Quality Infrastructure: putting principles into practice – the viewpoint of a development agency

Takenori Nasu, Senior Deputy Director, Operations Management Division, Operations Strategy Department, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)

Investing in infrastructure is critical for recovering from the COVID-19 crisis and achieving long-term development objectives. The crisis has triggered a reshuffling of investment priorities for governments globally and significant shifts in demand. Moreover, the pandemic adds further pressure on already-constrained fiscal space in developing countries. Ensuring quality in infrastructure development has become more fundamental than ever for the efficient and effective use of limited resources for a resilient and sustainable future.

In 2019, the G20 Osaka Summit endorsed the “G20 Principles for Quality Infrastructure Investment”, a set of voluntary, non-binding principles designed to reflect the G20’s common aspiration for quality infrastructure investment. But how can “quality infrastructure” be put into practice?

Achieving quality infrastructure, in other words maximising the effectiveness of infrastructure projects, has been a long-standing challenge. To maximise the positive impact of projects, many factors must be taken into consideration, such as economic efficiency in terms of life-cycle cost, natural disaster risks, environmental and social impacts, climate change, gender mainstreaming, openness, transparency, debt sustainability, and accountability in line with international standards outlined in the G20 Principles. These factors should be considered throughout the entire project-cycle from project formulation to service delivery and maintenance.

Development partners have an important role to play in supporting partner countries to ensure infrastructure quality throughout the different stages. OECD guidelines, such as the “Compendium of Policy Good Practices for Quality Infrastructure Investment” and the upcoming “Implementation Handbook on Quality Infrastructure Investment”, are useful tools for policy makers, donor agencies and project managers to do so.

Take the railway sector for example. The Jakarta Mass Rail Transit project, which is Indonesia’s first urban railway, incorporated considerations on inclusiveness of vulnerable populations into the railway planning. For instance by introducing priority seats for the elderly and people with disabilities or by designing platforms that encouraged orderly queuing to board the trains.

Another good example is the Blue Line subway project in Bangkok – a flood-prone part of Thailand – which integrated resilience against natural disaster risks into its design. The installation of subway entrances about 1.2m above road surface and a structure that functions as a water shield, mean that the station is designed to withstand even the large-scale flooding that is predicted to occur every 200 years in the region.  

In India, the Delhi Metro promotes women’s social and economic participation by providing safe public mass urban transportation specifically designed for women. Gender perspectives, particularly safety and inclusiveness of women, were integrated in the planning stages, creating more awareness of sexual harassment prevention, promoting the employment of female staff, and introducing women-only cars to ensure their safety.

But is a project completed once it has been constructed? What if a project originally planned for a 30-year lifespan becomes useless after just 10 years? The economic benefits dramatically decrease when infrastructure is fragile or not maintained properly, in turn making the life-cycle cost very high.

That’s why asset management has such an important role to play. Ensuring the effective and sustainable management of infrastructure assets is critical.  Adapting lessons from Japan’s experience of maintaining aging infrastructure assets, JICA’s Road Asset Management Platform (RAMP) prioritises preventive maintenance over post-maintenance, in over 20 countries worldwide. The platform provides technical support to develop diagnosis plans that optimise innovative technologies and minimise future maintenance budgets.

The Republic of Congo’s Matadi Bridge is one example of well-maintained road infrastructure that was undertaken with future maintenance in mind. In 1974, the Japanese government extended an official development assistance loan to the Zaire government for the construction of the Matadi Bridge. Completed in 1983 and still in use today, the Matadi Bridge is a 722m-long suspension bridge with a main span of 520m. At the time of construction, a maintenance manual was prepared that still guides how the bridge is maintained today. By reducing travel time and expenses, the Matadi Bridge has significantly contributed to enhancing economic opportunities in the region, particularly for agricultural producers, who now have better access to local markets.

Finally, infrastructure projects need to be prioritised. Development partners can play a key role in supporting capacity building of public financial management aimed at ensuring fiscal discipline. This includes the sustainability of domestic and external debt and the efficient allocation of public funds to high-priority sectors. Reflecting on JICA’s activities in countries like Mongolia, Bangladesh, Malawi, and Laos, development partners can support the strengthening of prioritisation capabilities and the improvement of selection methods.

By maximising the use of these various approaches (like asset management and prioritisation of infrastructure projects) and ensuring the careful implementation of projects in line with the G20 Principles (for example, by considering inclusiveness, disaster resilience, and gender mainstreaming), we can ensure quality infrastructure that generates sustainable growth and builds trust among countries.