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From Student to Activist: Lessons from Closing the Gap

Image: World Bank

In May of 2021, at the end of my junior year in college, I published a book titled Closing the Gap: Sustainable Infrastructure to Save the World. Writing this book was a year’s journey of learning about one of our world’s foremost challenges: the global infrastructure gap. Across the globe, real and intense inequalities exist at the most fundamental levels of human life. Seven hundred million people continue to live under conditions of extreme poverty (World Bank, 2020). Almost eight hundred million people have no access to electricity, and roughly one third of the global population has no access to safely managed drinking water services. These deprivations are some of the most defining characteristics of our time.

Like many development thinkers, I saw the current state of the world’s poor as partially symptomatic of massive deficits in infrastructure. Many countries, especially in the Global South, experience a devastating lack of energy, water, and transportation assets that make up the basic building blocks of society. Infrastructure gaps leave the poorest countries unable to escape poverty traps and more vulnerable to global health and environmental crises. A joint study by the OECD, the World Bank, and the UN Environment Programme (2018) estimated the global infrastructure investment gap at around $2.5 to $3 trillion per year.

One of the most pressing and under-discussed implications of the global infrastructure gap is its effect on conflict and fragility. I encountered this particular subject matter during my time as a member of the Embodying Peace Fellowship Program. Learning about the role of water in peacebuilding efforts in Israel-Palestine influenced much of my initial desire to write about infrastructure and is the focus of chapter five. Below are some lessons I learned while authoring this chapter and some reflections on what it means for students like me to engage with these global issues.

  1. Climate Change will shape the future of conflict and fragility.

Climate change will push political and economic systems in fragile and conflict-affected states to the very limit. Extreme weather events like droughts and floods have the potential to render entire communities unlivable and displace millions of people. Researchers at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development estimated in 2018 that more than 140 million people across sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America will eventually have to migrate away from their homes because of climate change (Kumari Rigaud et al., 2018). The rise in climate refugees could ignite security tensions and quickly become a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

Water insecurity is at the heart of existing unrest across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In the western Sudanese region of Darfur, quarreling over water access has fueled an ongoing genocide that has been called “The First Climate Change Conflict” (Sova, 2017). In Israel-Palestine, water rights are one of the core issues underlying the notoriously intractable conflict. The Coastal Aquifer on which the entire population of Gaza depends will soon be exhausted or become contaminated by seawater. Already, 97 percent of water has become unfit for human consumption by WHO standards (Rinat, 2018). 

As much as access to water may precipitate instances of conflict, the reverse is just as true. Water-related infrastructure is critical to the healthy functioning of any community, making it a common target for violence and destruction. In 2015, the foremost experts and leaders from MENA nations were asked by the World Economic Forum, “For which global risks is your region least prepared?” The majority response was water crises, more concerning than both political instability and unemployment.

Climate justice is social justice. The two are now inseparable. To advocate for peace is to advocate for just and equitable responses to climate change. 

  1. Infrastructure is key.

As stated in the 2018 United Nations-World Bank report Pathways for Peace, “Often, it is not the scarcity of water that leads to tensions, but the way in which it is governed and administered. Inefficient use and management of water, outdated infrastructure, and inappropriate legal, political, and economic frameworks all exacerbate tensions arising from the scarcity of water.”

Eighty-two percent of wastewater in the Middle East and North Africa is not recycled (World Bank, 2018). This is largely due to the lack of treatment facilities and sewage systems able to sustainably reintroduce water back into natural cycles. In Palestine, up to a third of available water is lost to leaking pipes.

The relationship between quality infrastructure and sustainable resource provision makes it a key component of any peacebuilding effort. Historically, official development assistance (ODA) from advanced countries has been the primary means of addressing the needs of fragile and conflict-affected states. The problem is this aid has primarily been short-term and humanitarian in nature. Half of all ODA to countries with extremely fragile contexts goes toward addressing their immediate needs for things like food, water, and shelter. Although undeniably important, short-term humanitarian assistance does very little to build the kind of long-term resilience that will help countries sustainably provide for themselves. 

Part of effectively addressing violence is the prevention of future violence. Doing so requires allocating greater resources to the underlying issues precipitating violence. That means trying to solve the root causes of conflict rather than merely alleviating its symptoms, even if conflict is still ongoing. Lack of public services, for example, is a problem that contributes to inequality and group disenfranchisement. The deterioration in quality of services and the failure of assets that result in frequent power outages or unreliable water can lead to feelings of distrust against state institutions or international actors. Infrastructure can be an important part of a country’s strategy toward improving social progress, building civilian confidence in public systems, and providing equitable opportunities for its citizens in the long term.

  1. Be careful how you ask the world to change.

When I first approached these topics, I was quite single-minded in my thinking. More infrastructure equals better outcomes for conflict-affected states. It fit the broader narrative of my book. But complex issues have complex solutions, and “development” is neither a priori good nor bad. 

