Why would you go to an infrastructure policy forum? Why not?
Why 13 governments, 10 ministers and 270 people decided to gather for policy discussions on infrastructure in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the role of the private sector. (And no, it wasn’t the fact that the forum was in Marrakech because none of us left the hotel.)
I was really inspired by the enthusiasm generated by the March launch in Rabat of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability – Arab World. The event brought civil society people from across MENA together and demonstrated a real ability to shape and further a debate around the issues of participation and youth.
In contrast, infrastructure development, my line of work, seems much less headline-catching, especially as one has to drill down into the potential role of the private sector versus the public and talk about all sorts of seemingly arcane instruments (with too many Ps) like Public Private Partnerships.
But infrastructure is crucial. And it has a powerful link to youth: MENA’s population is young, growing and increasingly urban. All these young people need good quality infrastructure services to fully realize their economic potential. To move MENA towards universally accessible quality infrastructure will require energies and expertise from all sides: public, private and donors. And this energy needs to keep a razor-sharp focus on governance and transparency so that infrastructure choices are based on sustainable social contracts and balanced projects that work for everyone.
This is why we in the World Bank’s MENA region decided to take on what seemed like the big challenge of generating enthusiasm and focus around a meeting of the Policy Forum of the Arab Financing Facility for Infrastructure (AFFI). We thought that ownership of such an initiative would be difficult to share, difficult to get people excited about. We were so wrong.
We were wrong to underestimate the interest (we were expecting 130 people, more than twice as much came). The energy was there, the focus was there and the willingness to engage was inspiring. Improving services to the population – and stretching every dirham or dinar while doing so – is a key challenge for everyone in the business in MENA.
The regional financing facility, AFFI, of which the Policy Forum is a part, was put together over the past year and some by the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation and the Islamic Development Bank. Funding was part of the plan but not the sole reason for its creation. With hindsight, taking a regional approach to common infrastructure challenges through an open partnership was probably the most efficient way to further such dialogue. Of course, some projects might materialize on the ground in one country only, but the ability to regionalize the approach is key to maximize impact and afford the opportunity for cross-border thinking.
Stakeholders at the Policy Forum understood this and came in large numbers. The AFFI partnership is proving itself at several levels. One, as a partnership between donors, because an open platform allows newcomers like the European Investment Bank to joined the original proponents, IFC, IsDB and the World Bank.
Two, as a partnership between governments, because whether from the perspective of the Minister of Economy and Finance in Morocco, the Minister for International Cooperation in Tunisia, the Minister of Water Resources in Iraq or the Minister of Transport in Jordan, the requirement to do more and better infrastructure for their citizens is the central and shared issue. As Nizar Baraka, Minister for Economy and Finance of Morocco said during the press conference: “Countries from the region need to reinforce their cooperation in order to speed up the development of infrastructure and enable populations to have access to quality public services, public and private sectors are invited to coordinate their efforts for the achievement of regional integrated projects.”
And three, as a partnership between public and private sectors, because both public and private parties realize that their new role is being defined as we speak, putting the Purpose in PPP.
It became clear to me during the forum that what we were doing was every bit as vital as the exciting gathering my colleagues had pulled off in Rabat with young civil society voices. Our role is to provide the space, convene the participants and listen to the voices while experiences and perspectives are shared, and solutions sought. This is what it takes to create a solid foundation for policies and projects and facilitating this open partnership might be one of the ways we can make a real difference in this area. Infrastructure does entail very big money, but money alone won’t get it done right.