City infrastructure cash held hostage by politics – expert

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“(With) every political change, do you have to go back to the beginning and start all over?”

By Michael Taylor

KUALA LUMPUR – (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Short terms of office for politicians and the bureaucratic challenges of managing project pipelines are holding back much-needed infrastructure investment in cities, a global resilience expert said on Thursday.

Cash is sitting idle due to a “market failure”, said Michael Berkowitz, president of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, on the sidelines of the World Urban Forum in Malaysia, the largest conference on sustainable cities.

“These (infrastructure) projects take between five, 10 or 15 years … and political cycles are two, four, six, maybe eight years if you’re lucky,” said Berkowitz, whose network is backed by $164 million from The Rockefeller Foundation to help cities around the world deal with modern-day pressures, from climate change to migration.

“(With) every political change, do you have to go back to the beginning and start all over?” he said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which partners with The Rockefeller Foundation on resilience coverage.

As populations around the world grow and more people migrate from rural to urban areas, an estimated $94 trillion of infrastructure investments will be needed by 2040, the G20-backed Global Infrastructure Hub said last year.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) forecasts that Asia alone will have to spend $1.7 trillion per year from now until 2030 to meet its infrastructure needs, which include building public transport networks and improving water management.

Development finance organisations like the World Bank and the ADB, as well as institutional investors, have money ready to put into high-quality urban projects, Berkowitz said.

“We are approached by those kinds of institutions all the time – at least once or twice per week,” he said. “The drum beat is really there.”

He cited Singapore’s Marina Barrage development – which acts as a flood defence and recreation space, and boosts freshwater supplies – as an example of a good resilience project.

Berkowitz said cities must craft and publish long-term infrastructure plans, as in Singapore and the Netherlands, that can be followed and updated even when there are political changes in central or local government.

Cities should also include the private sector and civil society when planning infrastructure projects, he said.

Many cities lack the power, resources and expertise to prepare the studies needed to underpin major projects and make them bankable, or are put off by the high costs associated with planning, he said.

City bureaucrats sometimes only have the capacity to handle one or two big infrastructure projects every generation, he said.

But some funders are willing to help pay for preparation work, said Berkowitz, previously a risk management specialist at Deutsche Bank.

Cities could also benefit from partnering more with national governments early in their planning, as well as with the private sector, to boost funding and technical capacity for multiple infrastructure projects, he added.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation is reporting on resilience as part of its work on, an online platform building a global network of people interested in resilience, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation.

(Reporting by Michael Taylor, Editing by Megan Rowling; Credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation)

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