Any infrastructure project may bring growth and prosperity to a group  of people while simultaneously sparking feelings of injustice and damaging the home environment of another group. If managed poorly or distributed unequally, building more infrastructure can exacerbate existing tensions or even ignite new ones. Such has been the case for countless projects pushed forward by wealthy countries in communities whose intricacies they don’t understand or whose rights they don’t acknowledge.

It’s easy to get drawn in by flashy, well-marketed solutions to global challenges. If you pay close attention to the language used by some of the more prominent development institutions and policymakers, you’ll notice how consistent it is with a few overarching themes. Agendas for growth, development, prosperity, and peace certainly seem valuable at face value, but they can hide darker histories and intentions that play out in practice. They can render communities invisible if they don’t fit into narratives set by those in charge. Being open to a diversity of perspectives is one of the most indispensable elements to any successful civil society development effort.

  1. Strive for what is possible. Believe in what is right.

For some time, I struggled with one of the main ideas I was writing about in Closing the Gap because of a few reasons described above. The idea involves the need for greater private sector involvement in global infrastructure development. The sheer size of spending deficits in many countries makes it difficult for traditional sources of funding like government budgets and aid to close the gap on their own. Public authorities in the Global South face increasingly limited fiscal space to take on additional debt and build the kind of water, energy, and road assets they need. Hence, as coined by the World Bank during the transition to the Sustainable Development Goals, the need to source additional forms of private sector capital and turn “billions to trillions”. 

My arguments for crowding in institutional investment were largely developed from the conversations I was having with experts and professionals who were executing complex infrastructure transactions on the ground. They were arguments of practicality. Concurrently, I was taking a sociological course that engaged more radical and idealist critiques of western, capitalist-driven models of development. I found it difficult to reconcile some competing streams of information, often to the point of questioning whether I should continue writing.

One of my professors offered me some great advice on how to unravel the dissonance I was feeling. There were two steps to his wisdom. First, consider what makes the most sense to you and fits with your ethics. Second, consider what the world can accommodate and what your role can be in pushing the world to make those accommodations. The key point he made was that the two need not be in perfect alignment. Strive for what is possible without sacrificing what you believe.

  1. Don’t wait until you’re the right person to speak out.

People often ask me why I chose to write this book. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. My parents grew up in a poor country, but I didn’t. I was born a Midwest suburbanite. I didn’t know that I had a personal connection to the issues I was writing and learning about, and that made me afraid to say anything about them. Who was I to make such claims about global development and civil society?

The truth is, I wrote Closing the Gap because I became aware of an issue during my fellowship with Embodying Peace that I couldn’t get out of my head. That would never have been the case just a few decades ago, when access to such information wasn’t so readily available. We live in an age where any individual with a broadband connection can see and read about the livelihoods of everyone else on the planet. That’s both an exciting and frightening reality. 

There’s always a danger to speaking out on issues that you don’t understand. You risk offending those to whom the issues are most pertinent and coming across as if you’re speaking on their behalf. We’re all accountable for what we say, but if you sit around waiting for the day you become the right person, you might never say anything at all. The difference now is the resources to reach people and listen to their realities are more accessible than ever. That opportunity to gather knowledge and awareness makes all of us capable of activating our voices. 

Speaking and writing are some of the most effective tools we have to help us engage meaningfully with the world. They force you to organize your thoughts and articulate yourself. Being willing and capable of doing that is more powerful than you may think. Use your voice and don’t wait. 

Bibliography

OECD/The World Bank/UN Environment. (2018). Financing climate futures: Rethinking Infrastructure. OECD Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264308114-en

Rigaud, K.K., de Sherbinin, A., Jones, B., Bergmann, J., Clement, V., Ober, K., Schewe, J., Adama, S., McCusker, B., Heuser, S., & Midgley, A. (2018). Groundswell: Preparing for internal climate migration. World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/29461

Rinat, Z. (2018, January 21). Ninety-seven percent of gaza drinking water contaminated by sewage, salt, expert warns. Haaretz. https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/palestinians/.premium-expert-warns-97-of-gaza-drinking-water-contaminated-by-sewage-salt-1.5747876

Sova, C. (2017, November 30). The first climate change conflict. World Food Program USA. https://www.wfpusa.org/articles/the-first-climate-change-conflict/

United Nations/World Bank. (2018). Pathways for peace: Inclusive approaches to preventing violent conflict. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/28337

World Bank. (2018). Beyond scarcity: Water security in the middle east and north africa. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/27659

World Bank. (2020). Poverty and shared prosperity 2020: Reversals of Fortune. https://doi.org/10.1596/978-1-4648-1602-4

World Economic Forum (2015). Global risks 2015: 10th edition. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Global_Risks_2015_Report15.pdf

Andy Ruan

Andy Ruan is a rising senior at Vanderbilt University with a passion for global development. He is an alumni of the Embodying Peace Fellowship Program, a member of the Global Futurist Initiative, and the author of Closing the Gap: Sustainable Infrastructure to Save the World.

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