Infrastructure is a foundationa requirement for an efficient economy and the services that are a part of a decent quaity of life. Almost all ... if not all ... countries with a low standard of living also have poor infrastructure.
What is there? What is the best way to improve the infrastructure
so that it can support the highest level of activity? What is the status of the
roads, the communications, the clinics and hospitals, the transport systems, etc,
etc? What is the best way to improve the infrastructure so that the society and
the economy is the most productive.
The Importance of Infrastructure
Enormous catch is needed to get infrastructure in the “south” up to an
acceptable basic level of performance. There needs to be investment not only to
build new needed infrastructure, but also to catch up on maintenance.
There are many facets to infrastructure including (1) Roads; (2) Railroads; (3)
Seaports; (4) Airports; (5) Housing; (6) Water; (6) Sewage and sanitation; (8)
Hotels and restaurants; (9) Tourism destinations; (10) Public buildings; (11)
Schools; (12) Health facilities; (13) Telephone and Internet; and, (14) Electricity.
The investment needed to upgrade infrastructure to “north” standards is not
sustainable in the “south”. There needs to be incremental upgrading so that
constraints caused by infrastructure are reduced. As economic performance
improves, more upgrading becomes possible.
Determinant of productivity
And the SOUTH does not have a good efficient physical infrastructure.
Usually the NORTH's solution to the infrastructure deficit is a high
capital cost big infrastructure project rather than the lower profile
upgrade to infrastructure that removes the critical constraints
When I was working in Somaliland in 1999, the first feedback for our
planning for transport was simply that they did not need high cost
“European” style roads. What they wanted was a road network that
would allow trucks to move safely in both wet and dry season. They did
not want expensive 100 mph roads and smooth tarmac surfaces. Just the
Transport Infrastructure – Roads
The main roads are a major factor in national productivity. The road network is
very important for trade. The roads should not constrain trade, but serve to help
it. Roads are important for all sorts of product shipment including livestock
Every community I have visited has always made reference to the need for
easier transport in the rainy season. All weather roads are valuable, but they
need not be to European or US standards. They just need to be usable when it is
raining, instead of totally stalling traffic.
Road infrastructure condition
How long does it take to travel 100 hundred miles in the United States? 90
minutes, more or less. Say 2 hours with the local traffic at both ends. The road
network is impressive. And the same goes for most countries in the NORTH.
And yes, the roads are becoming more and more congested, and it is recognized
that this is a growing problem that will be needing attention.
But in the SOUTH. How long does it take to travel 100 miles in most places in
the SOUTH. 3 hours if you are lucky, and it may be half a day, or a day and a
half. If it is the wet season, it may not be possible at all.
In the late 1980s I was working with UNHCR in connection with Ugandan refugees in Sudan. We needed to find an alternative route out of South Sudan to the Indian Ocean through Zaire (now the DCR) rather than through either Uganda or Kenya which had been cut off by some rebel tribes. We needed a route that would allow fully loaded trucks to travel safely if not comfortably. It turned out to be impossible. The road was totally impassable. Our Land Rovers could not negotiate the mud and ruts and broken bridges. The roads had not been particularly well constructed when they were built some decades before, but no maintenance and heavier trucks had ruined what was meant to be there. Essentially the road infrastructure was non-existent.
Physical infrastructure makes an enormous difference to the productivity of a
country. The transport infrastructure is probably the most visible, especially
roads, railways, airports and seaports. But it is also the water and sewerage
systems, the telephone and communications systems, and the health facilities
and the schools and universities, and the housing stock and the commercial and
Working with UNHCR
I still remember my first visits to California and Texas in the late 1950s
when the US Interstate Highway System was being built, and seeing
the multilevel highway interchanges being built. I had been taught
about the military value of the German autobahns, and now I was seeing
infrastructure efficiency thinking being applied to the new US Interstate
Highway System, this time for economic reasons rather than a miitary imperative
While the NORTH has made major investments in infrastructure, and continues
to do so, most of the countries in the SOUTH have made limited investments in
infrastructure, and many have not even had the resources to maintain existing
infrastructure in good condition. Without good infrastructure the cost of
business goes up, and the performance of the economy is badly affected
To the extent that there has been investment in infrastructure, it has not always
been cost effective investment. It has often been badly managed with low
quality and high costs. Frequently the large projects have been funded by
organizations like the World Bank or the European Union, both of which have
contracting procedures that result in far higher cost projects than would be
called for under a strategy with a focus on maximizing economic value adding.
Road infrastructure is needed all over the SOUTH. Very few countries in the
SOUTH have roads to suit their needs.
But sadly, most countries in the SOUTH have spent a lot more on the roads that
they have than they should have, simply because the roads have been built
using the priorities of the NORTH and often with funding from the NORTH.
