Building infrastructure in disadvantaged regions: Six takeaways from our experience in Colombia

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The World Bank has been supporting the National Government of Colombia in the implementation of the “Plan Todos Somos Pacifico”, a multisectoral program aiming to provide basic infrastructure services in transport , water, and energy to one of the country’s poorest regions, the Pacific Region.

On the transport side, the project includes the construction of small-scale and resilient river docks in seven coastal municipalities, along with a signaling system for the southern waterway corridor. While this may not sound particularly complex, building this kind of infrastructure in a remote and underserved area presents a host of challenges, especially if you want to ensure your project can provide long-term sustainability of the infrastructure and bring optimal benefits to local communities.

Since the launch of the Plan Todos Somos Pacifico Program back in 2015, our team has learned several important lessons that could be directly relevant to other professionals working on infrastructure projects in disadvantaged regions. Here are our six main takeaways.


1. Put people first

While working to improve infrastructure in Colombia’s Pacific region, our team put in place a strong participatory process to ensure the voices of local communities could be heard through every stage of project design and implementation. 

Involving local communities from early stages gave us a much better understanding of their needs and allowed us to integrate their knowledge and traditions into the design of our project. In return, the Project achieves the SDG’s goals, bring innovation while preserving local traditions. A well-structured participatory process empowers the community, creates ownership, and encourages them to sustain the infrastructure. 


2. Value of communicating projects to communities

Infrastructure programs can only realize their full potential if knowledge are shared effectively and if populations are motivated and committed to achieving success. This can only happen through effective and context-appropriate communications. As part of the Plan PAZcifico Project, we implemented communication campaigns, describing the benefits of the project using accessible language delivered by people from the region, using their traditions to communicate, and disseminating information through the local radio, which remains the most effective medium of communication in the region due to the absence of reliable internet connectivity.


3. Anticipate maintenance costs associated with the infrastructure

To ensure the long-term success of infrastructure projects, planning ahead and anticipating maintenance issues is critical. Engineering solutions in neglected territories have more opportunities to achieve long-term sustainability when the maintenance costs are curtailed. When designing the docks for Project Todos Somos PAZcifico, we had to account for the complex marine environment and tide changes. The initial design proposed incorporated steel as the primary material for the dock structure. During the participatory process, communities very quickly rejected the design, and informed the region does not commonly use steel as it is vulnerable to corrosion and increase the maintenance costs associated. Therefore, to ensure long-term sustainability and reduce maintenance costs, the new docks were designed using reinforced concrete with wood that can easily withstand solar radiation, seawater, excessive moisture, and abrasion and it is commonly used in the region.


4. Pay attention to governance and institutional arrangements

Governance structures and institutional arrangements are critical for adequate implementation. The governance structure must involve all key stakeholders, allowing for transparent and inclusive representation of all partners’ interests. Implementation entities must have high technical, safeguards, and fiduciary capacity and adequate presence in the field to respond to communities and monitor all related aspects.

In the case of a multisectoral project, the Government Project Implementation Unit must be autonomous in making decisions and have adequate tools and control over the procurement for civil works and hiring process. This helps reduce dependencies with other sector entities and streamline the approval process. 


5. Encourage private participation

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for infrastructure projects in disadvantaged regions to attract very few bids—or even no bids at all—because of the low appetite of the private sector to work in high-risk environments. To avoid this scenario, it is key to undertake comprehensive market studies, hear the private sector, lift any barriers that may unreasonably limit competition, collect experiences from other government entities working in similar regions, and allow for procurement flexibilities.  Providing detailed information about the project location can also help attract firms that have experience in working in similar settings. Depending on the context, project teams should also consider specific incentives, such as implementing security protocols or including security costs into the contract and providing more flexible terms and incentives in case of early termination of the civil works.


6. Promote sustainability and climate resilience

Disadvantaged regions are often particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. In Colombia, projections indicate that floods and landslides will affect more people, sea levels will rise, and the number of very hot days will increase dramatically. In the face of this new reality, resilience and green infrastructure principles must be at the core of infrastructure planning. The seven docks designed under Project Todos Somos PAZcifico will improve the resilience of the waterway navigation to climate change in an area highly exposed to climate change vulnerabilities. The docks will be equipped with solar panels as well as system for collecting, storing, and using rainwater—an important feature in a region where many areas don’t have access to drinking water.


For all of us working in disadvantaged areas, it is important to remember that each location is unique and comes with its own challenges. Our work in Colombia’s Pacific region has highlighted the importance of designing locally relevant infrastructure projects that reflect the reality on the ground and adequately respond to the challenges of underserved populations.  Of course, this might require more effort than just implementing the same run-of-the-mill solutions everywhere. But in the long run, a tailored approach is the best way to guarantee the success of infrastructure investments and ensure they create real change for local communities.


Ellin Ivarsson

Transport Specialist, World Bank

Carlos Murgui Maties

Transport Specialist and Climate Change Focal Point for the World Bank

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