Increasing complexity and cost dynamics of socioeconomics on mega infrastructure projects

16th January 2024

Increasing complexity and cost dynamics of socioeconomics on mega infrastructure projects

Author: Dr Mthandazo Ngwenya, MD: Development Advisory and Impact at the Bigen Group.

Many governments recognise the importance of undertaking large-scale and high-impact infrastructure projects as a significant lever to develop their people and allow for expanded access to services. The World Bank estimated that in 2023 Sub-Saharan African countries needed to spend a minimum of 7.1% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on average on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) related to infrastructure per year but were only spending 3.5% on average annually. A November 2023 report titled ‘Africa must tackle huge infrastructure gap to unlock opportunities for transformation’ by the African Development Bank noted that lack of adequate infrastructure was one of the primary impediments to the realisation of the benefits of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area.

The nexus between infrastructure development and human development is undeniable. At the core of human evolution lies great scientific leaps in the scale and ingenuity of infrastructure deployed by various civilisations over time. The infrastructure differential is the most obvious and notable differentiator between developed and developing nations. Several developing nations lag significantly in terms of the quality and scale of infrastructure such as roads, railways, schools, hospitals, shipping ports, airports, dams, bridges, canals, housing, telecommunications, and many others. This deficit in infrastructure acts as a critical barrier to the ability of citizens, in particular, the youth to reach their full economic potential. If there is one thing most Africans could agree on - we urgently need more infrastructure!

Why if the case for infrastructure development is obvious, are so many large-scale infrastructure projects including projects in other sectors such as mining or agriculture experiencing rising tensions caused by environmental and socio-economic related causes?

This is not a phenomenon limited only to Africa. According to the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investing (PRI) article ‘Building the conversation around social issues in infrastructure investing’, the US$3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline in the US, Melbourne’s proposed US$8.8 billion East-West Road link, and the Mexico City international airport are just three of many high-profile infrastructure projects with large capital spends that have encountered strong resistance from civil society, politicians, and regulators. There are significant costs suffered by investors as a direct result of rising tensions due to failure to manage project host communities and other key stakeholder concerns. In the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the investors are estimated to have lost US$ 7.5 billion due to delays to construction and cost overruns with many attributable to protest actions and legal challenges to the project.

Some key deficiencies by project sponsors, developers, or governments in the design and commissioning of projects that may lead to rising tensions are:

Though the above is not an exhaustive definition of all the social dynamics on a project that may trigger tensions, the list is robust and covers many recorded causal factors identified based on research. To those in doubt about the real-world impact of social factors on projects, take the case of South Africa where, on the 8th of September 2023, the Minister of Human Settlements announced that over 3400 projects had been blocked by factors such as community protests, land invasions and by criminal syndicates known as the ‘Construction Mafia’.

To achieve the Africa we want, a fundamental rethink is required by all role players engaged in project development to formulate better strategies to integrate the full set of environmental and socio-economic dynamics in project life cycle planning. This will facilitate better relations amongst all stakeholders and achieve harmony, improve investor returns and meet the service delivery outcomes to the people.