The international competitive bidding process mandated by the World
Bank and the main Regional Development Banks does not result in best
value construction, and in terms of economic value adding potential, the
process is exceedingly wasteful. The excuse for the process is to reduce
corruption, but in fact it replaces one sort of economic waste with
Look at a detail map of anywhere in the NORTH, in Europe, or the United States
or Japan and there are roads everywhere. It is rare to go more than a few miles
before there is some sort of road that can be used by any sort of automobile or
But this is not so in the SOUTH. There are hundreds of miles of country where
there is not road of any sort, where it is difficult or impossible for an automobile
or truck to travel unless it is equipped for “off-the-road” work. And in this
context we are not talking about the off-road capabilities of a typical suburban
SUV. This is “off-the-road” because there is no road, because the flattest ground
is a dried up river bed. This is “off-the-road” because there are no bridges over
the river, and getting across means driving down into the river bed and
climbing up the other side.
There are places where one can look for a hundred miles over a plain, and there
are no roads anywhere except the one you are on. This can happen in the
Rockies in the United States, but the difference is that in the United States there
is no population. In my scene from the SOUTH, the whole area is heavily
populated. But there is no investment in a road infrastructure. The economy is
still based on animal power. (Europe circa 1850 maybe). The economy cannot
use modern transport equipment because the infrastructure just is not built,
even in a rudimentary stage.
When I was doing planning work in Ethiopia and Somalia in the late
1990s, our local Somali consultants asked that our plans included a lot
of road work, but they specifically asked that they were not built to
“European” standards. What were needed were roads that were
relatively cheap, easily maintained and were usable safely after rains.
In the SOUTH, most of the building of infrastructure has been driven by poor
priority planning. Good economics and good business have rarely been the
In the late 1980s in Juba in South Sudan there was just a small amount
of tarmac road. Tarmac road was something of a luxury. Good gravel
road and well maintained laterite roads work well. But it was telling
where the tarmac roads existed. One road went from the airport to the
head of government's residence and had been built using Kuwaiti funds
just prior to a brief visit to Juba by the Emir of Kuwait (I believe to
attend the opening of a Mosque funded also by Kuwait).
The other tarmac roads were inside the USAID compound and included the
parking lots. I am not quite sure how USAID justified these expenditures, but it gave a luxurious look to the compound.
There has been a productivity revolution in modern ports, with almost total
containerization and using powerful materials handling equipment. Modern
cargo vessels are highly automated requiring small crews, and their cost is
remarkably low, but they can only use ports with modern equipment. There is
no reason why Iraq ports should not be to a very high international standard.
Iraq also must have terminals to handle its oil exports. These need to be world
class, and there is no reason why they should not be.
Iraq needs to have a world class international airport, and there is no reason at
all what it should not have one.
The country also needs to have a network of local airports to facilitate local air
service development. Though air transport is expensive relative to land, there
are times when speed is a priority, and there should be the infrastructure to
Some large scale projects that were implemented more than thirty years ago are
having ongoing economic value adding in their regions, such as for example the
Kariba Dam project in Zimbabwe and the Volta River project in Ghana.
Early in my career, when I was training with Coopers and Lybrand (C&L) in London in the early 1960s I was assigned to analyze the World Bank's costing of the proposed Kariba dam project in Zambia. I already had had some experience with big project engineering (integrated iron and steel mill projects) and I knew some economics as well as accounting. It was my view that the initial cost estimates made by World Bank experts were in fact only around 50% of what would be needed to complete the project. To their credit C&L and the World Bank revised their cost estimates in line with my recommendations and I understand the project was completed more or less on budget.
Importance of Understanding the Numbers
The original costing was based on simplistic assumptions about quantities and prices, without taking into consideration the impact that a big project would have on the local prices for everything, and especially things that were going to be needed in great quantities. When the costings were revised using some thinking about market dynamics and how prices would most likely change, the total project investment was substantially higher, though still low enough to be economically justified.
Most of the construction associated with infrastructure ought to be done by local
construction enterprises ... and the planning of infrastructure initiatives should
be based on the idea of creating the most value adding in the community as the
infrastructure is built, and as much longer term benefit for the community when
it is in use. The aim should also be to build infrastructure using the minimum of
external resources, and the maximum of the resources that are available in the
Building infrastructure in the “south” should not be a totally uncontrolled profit
bonanza for multinational construction corporations, with additional debt the
only certainty from the projects.
Large scale modern infrastructure is expensive, and it is only in rich countries
that the economy can justify making these very expensive investments. High
cost infrastructure in a low productivity economy is a formula for financial
crisis. Infrastructure investment to upgrade needs to be done in an incremental
This can be done working from the community level. When infrastructure is
looked at from a community perspective, what is the most important to the
community can easily be identified, and there can be an investment focus on
what gets the best results for the community. This has the potential to increase
the socio-economic return from infrastructure investment from something that
will not justify investment to something that is gives an attractive socioeconomic investment yield.
Much of the housing stock in Baghdad and some other urban areas of Iraq has
been badly damaged in the past few years. There has been damage and
complete destruction in some cases and there has been damage caused by
looters. Many houses have been rebuilt using private financial resources and
funding from the US programs, but a lot still remains to be done.
