Maintaining infrastructure should be higher on the agenda

1st November 2022


Infrastructure is critical for the success of all business, and in particular small businesses.
This seems obvious, so why is infrastructure allowed to deteriorate?

Looking after what we’ve got is usually a good deal cheaper than replacing it. A 2021 World
Bank report estimated that poor maintenance and mismanagement of infrastructure cost
households and firms in low- and middle-income countries at least $390 billion per year.
In South Africa electricity provides a highly visible case study in the negative effects of poor
maintenance. Neglecting to maintain power stations adequately years ago has cost the
country billions in lost opportunities now.

Similarly, small holes in the road that could have been repaired easily become big potholes
that cost far more to repair, and damage tyres. Leaving storm water drains blocked leads to
destructive flooding.

Larger businesses may be able to generate their own electricity, use satellites for
communication, and in some cases even build road or rail access to markets or suppliers –
although all of this reduces their cost competitiveness globally. But small businesses have to
rely on what is available.

In India, a study of underdeveloped districts found that infrastructure maintenance grants to
district authorities improved outcomes for rural microenterprises. Two infrastructural areas
stood out for their effect on microenterprise success and employment: electricity and roads.
If maintaining existing infrastructure is so obviously important, why is maintenance so often

One reason for letting things deteriorate could be the incentive structure. Building new stuff
is recognised, whereas the daily work of maintaining existing resources can pass unnoticed
and unrewarded.

Another reason is that maintenance budget allocations can be cut or siphoned off without
anyone noticing for years. By then it is too late and the guilty party has moved on to destroy
bigger things.

A third reason may be that the importance of, and methods for, maintaining things can be
lost as manager succeeds manager, especially when there is a rapid sequence of changes
and new incumbents do not have time to absorb lessons from their predecessor or pass
them on the next person.

A fourth reason could be simple lack of experience, understanding or skill. These create
what is called agency – the belief that you have the freedom, right and ability to act. As a
child I was taught how to maintain my bicycle myself, and I expect that taught me later to
service my car regularly and have the house roof painted before rust set in. Managers
without a sense of agency will wait to be told what to do – the opposite of what is required of

Fifthly, one fears one answer may be that politicians and officials focus on who gets to
control what, and forget that the purpose of their jobs is to make things work in service of the
people. Do they know that their distractions are destroying lives and livelihoods by the thousand? It’s a slow, quiet bleeding to death of the economy, denying people food on the
table and dignity in the heart.

Politicians and officials who believe that their role is just to drive the vehicle of state in a
direction they choose, and not to maintain it, destroy our future and will eventually find
themselves without a vehicle worth driving.

So alongside important calls for investment in infrastructure, let’s hear more about
maintaining what we have. This should be prominent in budgets, in training officials and
politicians, in what is reported on and rewarded, and in what the media watch.

And each of us can check the sense of agency among our own staff. What goes wrong at a
national scale provides a sobering lesson for business owners to ensure that they and their
teams take responsibility to maintain capacity for the future.

This is a coaching columns for Business Day, published on 1st November 2022 (https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2022-10-31-jonathan-cook-maintaining-infrastructure-should-be-higher-on-the-agenda/)

Jonathan Cook, a counselling psychologist, chairs the African Management Institute. If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit http://www.africanmanagers.org/jonathan-cook

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