Grand Projects – Grand Corruption?

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An excerpt from the Global Corruption Report 2008, published by Transparency International

In nature, water always flows downstream. In the geography of power relations, clean water tends to flow to the rich and powerful, while waste water tends to flow to the poor. An important reason for this anomaly is corruption, which has contributed to a political economy that favors large, capital-intensive projects over small-scale approaches.

In recent years, institutions such as the UNDP and the UN Millennium Project have advocated for a reassessment of large-scale infrastructure in the water sector and a stronger focus on decentralized projects and efficiency improvements in order better to meet the needs of poor people. The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council warned in March 2004:

“From India to Bolivia, Kenya to Nepal can be found the ruins of now-defunct water and sanitation programmes that have never yielded more than a fraction of the benefits expected. (…) Increasing the funds available for further largescale, delivery-oriented infrastructure will achieve very little without a re-think of how and for whom such funds are to be spent.”

Nonetheless, decentralized approaches and efficiency improvements continue to be neglected in water sector development. The UNDP stated in its 2006 Human Development Report:

“While many governments extol the virtues of small-holder farming, most concentrate scarce public investment on relatively large-scale, capital-intensive commercial farming areas. That approach may be bad for long-run growth and for poverty reduction. (…) Micro-irrigation may be expanding rapidly, but it still covers only about 1% of the worlds irrigated area.”

In Pakistan, World Bank evaluations found that water conservation measures could save more water than new dams. In spite of this, the country’s water bureaucracy suffered from a “build-neglect-rebuild” syndrome and prioritized new investments over the maintenance of the existing infrastructure.

Maximizing the opportunities for corruption is one of the key factors that create a bias towards large, greenfield investment projects in the water sector:

  • Large, new investment projects award more political prestige and afford more centralized bureaucratic control than decentralized schemes and efficiency improvements where control and resource flows are more dispersed.
  • Foreign financing can typically be attracted for investment projects, but not for infrastructure maintenance.
  • Corruption tends to favour large-scale, capital-intensive projects because they are more likely to involve and benefit actors with deep pockets.
  • In addition, bribes paid as part of large international projects can often be siphoned off to foreign bank accounts, which corrupt officials may consider safer than bribes for local projects which tend to remain within the local economy.

In sum, corruption is an important factor that influences how vested interests capture government decisions on the type and size of infrastructure projects. The World Commission on Dams noted in its 2000 report: “Decision-makers may be inclined to favor large infrastructure as they provide opportunities for personal enrichment not afforded by smaller or more diffuse alternatives.”

However, it is important to note that local investment projects are by no means free of corruption. Dipak Gyawali, a former Minister for Water Resources in Nepal, points out that “corruption affects all projects, small, medium and large”, and government-sponsored projects as well as projects implemented by non-governmental organizations. Shekhar Singh, convenor of India’s National Campaign for People’s Right to Information and a former advisor to the country’s Planning Commission, explains that in order to maintain power, a government apparatus will tend to offer spoils to bureaucrats and power brokers at the local, regional and central level. Typically, budgets therefore contain a fine balance of pork barrel investments at all levels of government.

Labour-intensive self-help initiatives and the maintenance of existing infrastructure are most likely to be neglected in systems captured by corruption. These are precisely the types of approaches that have the largest potential to reduce poverty. Ultimately, the poor which are denied basic services pay the highest price for corruption in the water sector.

Transparency and public participation in the planning process for water sector projects, including the assessment of available options at an early stage, are needed to counter the influence of corruption. After stopping the large Arun III dam in 1995, civil society activists in Nepal worked with local engineers, government officials and entrepreneurs to promote a series of small hydropower projects. These projects generated electricity at lower cost and for more rural communities than Arun III could have done.