Pacific perspectives on infrastructure maintenance

To launch the ‘Devpacific Dialogues’ series in Vanuatu last month, a public seminar on infrastructure maintenance was held at the Ministry of Infrastructure and Public Utilities in Port Vila. More than 50 people participated in the event, including the Minister for Infrastructure and Public Utilities, his Director General, officials from various Vanuatu government ministries, private sector stakeholders and representatives of development partners.

Matthew Dornan gave the keynote presentation, which was based on his research of infrastructure service delivery and maintenance challenges across the Pacific. It was an opportunity to discuss these issues with an audience of policy-makers responsible for infrastructure services in Vanuatu and other stakeholders from various sectors.

Drawing on a recent report for the Pacific Region Infrastructure Facility, of which he was the lead author, Matthew highlighted the following points:

  • Maintenance matters: the maintenance of infrastructure is essential for service delivery (e.g. health and education), and has been demonstrated to generate better economic returns than investment in new infrastructure.
  • Reasons for sub-optimal maintenance vary across sectors and countries, and commonly involve a combination of resource constraints, limited technical capacity, and perverse incentives.
  • Action across all of these areas is needed to improve maintenance. Technical solutions such as the establishment of asset registers are important, but alone, are not enough. Also necessary is political will to make managers accountable for the quality of infrastructure services, and to ensure that sufficient resources are available for service providers.

The presentation was followed by a discussion involving policy-makers, private sector stakeholders and development partners.

The Director General of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Public Utilities, Mr Johnson Binarau, acknowledged that in the past the priority for Vanuatu’s government budgeting and expenditure had been building infrastructure, to the detriment of maintenance. He argued that this is gradually being addressed, thanks in part to the Millennium Challenge Account road project, with the government committing 500 million vatu in this year’s budget to road maintenance. The Director General also confirmed that some of the challenges Matthew had identified were applicable in the Vanuatu context.

The importance of routine maintenance as a way of reducing the high costs associated with infrastructure rehabilitation was a point that resonated strongly with the session’s participants. This was particularly the case for roads. The discussion prompted some participants to ask ‘do we have too many roads?’, and whether there was a means of calculating how many new kilometres of roads can be built, whilst remaining within Vanuatu’s current capacity to undertake adequate maintenance.

This led to discussion of the relationship between capital costs and maintenance spending. Although this relationship will always depend on the infrastructure in question, Matthew highlighted experience from Kiribati where some infrastructure components had been deliberately ‘over designed’ in order to ensure a long life. Over-designing infrastructure increases capital costs, but it can reduce expenditure associated with maintenance. There is, therefore, an argument for over-designing infrastructure projects where it is likely that maintenance will not be prioritised.

Also discussed were problems arising from the unclear division of responsibilities for infrastructure management, including maintenance. This is a common issue between different levels of government (e.g. national/provincial), and ministries. Often, responsibility for infrastructure is given to sub-national government entities, such as municipal councils, without adequate transfers of resources for their maintenance. Conflicts between state and federal governments in Australia demonstrate that such problems are not confined to the Pacific.

There is much to be done to address such challenges. Governments need to ensure that responsibilities for infrastructure management are clearly defined, that there is effective and efficient coordination between different stakeholders, and that adequate resources are available. In this, as in other areas, a ‘technical’ response is unlikely to be enough. Better asset management systems and processes are needed. But without sufficient funding and attention from political leaders, these measures will not be sufficient to address maintenance challenges. Matthew argued that improved planning and budgeting is one thing that line areas can do to help generate support for increased funding for maintenance, both among leaders and finance ministries.

The impacts of climate change and increasing populations, particularly in urban areas, were also raised in the discussion. Although Matthew’s research had not dealt directly with these issues, he acknowledged that there was indeed a real need to take these items into account in terms of designing, building and maintaining infrastructure assets in the Pacific, as elsewhere.

When discussing roads, one participant raised the potential for a ‘user pays’ model to provide additional revenue to support maintenance work. Matthew argued that a ‘toll’ system is unlikely to work in most Pacific island countries, but that an alternative is to establish a road fund based on a fuel levy or vehicle registration. However, he cautioned that these efforts too were likely to face considerable political challenges, as shown by PNG’s experience with the National Road Authority. The Director General of Infrastructure and Public Utilities advised that this is an area his ministry is currently exploring.

