmers get access to irrigation, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which is being spearheaded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will not succeed. For the same reason, it is important to prevent and reduce droughts.

In the past, some developing countries built large irrigation dams, in the hope of improving rural livelihoods. These efforts required large amounts of money and management skills. However, the returns were not satisfying. Many schemes failed because of inadequate management. Vast areas were flooded for such projects, moreover, so people had to be resettled from their villages and fields. The result was a host of socio-cultural problems. Another negative externality was the spread of water-related diseases like malaria. Therefore, it has been advocated that farmers should resort to small-scale irrigation schemes like shallow tube wells. That kind of infrastructure is neither very expensive nor difficult to manage. Such schemes have been used efficiently to grow high value crops like vegetables by farmers in south-eastern Ghana and northern Nigeria.

On top of irrigation water, developing countries need water for household chores and drinking. Many water-borne diseases like diarrhea and river blindness abound in the developing countries because of unavailability of safe drinking water. Adequate sanitation is vital for people to live healthier and more fulfilling lives.

Far too many children and women walk long distances to fetch water at very high opportunity cost every day. Time that could have been used for productive work is used to fetch water. Children miss school – or are too tired to attend with full attention. This is another example of health and education issues being closely linked to infrastructure.

Investments to provide rural communities with safe drinking water bring several advantages. Costs for piped-water infrastructure, however, are high. Boreholes with submersible pumps to raise ground water may therefore be more cost-effective. They are popular in many rural areas in the developing world, and their use must be encouraged to provide safe water for the rural people as a transition from unsafe water to treated pipe water. Local communities are normally able to raise enough money to maintain the wells and pumps.

A much-discussed issue in several developing countries is whether the private sector should participate in the provision of water. One school of thought is that water is communal property, and thus should be provided by the government. This group fears that the private sector, once it is involved, will demand abnormally high tariffs, beyond the reach of the poor.

The other school of thought argues that governments of developing countries have very limited funds, so the private sector should be encouraged to participate in developing infrastructure. That is said to be a way of accelerating the provision of safe drinking water.
It is obvious, however, that many poor people are already paying an unacceptably high price for water, and not only in terms of health and labour, but also financially. Indeed, the poor are typically charged more for buckets of water than the well-to-do pay for subsidised tap water (DDE, 2007). As governmental monopolies in the water sector have evidently failed, it does not make sense to insist on them. Private-sector involvement to improve matters should be welcome, provided regulatory mechanisms make sure that tariffs are set at reasonable and affordable levels.

Electric power

Energy is another field, in which better infrastructure has a high pay-off for developing countries. Urgarla (2007) reports that there is a clear link between access to energy services and poverty alleviation and development.

The first set of critical energy needs are those that satisfy basic human needs: fuel for cooking, heating and lighting, energy for pumping water, and electricity for health and education services. All too often, nice school buildings are built in rural areas, but there are no qualified teachers to teach students. Availability of electricity, however, helps to attract qualified staff. Moreover, electric power improves learning conditions, allowing students to read and do homework after dusk. Electric power also allows rural clinics to store vaccines needed for inoculation against childhood killer diseases.

Wood fuel and charcoal have been the main source of energy for cooking in most rural areas in humankind’s history. They still remain in use even in some urban households of disadvantaged countries. The consequences are health problems – particularly for the women concerned. The felling of trees for fuel has also led to massive deforestation and deterioration of natural environments in general.

There is a second set of critical energy needs, however. They concern income-generating activities. The high incidence of poverty in rural areas, after all, is linked to the fact that, apart from agriculture, there are hardly any jobs. One way of reducing the poverty of farmers is to engage them in some off-farm activities that generate additional income. Availability of electricity is essential in this context. Without sufficient provision of energy, there is no chance of adding value to agricultural produce.

Solar and wind energy have been used in some developed countries with great success as alternative to electricity. Many developing countries complain about the high cost of acquiring the panels and their maintenance demands. However, these costs cannot be compared with the cost of lost opportunities for learning in rural areas.

As bio-fuels are becoming a serious alternative to fossil-energy, developing countries should analyse the impact on agricultural development, food prices and food consumption. They should prepare early on to meet this new demand and allow people to reap the benefits and avoid adverse impacts on their livelihoods.

Policy choices

Rural infrastructure interventions should aim at empowering the poor to make use of locally available resources to increase both production and incomes. Infrastructure is so essential in remote areas, that investments in it should not be seen as competing with health or education measures, but rather as complementing such efforts.

As infrastructure investments are expensive, decisions must be well considered and suit the communities they are meant to serve. To reduce the cost of infrastructure, interventions should be planned, financed and executed by regional partners with a sense of purpose. Moreover, it will often make more sense to opt for appropriate technology than to try to install the most advanced technologies.

Because of the large amounts of money involved in infrastructure, there are risks of corruption. Approval procedures for projects should therefore be designed in a way that limits authorities’ chances to siphon off funds. When caught, both the giver and the receiver should be sanctioned to serve as deterrent to others.

Infrastructure projects must be nationally owned as part of the development plan of a country. They must not be subject to the whims and caprices of politicians. Project selection and design must be thorough enough to prevent unproductive, wasteful projects (DDE, 2007). Widespread consultations and debates of the options offer ways to ensure collective ownership of infrastructure projects.

Infrastructure projects require maintenance to be sustainable over the long run. Experience tells us not to expect important infrastructures to exist for free. Reasonable fees and tariffs collected from users are in the people’s interest, provided the funds serve to maintain the infrastructure.
Finally, infrastructure projects must be environmentally and socially sustainable so that they do not create further problems for poor developing countries.

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