White elephants and the hierarchical nature of infrastructure systems

Going through the topics in infrastructure development in my Urban Services and Infrastructure class, I realized why many NGO-funded infrastructures are rendered white elephants. To be fair, NGOs did not fund these projects expecting these will become white elephants at some point, rather NGOs are as surprised as observers are when these do indeed turn into less than what was planned for.

The path NGOs took pre-human rights based approach to development was inspired by needs of the community. Getting infrastructure projects funded is a bit more complicated than just for a community to tell the NGO its needs and presto there they are served on a platter. Communities undergo a process, the operative word being participation. Getting people to participate in projects provides legitimacy to project decisions as these are “stamped” with the people’s “seal” of “yes, these are our needs,” “yes, we need the project,” and “yes, we will maintain the infrastructure.” It makes sense because after all it’s the people’s word.

But, while the process makes sense the real world is not as simple as fulfilling a need and stopping at that. Infrastructures need maintenance and services arising from their construction supported. Hierarchical characteristics of the infrastructure system define infrastructures and services for levels of coverage, quality, and capacity for different groups of users in different locations. It requires a relatively small population to support a basic health centre or clinic, a municipal health centre a relatively larger population, and even larger populations for higher levels of health infrastructures. This in infrastructure development is known as the population threshold. Hospitals with specialist sophisticated services are built in large metropolitan areas where the sufficiency of clients enables these to recover costs. It’s basic economics, or what, in NGO-speak, “start at where the people are” really means. To be fair, the tendency among NGOs is to provide the poor, in the name of wealth redistribution, a five-star facility. But as it is, classy infrastructures and sophisticated services put up in communities who could not support these in the long-term only serve to burden them further and NGOs shouldn’t be surprised to find these facilities abandoned, rotting, or converted into warehouses.

The better move being hinted at here is ensuring a seamless integration of services at the different levels of existing infrastructures and that services are available at each level. For example, basic health care in basic clinics at the village level, higher-order services in municipal health centres at the town level, and so on. When infrastructures and services are absent where they ought to be, developing these must be guided by the hierarchical nature of infrastructure systems. Assuring these, the remaining yet significant constraint faced by the user is capacity to pay. But this country’s people’s poverty is another issue altogether. The NGO community could do itself good by avoiding being trapped into the belief that poverty is readily solved by social projects and programs; no, without a solid economy massive poverty will stay.


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