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UN says lack of proper infrastructure planning is costly and hurts COVID-19 recovery, climate action, and SDGs

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Updated: February 24, 2021

In a new publication launched today, the UN is calling on countries to vastly overhaul the way governments build and maintain infrastructure—everything from water and sanitation systems to energy grids to transportation facilities—in order to reduce waste and costs, improve delivery of essential public services and ensure a sustainable future for all.

The new publication, Managing Infrastructure Assets for Sustainable Development, issued by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the UN Capital Development Fund, with support from UNOPS, says sound infrastructure—and the systems that support it—are needed to achieve 92 percent of the Sustainable Development Goals.  

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According to the publication, while roads and electricity grids to water and sanitation systems, are fundamental for sustainable development, infrastructure investments often go to waste, as  governments regularly fail to budget the resources – financial, human and material – needed to manage assets over their entire lifespans.

The publication contends that with a trendy focus on projects that are ‘new and shiny’, old assets are often neglected. Underinvestment in infrastructure maintenance costs some developing countries up to 2 per cent growth in GDP.

The publication, a handbook for governments at the national and local levels,  says that the actual construction or acquisition cost of an infrastructure asset only accounts for 15-30 percent of overall expenditures, compared  with the 70-85 percent of the costs of an asset that is incurred after it is bought or built. 

Taking concrete steps to enhance the resilience of these key public goods can reap substantial social and economic benefits. Shirking responsibility of ensuring the sustainability of infrastructure assets puts the communities they serve at risk. 

“Effective asset management has become as critical as ever in the face of mounting pressures, such as growing urban populations, climate-related disruptions and health emergencies,” says Navid Hanif, Director of UN DESA’s Financing for Sustainable Development Office.

“Well-managed assets can increase fiscal space, they can provide leverage for further investments and they can repay the initial investments, many times over. A key feature of the citizen-state relationship at the local level, infrastructure asset management is also a fundamental prerequisite for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals,” says David Jackson, Director of Local Development Finance at UNCDF.

Finalized during the COVID-19 crisis, the new handbook brings global visibility to infrastructure asset management as a critical, high impact area for investing in local capacities to mobilize and manage financing for sustainable development, including in emergencies. The handbook extends both practical knowledge and key messages to those seeking to lay the groundwork for more equitable, inclusive and sustainable development through improved infrastructure asset management. 

The publication draws on the diverse experiences of local governments in the implementation of UN asset management toolkits and is the result of numerous consultations with top experts in the field, within the UN system, including UNOPS, multilateral and regional development banks, local government associations, universities and think tanks. 

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