Op-Ed: Expanding physical infrastructure is vital for nutritious diets, women’s economic empowerment and gender equality in developing countries

Written by:
David Ameyaw, Takyiwaa Manuh, and Charles Yaw Okyere

Infrastructure’s role in the development of countries is well-documented. As noted by the World Bank, investments in infrastructure (energy, telecommunications, and transport systems) directly affect growth as they are an essential input in the production of goods and services and can also reduce the cost of delivered goods, facilitate the physical mobility of people and products, remove productivity constraints, and increase competitiveness. Concurring, the African Development Bank affirms that investments in infrastructure (secure energy, efficient transport, communication systems and affordable housing) accounts for over half of the recent improvement in economic growth in Africa. Yet the growth potential of several low- and middle-income countries is constrained by insufficient investments in infrastructure, which features prominently in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the AU’s Agenda 2063 (The Africa We Want) targets. Estimates from the World Bank indicate that currently sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) spends on average 3.5 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, but this must increase to 7.1 percent if SSA countries are to achieve the SDGs. Increasing expenditure on different types of infrastructure in SSA countries for example, could provide jobs and income opportunities for the increasingly large numbers of youth (i.e., the so-called demographic dividend) to ensure economic growth and development. This could also translate into the reduction of poverty and income inequality among rural and urban poor households in developing countries.

But while infrastructure can lead to beneficial economic outcomes, its concrete development impact depends significantly on how infrastructure investment strategies are defined and implemented.

A recent study by the International Center for Evaluation and Development (ICED), with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), has highlighted the importance of expanding access to physical infrastructure to improve nutritious diets, women’s economic empowerment, and gender equality in low-and-middle income countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The Ghana and Kenya-based African-led Think Tank study shows that limited studies have been conducted to understand how physical infrastructure could improve the consumption of nutritious diets and enhance women’s economic empowerment and gender equality among low-income consumers in Africa and Asia. More so, there is urgent need to expand access to physical infrastructure to promote economic development outcomes related to food and nutrition security and gender. The project, Infrastructure’s Impacts on Nutritious Diet, Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality (IINDWEGE) shows how four different types of infrastructure (i.e., production, post-production, distribution, and information) could improve nutritious diets, women’s economic empowerment and gender equality.

Results from the study indicate that access to physical infrastructure improves livelihoods, including the consumption of nutritious diets. For example, access to roads reduced travel time, created job opportunities, and increased consumption of diverse foods for low-income consumers. In the same vein, energy infrastructure such as electricity reduces the burden of using “dirty fuel” and airborne pollution, thereby reducing cooking time and enhancing the quality of lives of women in developing countries. Similarly, access to irrigation ensures all-year round agricultural production leading to increased availability of nutritious foods (e.g., fruits and vegetables), income, and poverty reduction; women participating in irrigation projects, often as wage workers, have higher income opportunities.

However, access to physical infrastructure does not generate uniform results, with many infrastructural projects being gender-blind or gender unintentional. In other words, physical infrastructure cannot be a “one-size-fits-all" solution for nutrition and gender inequalities. This requires concerted efforts from funders, policymakers, and practitioners, to improve its linkage to nutrition and gender outcomes. To achieve this, we should continue to provide evidence-based results and products for decision-making on infrastructural expansion in developing countries. This will require continuous and refined research such as that of the IINDWEGE project to unearth the evidence for policy action.

David Sarfo Ameyaw is President of ICED; Takyiwaa Manuh is Emerita Professor of African Studies at the University of Ghana, and Gender Consultant at ICED; Charles Yaw Okyere is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness, University of Ghana, and Research Associate at ICED.