July 23, 2015 |

Friday Think: why infrastructure investments matter

PATH's Kate Wilson reflects on why growing economies and strong health care systems go hand in hand with prioritizing national infrastructures.
Man surrounded by paper records with a computer on a desk.
Standardized information systems and strong infrastructures influence national economies, but governments must be willing to invest in them. Photo: PATH/Will Boase.

It’s not enough to make an app for a phone or develop a logistics management information system, you must also have the infrastructure—and the power—to support the technology. And without deliberate infrastructure investments, we risk getting stuck in the past.

To me, one of the defining characteristics of countries that are effectively using technology is the recognition by their respective government leadership that national-level infrastructure and standardized information systems matter if they want to grow their economies. It’s in this atmosphere that true creativity flourishes and local problems meet local solutions.

In a recent article in the New York Times, reporter Norimitsu Onishi discusses the challenges faced in sub-Saharan Africa due to an aging infrastructure that is challenged daily to create a sufficient, reliable power supply.

Here’s an excerpt from the article “Weak Power Grids in Africa Stunt Economies and Fire Up Tempers.”

Despite a decade of strong economic expansion, sub-Saharan Africa is still far behind in its ability to generate something fundamental to its future, electricity, hampering growth and frustrating its ambitions to catch up with the rest of the world.

All of sub-Saharan Africa’s power generating capacity is less than South Korea’s, and a quarter of it is unproductive at any given moment because of the continent’s aging infrastructure. The World Bank estimates that blackouts alone cut the gross domestic products of sub-Saharan countries by 2.1 percent.

The crippling effect was recently on display in Nigeria, which overtook South Africa as the continent’s biggest economy last year.

Nigeria’s electrical grid churns out so little power that the country mostly runs on private generators. So when a fuel shortage struck this spring, a national crisis quickly followed, disrupting cellphone service, temporarily closing bank branches and grounding airplanes.

I strongly believe in the importance of, and work daily on, strengthening national health information systems. However, these systems are fundamentally dependent on a nation’s underlying infrastructure being an investment priority.

Telecommunications, power, roads, and (most importantly) people are the building blocks upon which all of our global health work depends. It is these investments that will allow Africa’s health care to leapfrog systems in the developing world over the next generation.

You may read this story in its entirety at the New York Times.

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During the week we scour the news for the hottest stories on innovation. Our feature, The Friday Think, highlights one we’ve found particularly fascinating.

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  • Kate Wilson, director of Digital health Solutions at PATH.
    Kate Wilson was formerly the director of Digital Health Solutions at PATH.