Infrastructure boom: For what and for whom?

The acceleration of infrastructure development is the key program of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Vice President Jusuf Kalla. 

However, despite the enormous budget allocation for infrastructure, how it is going to leverage human development in all forms remains an important question. 

Simply boosting giant projects should not be the aim of infrastructure development; rather, the goal should be the enhancement of basic public services to increase access to quality health services, education and economic rights. 

Decent and well-equipped classrooms, accessible and safe health facilities, real and high-quality vaccines and bridges and roads to improve rural people’s livelihoods should also be the aim of the infrastructure program.

Many of the current administration’s infrastructure-related policies are based on Nawacita, Jokowi’s nine priority programs, which aim to increase productivity and competitiveness. 

Increased spending in infrastructure is seen as vital to that end. 

Realized funds for infrastructure reached Rp 189.7 trillion (US$14.42 billion) in 2015, more than double the 2010 allocation. In 2016, budget allocation for infrastructure rose again to Rp 313 trillion or 8 percent of the total state budget.

Nonetheless, many infrastructure projects have not been optimally implemented. The government has indeed inaugurated many new ports in eastern Indonesia and airports in several regions. 

But in another case, the government has kicked off the operation of the Pejagan-Pemalang toll road on June 16 without a proper supporting system. 

As a result, massive traffic jams trapped motorists and caused many deaths during the Idul Fitri homecoming exodus or mudik recently. This highlighted the fact that infrastructure development has not yet been integrated with surrounding facilities, nor have proper scenarios been forecast. 

In addition, the progress of infrastructure development has not been paced up either — note the long delays to launch the new Terminal 3 at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport.

The facts indicate at least two big issues. First, a lack of national capabilities to develop infrastructure timely, according to financing and executing. 

Second, participation of both the community and private sector in boosting infrastructure projects. Participation in infrastructure is considered only to relate to land acquisition and public-private partnerships (PPPs). 

These problems make infrastructure development not timely and too top-down.

There are two agendas that should be revealed: The purpose of infrastructure and the users of infrastructure. Infrastructure is intended to accelerate economic growth, but also aims to make public services more affordable. 

Sachs ( 2005 ), in his seminal work, The End of Poverty, indicated that the government’s task was to invest in public goods and services, such as essential health services and education. If the conditions are met, people can access basic needs, and these two things are important to eradicate the cycle of poverty.

In economic terms, according to Ray ( 2016 ), a number of construction companies have booked huge profits from infrastructure programs. 

Companies, especially state-owned firms such as Wijaya Karya, Adhi Karya, Waskita Karya and Pembangunan Perumahan, have posted a 40 percent rise in construction contracts. This shows a situation where the benefits of infrastructure are more likely to be reaped by big enterprises, not small and medium-sized ones. 

Warung makan or small restaurants along the Pantura northern coast highway suffered significant economic losses after the opening of the Jakarta-Brebes toll road. 

The government does not seem to have a scenario in place to anticipate this problem, a scenario that should have been planned before such a large infrastructure project began, as part of the project’s social and environmental impact assessment. 

The question is, if the focus of the government’s infrastructure development is on constructing large infrastructure facilities to enhance competitiveness and economic growth only, then whither the role of infrastructure in the provision of basic rights for the citizens?

This requires a paradigm change for the Jokowi-Kalla administration regarding infrastructure. Constructing major infrastructure must be equally important to constructing public infrastructure to meet citizens’ basic rights. If the paradigm does not change, infrastructure development will simply boost disparity between citizens.

In the health sector, providing safe and accessible puskesmas or community healthcare centers as a first level service must be prioritized. Quality health services are still rare in Indonesia’s least developed regions. 

Patients must travel long distance to reach the nearest health centers, which are often ill-equipped and lack medical workers. This leads to high mortality rates.

In the education sector, a lot of classrooms are shaky and many access roads are blocked, hindering students from accessing knowledge and improving their capabilities. 

Hampering access for these students in the least developed regions means exacerbating disparity between the rich and poor regions’ human development quality.

It is often said that government lacks the resources to finance infrastructure projects. Priorities must be made. The priority of infrastructure should be social development. 

This requires a humble decision from the government, because social infrastructure might be less of a lighthouse, more of a fundament for long-term human development investment. 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) jargon of “no-one left behind” and “people-centered development” are a strong basis for development actors to ensure that people reap the benefits of infrastructure development. 

How to go about this? Government should use a bottom-up approach in infrastructure development, to put people’s rights as the first priority. In other words, government should facilitate collaborative action in infrastructure issues. 

Co-planning, co-financing and co-governing with people, government and the private sector is critical, in order to prevent the benefits from being enjoyed only by a small group of people or companies. 


*) Victoria Fanggidae: The writer is a public policy analyst and executive director of Perkumpulan Prakarsa (the Center for Welfare Studies).

Source: The Jakarta Post

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