COVID-19 recovery: An opportunity to reimagine inclusive infrastructure

Jennifer Anne Mudge
Female engineer on infrastructure construction site
The COVID-19 recovery is an opportunity for Southeast Asian governments to place gender equality and social inclusion at the heart of infrastructure development

While the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened inequality globally, investing in recovery presents transformative opportunities to build a more equitable, sustainable world. As Southeast Asian governments look to invest in infrastructure to stimulate their economies and foster trade, now is the time to prioritise and plan resilient, inclusive, quality infrastructure to meet societies’ needs.

This will not be achieved through a ‘business as usual’ approach. Planning, prioritising and building infrastructure without targeting gender and social equality outcomes entrenches today’s inequities in tomorrow’s societies, and misses an important opportunity to foster innovation and growth.

If infrastructure’s tremendous potential to help reshape the global economy is to be unleashed, we must assess its potential benefits in light of social and environmental priorities. It is entirely possible to build infrastructure in a way that both targets inequality and enhances economic growth. We cannot afford to define our ambitions solely by compliance with minimum standards. Transformation needs to be fostered through a frank reassessment of core values and a shared commitment to the task of – literally – building a better world.

COVID’s unequal impacts

The global economic contraction caused by the pandemic is considered the worst since World War II. Forecasts suggest that income per capita in the ASEAN-5 economies (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) will still be lower in 2024 than was expected before the pandemic struck. 

The crisis has resulted in a “shadow pandemic” in which hard-won gender equality gains have been quickly eroded. Domestic violence has spiked, women have lost access to jobs, livelihoods and important support networks and their share of unpaid domestic care responsibilities has increased. In Southeast Asia, as in many parts of the world, the impacts of COVID-19 are disproportionately borne by women and marginalised groups, including migrants, poorer communities and people with disabilities.

By the end of 2021, men’s jobs globally had recovered to pre-pandemic levels, but there were still 13 million fewer women in employment.

Infrastructure and gender equality

Infrastructure development has the potential to foster equality. Informed planning that prioritises women’s transport and energy needs, for example, can reduce their time poverty, enhance their access to markets and jobs and help balance the unequal division of labour between women and men. The use of internet and digital services can help women increase their financial independence, find employment and income-generating opportunities, and access knowledge and services. In Australia, for example, the roll-out of fast broadband connection encouraged more people to work from home, access education and start their own business. The effects were found to be particularly strong for women.

However, women are underrepresented in decision-making positions that shape and determine the infrastructure agenda. Globally, women make up just 18% of staff in infrastructure ministries. Gendered barriers, including stereotyping and a lack of women role models, discourage girls and women who might otherwise make powerful contributions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Although women own a significant proportion of the world’s enterprises, only a tiny fraction of public procurement, including infrastructure, goes to women-owned businesses. This is a missed opportunity to improve and diversify supply chains and contribute to women’s economic empowerment.

A path to inclusive infrastructure

While awareness of the importance of incorporating gender equality and social inclusion considerations into infrastructure development is growing and is already reflected in some policies and plans, much remains to be done.

The COVID-19 recovery presents a tremendous window of opportunity for governments and infrastructure sector practitioners to rebuild a more sustainable, inclusive global economy. To be responsive to the differing impacts and vulnerabilities the pandemic has created, Partnerships for Infrastructure advocates the following.

1. Build awareness and recognition

Raising awareness of the full costs of inequality – and the ways in which inclusive infrastructure development can foster equality – are essential components of sustainable infrastructure development. Building coalitions for change in the infrastructure sector should encompass technical specialists as well as those with a gender equality and social inclusion agenda, including local organisations that represent women.

Dialogue with governments and policymakers must focus on how infrastructure investments that integrate gender and social inclusion targets can boost sustainable, inclusive economic growth. Promoting the use and adaptation of tools and strategic frameworks can help. 

2. Create enabling environments

Targeted legal and regulatory frameworks ensure that infrastructure development contributes to increased gender equality and social inclusion. Policies supportive of women’s enterprise development, employment, education, political voice and safety are an essential starting point.

Legislation cannot deliver inclusive infrastructure in isolation; it must be implemented through supporting activities and consistently enforced by policies that explicitly incorporate the inclusion and empowerment of women and members of disadvantaged groups.

3. Foster informed planning and prioritisation

Robust gender and social inclusion analyses must underpin infrastructure development, particularly at concept and planning stages. 

Sex-disaggregated, quantitative data is needed to inform infrastructure targets and provide baselines against which change may be measured, for example relating to women’s access to time, mobility and markets. Qualitative data and analyses are equally necessary if infrastructure planning to is to address the situations of women and excluded groups as end users of infrastructure. Getting the kinds of information necessary for gender and social analysis must be seen as a critical investment.

Doing things differently

There is both an imperative and opportunity to do things differently if we want to generate an equitable COVID-19 recovery. Now is the time to place gender equality and social inclusion concerns at the heart of infrastructure development. 

An optimal economic and social recovery must be powered by the ideas, work and entrepreneurial inputs of women and men, as well as people and communities who are too often marginalised in decision making.

Simply put: inclusive infrastructure is quality infrastructure.

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