“Infrastructure projects are about people, not about bricks”

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Five questions for Benoit Legrand
Head of the Infrastructure and Environment unit

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Basic infrastructure is one of the ‘traditional’ domains of development cooperation. In what respect have infrastructure projects changed over the past few years? 

We intervene transversally more than we used to and we now support education, agriculture, health and other projects. We also work in the urban realm, where we help improve precarious neighbourhoods or build social housing. But, regardless of the type of intervention, we try to take into account the institutional setting in which we intervene. We aim to accompany national or local authorities and to improve their competency. We also work on health or school maps, for instance, to back up objective location decisions and insulate such decisions from political pressure. The idea is to provide the partner country with added value beyond mere infrastructure. Also, we ensure that our projects benefit the broader local population and not just to the immediate beneficiaries. 


How can you make sure that an infrastructure project impacts more than only the immediate beneficiaries? 

We try to insert each intervention in a broader dynamic. For instance, we advocate solutions that involve the local workforce. The idea is to use projects for training local workers in using techniques which they can apply in other situations after our departure. For instance, for our projects in Burundi we use compressed earth block rather than concrete. The local raw material has better thermal qualities and can be used to build cooler buildings which need less cooling compared to concrete buildings. Expertise developed by the workers is more likely to be used later in local construction. So, that way they can continue to ensure a livelihood for their families after our project is completed. So, our funding is working twice: once for the project itself and once for boosting the partner country’s economy. 
Is such an inclusive way of managing projects more complex to implement?

It is definitively more complex than pure and simple engineering, but it is also more effective. We always consider what is upstream and downstream of the project: If you want to stimulate local employment, you must work on the legal framework as well as think of the competences that will be most needed locally. 

If you want to decentralise power production to stimulate development in remote regions, you must also think of connecting such production with the grid, which implies that the regulatory framework needs to be adapted. And if that is not possible, you must in any case make sure that the mini network is viable on the long run. 

If you work at a regional Integrated Water Resources Management project, that means you must also include the big farm and industry consumers in your thinking and you must redefine the priorities of the whole of the community in order to optimise water consumption. So, planning and support become increasingly important. This evolution has pushed us, for instance, to use geographical information systems to draw up a complete panorama of a region in view of better decision-making on the basis of a spatial analysis. We have done so in Algeria, Morocco, Senegal and Vietnam. 


'It is good to build a school or a hospital, but that is not enough.'
In the past, infrastructure projects stopped when works were completed. Today, you insist on the need to look further. 

It is good to build a school or a hospital, but that is not enough: You must also make sure that after our departure, the building is correctly maintained, so it can last as long as possible. In other words, from the design phase onwards you must reduce user and maintenance costs as much as possible and you must think with the authorities about sustainable management and maintenance systems. That is why we pay much attention to the energy efficiency of buildings, for instance to ensure a certain level of thermal comfort without requiring air conditions, which is expensive because of the need for energy and the cost of maintenance. 

Naturally, such long-term concerns, like the infrastructure projects themselves, are sometimes hard to combine with shorter project terms and available budgets. In reality, the issues addressed by development projects are universal: We face the same issues in infrastructure projects here in Europe! 
You also insist on the importance of networking development efforts. What does that mean? 

In Europe, like in countries in the South, many universities and research centres study development questions. PhD research can be fostered in our partner countries by developing relations between these institutions and the development cooperation sector. Then, we can use their work for our own projects. In Vietnam, for instance, a student developed a typology of traditional houses and of the techniques used to build them. This gave us new insights for our infrastructure projects. By joining forces we can multiply our impact and increase the effectiveness of our actions. 

Discover more stories

Today, assistance to trade in partner countries is thinking out of the export support box and explores new approaches such as support to the private sector. Objective? Maximise the impact of each euro invested in development.
The financing structure of cooperation projects is completely changing and national governments are not the sole donors of their development agencies any more. Belgium is no exception to that rule.
Good Human Resources management is an essential, but often forgotten, part of qualitative service delivery. Read more about how we work towards  this in Ugandan hospitals and schools.

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