Does the funding of infrastructure projects have a tangible benefit for development?

  • 07 October 2014 | Elinor Kern| Opinion

“To fund infrastructure or not to fund infrastructure?” is a question that engages many donors. And many donors do not fund infrastructure projects because they are seen to be expensive, high-risk and time-consuming, and their immediate impact is often difficult to measure.

Elinor Kern - author

While it is true that infrastructure grants are not usually quick-win grants and they often have a higher risk attached to them, they can be of significant value to the development sector, as a recent Anglo American Chairman’s Fund review revealed.

The fund recently reviewed its support of infrastructure over the past 15 years. The review found infrastructure to have a meaningful impact on development, but the importance of the approach to infrastructure grant-making was emphasised.

Tshikululu’s approach to infrastructure-grant relationships aims to be collaborative in nature rather than prescriptive. To this end, Tshikululu appoints technical experts, and has adopted an approach to infrastructure grant-making that we call development engineering. The approach places equal importance on people, the project and the physical building structure, as they are all inextricably linked.

Depending on the project and its requirements, the Tshikululu projects team/manager manages infrastructure projects from start to completion. The most important element of an infrastructure project is that the vision of the organisation for the project must align with the actual infrastructure design – e.g., if a university department aims to work more collaboratively, the structure of the offices can speak to this through transparent walls and doors and the actual layout of the offices. It is important to consider how best the physical structure serves the actual project.

In Tshikululu’s experience, this type of approach results in true partnerships, clear accountability structures and more sustainable results in the long term.

Tshikululu’s collaborative approach is firmly entrenched in these guiding principles:

  • Respect for the situation and views of others
  • Professionalism
  • Collaboration
  • Consultation
  • Thoroughness, and
  • Flexibility

Over the years, Tshikululu has learnt that there are a number of determinants that impact on the effectiveness of infrastructure grants:

  • There must be a clear vision: An organisation should have a clearly articulated vision, objective and anticipated outcome/impact both for the actual organisation, and the project requesting funding
  • There is community ownership and community participation: It must be clear what the potential partner organisation and its surrounding community bring to the project and to the relationship. Will the project clearly benefit its community and how has this been determined?
  • Level of grant management by the donor should be determined at the outset: Straightforward grant (no assistance from the donor); advisory (may involve the consultation of technical experts by the donor); or project management (the donor appoints someone internally or externally to project-manage the building process)
  • Following on from the previous point, grant contracting must clearly outline who the parties in the partnership are and what the expectations are of each party
  • Clear and regular communication must be structured, e.g. through regular steering committee meetings
  • Proper technical expertise should be harnessed (e.g. a quantity surveyor, architects, a water engineer, a soil expert, etc). Proper technical expertise will ensure that building compliance is adhered to, which directly impacts on the health and safety of the beneficiaries. Technical expertise may further add value in terms of applying green building principles and accessibility principles, which will assist with cost savings (through adequate temperature control, electricity costs can be lowered) and people with disabilities having access to the building.
  • Infrastructure projects carry a higher risk, and risk management should be built into the process
  • Follow-up is important – visits and engagement to assess the longer-term effectiveness of the project, to provide additional support if required, and sometimes to mitigate risk

A well-conceptualised and managed infrastructure project can be a significant catalyst for positive change within communities. Infrastructure can help unlock the potential of organisations to do more of what they do well.

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