Expanding infrastructure key for women empowerment in developing countries

Women carrying firewood walk past a carcass of a cow in drought hit Loiyangalani in Marsabit, Northern Kenya

Women carrying firewood walk past a carcass of a cow in Loiyangalan, Marsabit County, in Kenya on July 12, 2022. 

Photo credit: Simon Maina | AFP

What you need to know:

  • The growth potential of several low and middle-income countries is constrained by insufficient investments in infrastructure.
  • There is urgent need to expand access to physical infrastructure to promote economic development.

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.

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. 

The African Development Bank affirms that investments in infrastructure – secure energy, efficient transport, communication systems and affordable housing – account 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 indicates that currently sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) spends on average 3.5 per cent of its GDP on infrastructure, but this must increase to 7.1 per cent 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 to reduction of poverty and income inequality among rural and urban poor households in developing countries. 

Nutritious diets

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 and Melinda Gates Foundation, 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 (SSA). 

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 – 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, creating job opportunities, and increased consumption of diverse foods for low-income consumers. 

Infrastructural projects

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 “one-size fit-all solution” for nutrition and gender problems.

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. 

Dr David Ameyaw is the President of ICED; Takyiwaa Manuh is Emerita Prof 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, the University of Ghana, and Research Associate at ICED