Friday, May 2, 2008

The road less traveled: the link between good transport and economic development

How important are good roads? To the city of Kilongo, Congo a well-groomed road is very important indeed. A story in Washington Post shows that due to appalling road conditions, the mere 30-mile journey from Kilongo to Lumbashi – with its markets and jobs and movies and other goods – was too long for most people. They stayed home and suffered for it. Here’s the subtext: Access to education was low, as well as goods (Rambo movies!) and health services. Not to mention employment opportunities and knowledge of the outside world.

Things changed when a mining company paid to have the road graded, part of a $10 billion deal the government signed with the Chinese, hoping to link ports to the country’s bountiful mines. Throughout much of Congo, poor transportation has locked people in. Consider this: Congo is a country the size of Western Europe with only 1,700 miles of paved roads. Some villages are so isolated that officials haven’t paid a visit in 20 years.

Needed: African Automobile Association?
This problem may be extreme in densely forested Congo, where weather and terrain combine to make all road construction futile. But it echoes throughout much of the continent. Much literature exists establishing a link between reduced transportation costs and increased economic accessibility. Think about it: An easier, less dangerous ride will tax vehicles less, leading to an increase in transport because buses and taxis, delivery trucks and private cars will be willing to make the trip. On the warm-and-fuzzy side, this builds comradeship because people can expect more visits from friends and families (and, as the story explains, prostitutes).

Better roads drive up trade, the economist Seetanah Boopen found. Government spending cuts and neglecting infrastructure needs actually brings down private sector investment and economic growth. (In fact, Boopen points to two studies which argue that the shriveling of the African state during the 1980s lead to less infrastructure spending and – voila – a drop in productivity.)

Boopen points out there’s a surreal, ad-hoc feel to many country’s transportation plans, which often leave out any thought of long-term strategy or goals. He claims that with a proper integrated traffic plan, governments could take advantage of, say, the World Bank’s infrastructure and development loans.

Not another food piece?
Yes, people: A link exists between food security and good roads. Biofuels, right? No, not really. Calestous Juma, a professor of international affairs, argues that Africa could surely benefit from better regional integration, meaning improving transportation infrastructure in all forms: roads, railways, ports and airports. Let’s stick with roads for a second. Poor highway infrastructure makes getting food to people very difficult. “Bad roads mean that transported food is unaffordable, inadequate or simply unavailable,” Juma writes.

It runs deeper than that, Juma argues. Farmers won’t plant crops they can’t get to market; agribusiness won’t invest in inaccessible places.

Let’s remember
Before you start writing those checks to purchase hard hats, orange vests and a bunch of second-hand construction equipment to ship to Africa, we’re talking about grading roads, not laying down asphalt. Grading a road is much less financially, manually and temporally intensive than dumping a little asphalt one year and preying it sticks around for the next few seasons. Road grading is not perfect. It must be redone each year, usually after the rains, to be effective. But in many rural areas, it’s most likely superior to asphalt because the pizza-cheese thickness of blacktop laid on rural roads will surely break up in a few short years. Transporters of all stripes will tell you: A poorly graded road is much easier to maneuver and better on vehicles than a pot-holed piece of hell.

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