Reframing infrastructure, reshaping development

With all the benefits that urban infrastructure improvements can bring to a city, have they ever succeeded in reducing one of the main obstacles to social and economic welfare – inequality?

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Insight by 
Michael Cohen
Professor of international affairs at The New School, New York
21 May 2024
The transition to a predominantly urban world
A series of insights and interviews designed to share the experiences of community leaders, professionals, researchers and government from the global South
A group of people around a table, looking at plans.

Slum upgrading plans are presented by the Housing Institute of Buenos Aires and are shaped with the Villa 20 community (Photo: Housing Institute of Buenos Aires, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 Deed)

Everybody thinks they know about infrastructure. It tends to be grey, hard, frequently made of concrete, expensive and necessary for households, economies and for making spaces productive, safe and enjoyable. 

This common-sense perception of infrastructure has also been adopted by economists who assert that infrastructure is a prerequisite for economic growth. In a seminal economics book of the 1950s it was described as ‘social overhead capital’ – a necessary input for growth whose absence in many countries was a major obstacle to the economic and social welfare of their people.

A favoured approach?

Infrastructure became a favorite sector for development assistance agencies in the 1970s, because the economic arguments and large benefits seemed irrefutable, even if there was a growing understanding of the complexity of development processes. Infrastructure projects were also easily understood and, better still, could be packaged and justified in terms that generated few objections. 

It later became the favourite choice for advocates of public-private partnerships. Their zeal to make deals that would guarantee a return on private capital investment rarely achieved the exaggerated projected outcomes of such projects.

Today, and particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic, we know more about infrastructure and how it might interact with other objectives and other sectors. 

The most important observation stemming from the pandemic was that structural inequalities within countries and cities had become more visible. The poor had often faced the dilemma of whether social distancing and isolation was even possible when low-income households needed to earn money on a daily basis. Richer groups could do their work online, at home, while avoiding the risks of contagion. 

Data on the use of the subway system in New York shows that many more people went through the turnstiles at stations in poorer neighborhoods than in wealthier ones.

Infrastructure for distribution

When we consider this historical trajectory of thinking about infrastructure, we also know that economic growth does not guarantee better socio-economic welfare, social justice or sustainability. 

Growth may be a necessary condition in a world of growing populations, but it is not sufficient to achieve the three objectives mentioned above. This suggests that we need to reconsider infrastructure and ask how it can be better framed to contribute not just to economic growth but also to reducing the stifling, structural inequalities that affect all countries.

Indeed, this suggests a new term, ‘infrastructure for distribution’, which needs to be explored to see whether in fact there are opportunities to reframe ‘infrastructure’ so it is understood as a frequently neglected tool that could be used to address inequalities. 

This reframing includes redefining infrastructure, for example as process, as people, as institutions, and as knowledge – all of which can make a big difference to human welfare.

The case of Villa 20

One recent example, again relating to COVID-19, appeared in the study of a low-income settlement, Villa 20, in Buenos Aires, which had undergone an extensive participatory process to upgrade its infrastructure starting in 2017. When the pandemic began, our research team noticed that there was a considerable time lag before the virus spread in the settlement – both in numbers of cases and deaths.

When they thought further about the process, and why similar nearby settlements had developed cases and deaths earlier than Villa 20, they concluded that the participatory process had actually built social capital. The infrastructure, including community knowledge, informed residents about the vulnerabilities of individual households in the neighbourhood. 

People too weak to go out for food, for COVID-19 tests or for medical attention received home visits with food delivery, testing and care. A new ‘infrastructure of care’, or what has been increasingly described as a ‘culture of care’, had been established.

Essentially ‘infrastructure for distribution’ implies much more attention is given to users and the demand side to identify how specific forms of infrastructure can build resilience and overcome some of the obstacles to reducing structural inequalities.

Overcoming inequality is still the dream

A key part of this analysis also reflects on the fact that although efforts to reduce urban poverty through infrastructure upgrading have delivered important benefits (such as water supply, sanitation, housing, utilities, electricity provision, environmental management and social services), they have contributed little to reducing intra-urban inequality.

This is underlined by the outcome of hundreds of city and neighbourhood-level projects supported by the World Bank since 1972, as well as programmes launched by community organisations in cities such as Calcutta, Nairobi, Cape Town, Jakarta, Rio de Janeiro and Lima. We now recognise this inequality as a determining and enduring obstacle to social and economic welfare.

Reflecting on these efforts to reduce urban poverty, but not inequality, we see that these may have been ‘successful’ projects, but we need to ask whether they were the ‘right’ projects? Did they address the most serious and strategic problems facing cities?

It reminds me of a comment I once heard from a World Bank vice-president that “the World Bank had built all the easy roads in Kenya”. This shocking observation may or may not be true, but it does help us understand that how the objectives of projects are framed needs more attention if better and more relevant problems are to be addressed, and more difficult obstacles are to be overcome.

The challenge of improving how policy and project objectives is framed reminds me of a Swahili proverb: “those who have arrived have a long way to go”.

Further reading

Infrastructure policy and inequality, Michael A Cohen (2024), Routledge, London and New York

About the author

Michael Cohen is professor of international affairs and director of the doctoral programme in public and urban policy at The New School, New York

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