Making infrastructure work for the poor
By Peter Bosshard
Reuters AlertNet, May 23, 2012
Kikwit is a town of almost one million people in the Democratic Republic
of Congo (DRC). Its inhabitants have no access to electricity. Because
the water pumps are no longer working, they have no access to clean
water either. In the 1990s, the town made news through an outbreak of
the deadly Ebola virus, which was helped by the poor sanitary conditions.
Kikwit is not located at the end of the world. It lies underneath the
power lines of the Inga dams on the mighty Congo River. Yet the electric
current that hums overhead is not meant for poor people. It is exported
to the mining companies in the southern Katanga province.
Over the past decades, billions of dollars have been invested in the
DRC's power sector. They have created a stark energy divide: 85 percent
of the country's electricity is consumed by energy-intensive industries,
while 94 percent of the population has no access to electricity.
There can be no prosperity without infrastructure. But infrastructure
has many faces: it supplies water to poor communities and irrigates golf
courses, builds local access roads and bridges to nowhere.
The example from the Congo Basin demonstrates that infrastructure
investment can bypass poor people completely for the benefit of powerful
interests. Globally, more than one billion people live without access to
clean water, sanitation, and electricity.
In recent years, infrastructure has one again become a buzzword of the
international development debate. The World Bank and the powerful Group
of 20 have prepared new strategies for the hardware of development. They
propose to concentrate investment on large projects with private
participation such as big dams and transport corridors that can
transform whole regions.
They have identified the Inga hydropower scheme on the Congo River as an
exemplary project for their new approach. At a cost of $80 billion, this
project would produce electricity for export - and perpetuate the DRC's
energy divide in the process.
The strategy of the World Bank and G20 will generate contracts for
global corporations, financing deals for big banks, and opportunities
for politicians to cut ribbons and bag some kickbacks along the way. Yet
by hoping that social and economic development will trickle down to poor
people such as the inhabitants of Kikwit, it ignores the lessons of past
SMALL RENEWABLE, NOT BIG GRIDS
A new report by International Rivers demonstrates that a different
approach is available. Most rural poor in Africa and South Asia - the
epicenters of global poverty - live closer to local sources of renewable
energy than to the electric grid.
The International Energy Agency proposes that 70 percent of the
investment needed to provide energy for all should go into local
mini-grids and off-grid solutions such as micro hydropower, solar, and
wind. The cost of these technologies has fallen rapidly in recent years.
High-quality solar lanterns light family homes and charge cell phones at
less than half the cost that poor consumers pay for dirty kerosene and
candles every year. Yet the markets for poor consumers don't work
properly, and new technologies are often not available where they are
needed. This is where the World Bank and other donors should come in.
Promoting clean, decentralized energy solutions will not only provide
access for people that have been left in the dark for too long. It will
also boost local economic sectors such as agriculture, agricultural
processing and tourism, which are important for broad-based job creation.
It will reduce the social and environmental footprint of energy
projects. By diversifying and decentralizing supply, the same approach
will make energy sectors more resilient to the vagaries of climate
change. It will also strengthen the institutions of local governments
and civil society, which are often overwhelmed by large, top-down
In July, a new World Bank President will take office. Jim Yong Kim has
made great contributions to improving public health by empowering poor
local communities. A similar change of course is called for in the
The World Bank should shift its ample resources - its lending,
guarantees, technical assistance and policy advice - from the top-down
projects of the past to the bottom-up solutions of the future. The new
presidency offers an opportunity to finally address the global
Peter Bosshard is policy director of International Rivers and the author
of the new report, Infrastructure for Whom? The report is available at
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