contemporary challenges

Image: Luiz Armando Bagolin


Two ways to rethink Brazilian infrastructure.

The infrastructure of contemporary societies will be less and less the framework and more and more the intelligence of economic growth. It is not a matter of offering, in a generic way, public goods so that the private sector can expand its initiatives, but rather of shaping these initiatives towards purposes that involve the two greatest contemporary challenges: the advancement of the climate crisis and the deepening of inequalities. That this reaches the very conception of what they mean and what the infrastructures that are designing our destiny should be represents an immense democratic advance, from which Brazil is distancing itself.

What is at stake is not just the fact that infrastructure gives rise to white elephants and corruption in various parts of the world. Megaprojects usually suffer from an optimistic bias, which, as shown by the work of researchers from UFMG and USP for the Federal Court of Accounts, causes its proponents to inflate its benefits and underestimate its costs.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, called planning fallacy the tendency of those responsible for megaprojects to adopt the points of view of actors interested in their realization without a real evaluation of the advantages of the alternatives. Researchers from the University of Oxford are largely based on Kahneman's work to explain that the budgets initially estimated for the construction of hydroelectric dams, for example, do not reach, in most of the cases examined, half of their real costs.

But the changes that affect the contemporary concept of infrastructure go far beyond the obvious requirement that they do not give way to corruption, abandoned works and exorbitant costs. Two fundamental transformations are underway.

The first of these materializes in the discussions that take place today in North American society around the care economics. As a result of the work of numerous civil society organizations, the care economy is not limited to promoting income transfers to poor populations and those hardest hit by the pandemic. This transfer is important and had, in the US, as its main focus, families with children — which should result in the impressive halving US child poverty by 2021.

But the Biden plan seeks to build durable ways to better care for children, the elderly and the disabled. This means expanding investments in day care centers and schools, which allows women to return to the job market, since a good number of them had been forced to leave their positions due to the pandemic.

The important thing is that caring for people is a responsibility of the government and not just of families and local communities. It is the State that offers the material conditions and the training of professionals so that the elderly and people with special needs have a dignified life and, above all, so that children receive quality attention and education, by professionals prepared for this.

In the Biden plan, these items are not treated as expenses, but as investments in infrastructure. They are as important as roads, airports or energy. At the same time, they have the explicit intention of opposing the racial and gender discrimination that so strongly marks the labor market. It is no coincidence that treating investments in caring for people as part of the infrastructure comes along with the initiative to create a Gender Policy Council, linked to the White House, to promote equality in foreign and international policies.

The second transformation in the concept of infrastructure has as its central axis changing the relationship between society and nature. Several multilateral organizations (the G20, the Inter-American Bank, the Global Commission for the Economy and the Climate, among others) converge on the following observation: the world must invest, between 2015 and 2030, something like US$ 90 trillion in infrastructure. Most of this investment will be in developing countries, where the most important unmet needs in transport, energy, communications, health and education are to be found.

By the prevailing standards up until now, these investments have the vocation of aggravating the climate crisis and the erosion of biodiversity. This finding is especially important for the Amazon. An analysis of 75 road projects in the region, totaling 12 thousand kilometers, shows that all have negative impacts on forest areas. It is along highways that 80% of deforestation in the Amazon is concentrated. And even if the impacts on biodiversity are not considered, 45% of these projects are economically inconsistent, confirming the optimistic bias studied by Kahneman.

The recent works of World Resources Institute and Climate Policy Initiative corroborate these results: the idea that conventional infrastructures materialized in megaprojects create jobs during their construction and stimulate private initiative after they are ready — therefore contributing to economic growth — is criticized globally, and is shown to be particularly perverse in the Amazon. The results of this way of conceiving and implementing infrastructure have been forest destruction, the predatory exploitation of mineral resources and the impoverishment of the region (and the majority of the people who live there).

Infrastructure will only become intelligence — more than a framework — of economic growth if its definition involves a serious questioning of the ethical-normative values ​​on which infrastructure projects are based. The response of multilateral organizations and governments that are reformulating the contemporary vision of infrastructure can be summarized in one proposition: the value of infrastructure in the 21st century lies in its ability to regenerate the socio-environmental fabrics that, until now, conventional and so often predatory forms of economic growth have destroyed.

Being guided by this value does not only mean committing to immediately zero deforestation (in the Amazon and in the Cerrado), interrupting the attack on indigenous peoples and dismantling the chain of criminality, land grabbing, illegal mining and militias that are so strong today. in the Amazon. It means, first of all, creating mechanisms so that the infrastructure in the Amazon is, more than a means for the transit of agricultural commodities or for the production of energy, a way to meet the demands of the thirty million Brazilians who live there and, at the same time, at the same time, strengthen the economy of forest socio-biodiversity.

*Ricardo Abramovay is a senior professor at the Institute of Energy and Environment at USP. Author, among other books, of Far beyond the green economy (Sustainable planet).

Originally published on the website Other words.


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