Capacity to build houses
There is a good construction capacity in Iraq which can grow to build more
houses. It is constrained by the economic conditions, the lack of security and the
state of the housing sector overall.
House construction is employment
House construction is employment as well as being a valuable addition to the
community. New housing and upgrade building can be used to contribute to
total employment and to the reintegration of returnees into the economy.
Strengthening the capacity to build houses
Workmen to build houses to an improved standard need training in either a
formal setting and while on the job working in a training capacity.
The housing sector has not kept pace with the growth in population, and the
quality of shelter for many in the poor “south” is less than satisfactory. Urban
slums are common, and rural shelter is poor reflecting the poor state of the local
The solution to housing should be one that involves both the private sector,
government and the financial sector. With thoughtful planning, the housing
sector can be a valuable component of economic activity and serve to upgrade
the housing sector and the employment sector at the same time.
Construction and maintenance
There are some major contractors with the capacity for major construction and
major maintenance of roads. There needs to be a strategy to upgrade and
maintain the whole system and not just a privileged little bit of the system.
It would be best to make many small interventions rather than a few large
interventions. The country needs to have balanced development all over the
country, not just in a single area or corridor. The country needs employment
opportunity everywhere, not only on a single axis of the country. Furthermore,
the country’s internal capacity is better suited to doing small works successfully
than single large projects.
The road sector has the potential to be a major employment source for the next
several years. This can be done not only by using “labor intensive work
methods” but merely by doing the work using local capacity to the maximum
extent possible. Employment is needed not only at the laborer level but also
among trained engineers and local contractors, some of whom have had
important international experience.
Telecom and Internet
In general terms, the telecommunications infrastructure in the global “south” is
Iraq should embrace the idea of very low cost communications as a way to
encourage development, but Iraq has not yet embraced the telecom sector in this
An Internet infrastructure can be built in coordination with the telecom ... the
underlying Internet backbone uses much that in common.
Importance of water
Water is more important than anything else. When water is abundant, this is not
obvious. But in places where there is very little rainfall, the importance of water
becomes very evident. Without water, everything ends. With water, a lot is
possible. Water is essential to human life, and is essential also to animal life and
growing food crops. Water is also important since it is also a contributing cause
of violence, injury and death. There is a lot at stake in the water sector.
Knowledge about water
Knowledge about water is spread about a lot of organizations and should be
systematically consolidated into a complete database that can be accessed easily
by people with a legitimate interest. The database should be operated by a
national institution, private or public. The data should be available easily from a
number of access points. The data should be accessible for technical planning,
and is also a part of the knowledge needed to have informed community dialog
about what priorities are needed.
Competing demands for water
Where there is limited water in the area, and several competing uses, there is the
potential for conflict. People need water for drinking and personal hygiene.
Animals need water for drinking. The rangeland fodder and agricultural crops
need water to grow. The interrelationships among water, range, animals and
humans, both nomadic groups and settled groups, rural and urban, etc. are
complicated and not well understood.
Sources of water
Iraq does not have a lot of rainfall, but it is blessed with two major rivers that
have been a source of water for thousands of years. The average rainfall
numbers are not a good indication of the way the rainfall is experienced. Often
when there is rain, it is torrential, and a lot of rain falls in a very short time.
Nearby, there may be no rain at all.
Quality of water
The availability of water is the first issue, but after that there is an issue of
quality. Much of the available water has high salinity. In many rural areas the
water quality is low and often has high bacteria content, and by most standards
is unfit for human or animal consumption. Water quality is one of the most
important issue in the health condition of both humans and animals in Iraq.
Community water sources and water storage
Remote communities have several different ways of obtaining water:
- From the rivers, with water treated at water treatment facilities.
- Boreholes, which often must be very deep and still then with low production. They are expensive and steel linings do not last long in the corrosive conditions of the area,
- Shallow wells, which serve both people and animals in many communities,
- Birkas, a swimming pool like structure, usually about 3 m deep, 3 m wide and 20m long lined with concrete that is used to catch and store water, often owned by an entrepreneur who sells the water,
- Hafir Dams, a dug out area with earth dam structure on the downhill side used to catch runoff during the rains, and mainly used to water animals
Urban water systems
Urban water systems are essential for the health of any urban community. Not
all of the main towns in Iraq have enough water available. The systems are not
sufficient to satisfy the present need, and certainly do will not satisfy the
demand of longer run economic growth. Urban water systems need to be
upgraded in various urban centers in the area. There are shortages of water in
some urban areas, and sanitation is not sufficient. There needs to be both study
and expansion of the urban water capacity.
Plans for water supply improvement
Plans for water supply improvement need to be prepared based on what is best
for the local community, and what uses the least of money and other resources.
There are many contractors capable of doing work in the water sector. These
contractors need to have the opportunity to gain more experience and improve
their skills. Professional water engineers need to be encouraged to take a
leadership role in the planning and management of water resources in the area.