Talking Infrastructure has recently been working in the Pacific Islands, assisting Auditors-General to design and implement infrastructure management audits. The infrastructure problems experienced in the Islands are those that we, in developed countries, also experience – but magnified a hundred-fold, making them valuable learning for all.
With the exception of Papua New Guinea, the Pacific Islands (21 of them) are small, both geographically and in terms of population. Their ability to provide infrastructure to their people is extremely limited and they rely on international donors such as Australia. How effective is this donor ‘help’? Questionable, at best, especially when donors choose their own designs, fly in their own workers, provide their own materials, and – in some cases – even to provide their own food for their workers. When this happens, the local community not only gets little or no benefit from the actual construction but, by not being involved in the construction, they are limited in their abilities to maintain. The structures then degrade more rapidly and the use of imported materials means that repair and renewal is often prohibitively expensive. Whilst, in principle, donors are required to co-ordinate decisions with the local communities, this rarely happens in sufficient depth to avoid the worst of impacts – such as the design of the fully air-conditioned building that required operating and maintenance costs seven times the budget of the agency to which it was ‘gifted’. (To say nothing of its draw on limited power facilities). It is hardly surprising that the Islands have developed what is called a ‘build-neglect-rebuild’ approach to infrastructure. (See ‘Infrastructure Maintenance in the Pacific, challenging the build-neglect-rebuild paradigm, by the Pacific Region Infrastructure Facility (PRIF)) Under the circumstances, this may indeed be considered to be a very sensible (even necessary) infrastructure management strategy.
This is a problem that needs urgent addressing in the Islands. But when we think about it, the same practices are occurring here in Australia and in other developed countries where one level of government provides capital funds (and also many of the decisions on what is to be funded) and a lower level of government, with far fewer resources, is left to pick up the ongoing costs.
Question for consideration: What can we do, in our everyday decision-making, to at least moderate the worst impacts of capital decisions made at one level with O&M at another?