The World Bank, the G20 and other multilateral groups have renewed their focus on funding large-scale infrastructure, ignoring lessons of the past, a new report by International Rivers warns.
Massive infrastructure projects largely went out of fashion among major donors after 1990, as global concern grew over local impacts. In the past, the World Bank itself has admitted that the benefits of mega-investment have largely failed to "trickle down" to local communities. But a new policy paper released by multinational development banks in 2011 charted a wholesale return to large-scale infrastructure as a development strategy, showing that this lesson has failed to inform current policymaking.
While the World Bank highlights the Inga dam in the Democratic Republic of Congo – the largest hydroelectric project in the world – as exemplary of its newfound approach, the International Rivers report points out that billions of dollars spent on the project over the past 50 years has left 94% of the country without access to electricity. "Past energy, water and transport strategies have neglected the poorest population groups, and taken a heavy toll on affected people and the environment," states the report.
Similarly, in a recent chinadialogue article Jamie Skinner revealed that the World Bank and other major multilateral banks have recently renewed their support for large dams in the face of increasing energy and food demand. But Skinner argues that large dams could bring greater benefits to local populations if planners and donors pay much more attention and funding to safeguard the environment and people, and put dams’ local development objectives on an equal footing with national objectives.
Infrastructure strategies will be a major focus of upcoming discussion in Mexico among the G20 and at the Rio+20 Earth Summit. International Rivers and others hope this will present an opportunity spark a rethink following new World Bank President Jim Yong Kim’s assumption of leadership in June. They are calling on the Kim to replace the top-down approach to infrastructure with a strategy that prioritises the needs of the poor. Otherwise history may repeat itself.