The Leaning Tower: Global Infrastructure


Stardate: 11022.7

First, Navroz Mubarak!  May the new year bring peace, prosperity, opportunity, and profit for all!  ;-D  It has been a while since my last post where I started my discussion of the WEF Global Risks report for 2010.  I had indicated that I would follow-up with two additional posts on the matter.  Well, here’s one.  Enjoy!

While discussing the appendicular skeleton in an audiobook on human anatomy, the lecturer caught my attention by noting a remarkable (and often taken for granted) attribute of our intra-structure; as the human body grows, the bones on one side of the our bodies grow evenly with respect to those on the other, without any direct measurement or communication mechanism!  The left femur and the right femur grow pretty much at the same pace keeping the overall body in balance!  In a few cases, however, bones on one side of the body grow faster than their counterparts on the other side impeding the individual’s motor abilities.

The Present:

While this condition is rare in skeletons, it is NOT uncommon in the economies of developing – and sometimes even developed – nations; where development in one socio-economic aspect significantly outpaces others.  The WEF report cites examples of villages in Africa and South America that lack basic infrastructure needs, such as running water and sanitation, situated alongside state-of-the-art highways and port facilities.  These imbalances, and the risks they pose, are no longer a matter merely of academic discourse or limited to esoteric economic debate.  Similar ideas are increasingly being portrayed via classical pop-culture vehicles; recall images of world-class call centers juxtaposed with feeble transportation infrastructure from Slumdog Millionaire!

The Past:

Drawing from the hundreds of encounters I have had with (now Late) Dr. Spellman’s guns-and-butter graphs from my undergraduate economics classes, some of this skewed development could be attributed to the undesirable side effects of comparative advantage among nations.  However, let’s not be quick to exculpate other dubious – not malicious perhaps, but certainly irresponsible – contributors, including (1) hypermyopic mining of resources and markets by quarterly-report driven initiatives, (2) weak or absent government oversight, (3) corruption, and so on.

Key observations from the WEF Report:

  • Challenge: To address infrastructure needs with a vision for sustainable and resource-efficient approach to projects (hmmm… sounds like a page out of the AKF handbook)
  • Last decade saw the rise of public-private partnerships on large infrastructure projects (I’m thinking PartnershipsInAction)
  • Must establish and share best practices, expert knowledge, and enabling technologies across frontiers
  • Infrastructure levels must be achieved in economically and environmentally sustainable manner (more green: wallet and planet)
  • Agriculture and food security related infrastructure concerns:
    • 1 Billion people went hungry in 2009
    • World population is increasing with roughly 75% of the world’s poor living in rural areas
    • Population growth leads to higher demands, not just for food but, also for water and energy required to produce and transport that food

The Future:

In many forecasting models, the recent past is used to estimate the immediate future.  So, where do we go from here?  Now that we recognize where we are and what got us here, what steps can we take to treat this condition?  Here are some initial thoughts that come to mind:

1. Countries of Opportunity: Developing nations are increasingly becoming countries of real opportunity.  Both, as a market for goods and services, and a source of talent and natural resources.  Going forward, we need to abandon the locust-approach to multinational ventures, which may yield profits in the short-term but is ultimately self-defeating for everyone – including the locust.  Instead, all parties should approach the venture as partners, seeking a truly win-win opportunity over the long-haul.  Let’s take that one step further.  Let’s start the dialog on what we can do collectively to make more and more countries, countries of real opportunity.  Imagine the potential of turning a deficit-oriented view of the developing world into an asset-oriented one where we take proactive measures on continuously nurturing new opportunity!

2. Green: Any discussion including “long-haul” should not ignore consequences on the environment.  We need a planet on which to pursue economic opportunity.

3. Civil Society: The Aga Khan Foundation was certainly avant-garde in recognizing the condition of skewed development and in systematically promoting, over the last 40 years, public-private partnerships to further sustainable development.  In the future, it is my estimate that organizations such as the Foundation and the broader civil society will continue to play a significant role in furthering sustainable and balanced development.  Governments and private enterprises alone cannot – and should not – be burdened with this task.  Sustainable development is our collective responsibility and we need to step up to it! 😀

4. Knowledge: Access to education – good education – must be made universal.  Further, we should facilitate the sharing of best practices, expert knowledge, tools, and technology.  Here again, the attitude should be of partnership, we should seek to learn from each other.

5. Addressing Corruption: Another classic example of the locust mindset, corruption, must be addressed.  Of course, this malaise would start somewhat self-correcting with the improvement of socio-economic conditions which would result from countries becoming countries of opportunity!  But, that does not mean that we allow corruption to impede progress in the interim!

A self-proclaimed econoptimist, I believe that we will move in this direction.  Our approach may be gradual at first, due to this Global Short Leg Syndrome.  But as we recover, we will develop better motor control, picking up the pace toward sustainable development!

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