The opportunity to consider and discuss these issues comes at a very timely juncture for Vanuatu, as there are several major infrastructure projects underway or due to commence in the near future. These include rehabilitation of roads, improvements to drainage and sewage disposal in Port Vila, refurbishment of Port Vila Central Hospital, construction of a National Convention Centre, refurbishment of Malapoa College, and construction of a new wharf.

The discussion highlighted how important it is to plan for meeting the cost of maintaining this infrastructure. There are lessons to be learned from other countries in the region about how to manage infrastructure. The seminar provided a useful focal point around which interested parties from numerous sectors could meet, share information and form connections to support future work in this area.

You can see photos from this event here.

“Devpacific Dialogues” are events designed to create intellectually stimulating spaces where colleagues from all sectors can meet to share knowledge and form connections to support development in Vanuatu and elsewhere in the Pacific island region. For more information, please contact tess@devpacific.org.

Matthew Dornan is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy CentreTess Newton Cain is a Research Associate at the Development Policy Centre. 

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Matthew Dornan

Matthew Dornan was formerly Deputy Director at the Development Policy Centre and is currently a Senior Economist at The World Bank.

Tess Newton Cain

Dr Tess Newton Cain is the Project Lead for the Pacific Hub at the Griffith Asia Institute and has been an associate of the Development Policy Centre since 2012.

2 Comments

  • I hate to sound cynical, but Matt’s conclusions mirror those of numerous reports by development partners over the last 20+ years. We all know infrastructure requires ongoing maintenance, that bureaucracies require technical skills to manage it, and that budgets need to include recurrent expenditure allocations – the governments know this, the development partners know this, the researchers know this. And yet, time after time (with a very few notable exceptions) we get the same failure of maintenance, the same rush to have non-DAC donor X throw up a new building with no ability to finance the ongoing costs (particularly when the concrete starts to rot), the same diversion of funds to other purposes and the same failure of bureaucracy.

    So the real question is: given these needs, in infrastructure and other service delivery areas, how do we create an environment where governments, with assistance from donors, are able to meet them? What needs to change? It’s not about project management, or training, or twinning, or donor funding of eternal road maintenance programs, or other supply-driven solutions. It is about sweeping organisational and attitudinal change within the Pacific. Where do changes need to take place and how does the Pacific community make them happen?

    • Stephanie,

      I have to say, I agree with most of your comments. Technical solutions and training, on their own, will not address the issue of maintenance (or service delivery, for that matter). That’s exactly the point I highlighted in my talk. I agree that attitudinal change is needed, both at the political level, and at the managerial level within service delivery organisations.

      How does that happen? I think we’re basically entering into the area of political economy of reform, and the fact is, donors have found it very difficult to address political economy constraints. I don’t think that there are easy answers – if there were, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I would say that I consider “attitudinal change” to be, primarily, an internal and organic process. There’s a limit to what donors can do to support change. Such change also takes time.

      There are case studies of successful management (and, asset management) in the Pacific, and it’s important we learn from them. I don’t agree that it is all “doom and gloom” – there is a great deal of diversity in the Pacific in relation to infrastructure management. One case study I’m currently writing about is the Fiji Electricity Authority. Improvement in FEA management (and maintenance) came about over a ten year period, due to massive organisational re-structuring beginning in 2001; political support for reform; and supportive regulatory changes that began in 2005 and continued under the Bainimarama Government. There were setbacks along the way, but overall, the FEA’s performance improved dramatically (it now has in place sound asset management systems, and dedicates sufficient resources toward maintenance).

      There is also diversity on the planning side. Cook Islands and Vanuatu are two countries that in recent times have turned down funding from the donor X to which you refer. In Cook Islands, the donor X-funded project that is underway is being managed very proactively by govt – it is clear that lessons have been learned from past mistakes (and briefly, I’d note that poor planning is an issue with more than just one donor in the region!)

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