The true power of infrastructure

On the face of it, building a road is simply about connecting two points. In reality, a road is so much more.

A well-placed road can mean better access to schools, health facilities and justice services. It can mean a mother making it to a hospital in time to deliver her child. It can also give a woman a quicker, safer route to sell her goods at the local market, or a job as a construction worker.

 "A neighbouring village has now asked our women’s group if we can weave wire baskets for them in return for payment. With the training I got I was able to contribute to the wall project in my own village and to the family income."

– Khadija
A woman who received training in wire basket weaving in a similar project funded by Italy.

From rehabilitating roads in Afghanistan to building health clinics in Sierra Leone, UNOPS supports infrastructure projects that achieve real progress for people in need by engaging local communities and empowering the most vulnerable. These infrastructure projects, implemented on behalf of a range of UN, government and other partners, have the ability to not just grow economies but to make a tangible improvement in people's lives – women and girls' in particular.
This improvement starts by constructing facilities for women and girls to access education, justice, and healthcare. But UNOPS realizes that a successful road or school is more than just tarmac or bricks. Infrastructure can create livelihoods and empower communities. Working closely with governments and communities, the organization strives to create infrastructure that is truly ‘owned’ by the people it serves.

In particular, UNOPS project managers work to improve gender equality and empower women at all stages of their projects. The results of this work are more girls in school, more job opportunities for women, more control over their health and more power over their own lives. This is the true power of infrastructure.

Helping girls go to school

 Getting more girls into schools is about more than just building school facilities. That is why high quality projects to build schools consider 'soft' inputs such as free school lunches and community engagement. Alongside such inputs, 'hard' outputs like the physical design of the building can also make a huge difference. In many cultures, girls are less likely to be allowed to go school if they have to share a toilet with boys, or if boys can see them entering a toilet. These barriers are easily overcome by speaking with the community and devising a solution, such as erecting permanent toilet screens at schools in South Sudan, which were built by UNOPS with funding from a range of donors.

Providing work and business opportunities

Construction work on the 16/6 project in Haiti. Photo: UNOPS/Claude-André Nadon

Infrastructure projects can also provide considerable amounts of work for local communities. Labour-based road projects in particular can inject much-needed cash into post-conflict or post-disaster communities, while increasing skills and developing capacity. With the right planning and community outreach, these projects can also attract women into the labour force and provide skills for future jobs. For example, when building roads and shelters in post-earthquake Haiti on behalf of multiple donors, UNOPS emphasized a labour-based approach in order to be able to employ as many Haitians as possible, with a particular focus on female heads of households. This approach empowered women while at the same time ensuring a minimum family income to help improve lives and promote economic recovery.

Breaking traditional boundaries

In some cases infrastructure projects can help break traditional boundaries for women. For example, a Swedish-funded road project in Afghanistan wanted to give the community's women the chance to work on the roads like the men. As this is an area where women traditionally do not work outside the home, outreach officers were employed to persuade local community leaders to agree to let women work. This approach was a success and 105 women were trained to screen gravel and weave wire baskets for wall building. This enabled them to both learn a useful new skill and earn a valuable income for their families. The women reported that working as a group also led to the creation of an informal social forum where they could exchange ideas on ways to improve their lives. 

Building businesses

As well as training women to be labourers, infrastructure projects can help women create their own businesses. In the same road-building project mentioned above, construction workers complained of a lack of places to buy food onsite. In response, the project helped a group of local women to set up a bakery, which began supplying bread to local workers and bus passengers. It was such a success that five women’s groups were then trained to start similar ventures. One group was engaged to produce protective clothing for the project's snow clearing crew. The quality of the products led other UN agencies to enquire about buying winter wear from the same group. The wages brought home from these businesses brought financial freedom for many of the women.

We spoke about this project in our #NotJustARoad campaign. Want to see more of what we shared on social media? Click here

Reducing dangerous travel

In developing countries, women are often the ones responsible for fetching water for their families, sometimes travelling through insecure areas. In Lakes State in South Sudan, for instance, many women risk their safety by travelling for up to four hours a day to fetch water during the dry season. Talking to women to find out their water needs allows project managers to build dams and water reservoirs in the right locations to increase women's safety, such as in the case of the Lakes State Stabilization Programme in South Sudan. This was coordinated by the United Nations Development Programme in partnership with UNOPS and the World Food Programme, under the State Government.

Similarly, women in many communities are responsible for getting goods to market. In remote areas this can take many days. Well-planned and maintained roads can cut that time down immensely and give women more time for other uses. For example in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, UNOPS rebuilt a road between Masisi and Goma, on behalf of the Government of Belgium, reducing travel time from three days to half a day.

Find out more about UNOPS #NotJustARoad campaign here.

Improving maternal health

 Women's health is a major issue in development, with many women dying during childbirth or being denied access to contraception that could help them plan their families and better control their own lives. As one of the UN Millennium Development Goals, maternal health has received considerable attention and the indicators are improving fast. This is partly thanks to an improvement in dedicated maternal health spaces, such as the integrated pregnancy and childhood centres built in Indonesia by UNOPS on behalf of UNICEF.

Empowering expression

All members of the community have to be engaged in order for development projects to successfully identify needs and provide the required jobs, training and access to services. This includes making a special effort to consult those whose voices are not always heard, such as women in traditionally paternalistic societies. In the Maldives, for example, UNOPS implemented a project to pipe drinking water into people's houses, on behalf of the Government through United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), with funding from the Adaptation Fund.

To ensure that the outputs met the needs of all family members, the project board consulted members from the islands' Women’s Development Committees. In countries where there is no such formal representation, female community liaison officers are often hired to seek out local women and meet them at home to find out their needs and hear their opinions. Because ensuring that women's voices are heard is critical to making a project successful, sustainable and truly inclusive.


UNOPS in focus