Roads before bros

How can you tell that real development is happening in this picture? Easy: just note the total absence of smiling children.

Road building is hard, dusty, unglamorous work. It photographs horribly. I mean, seriously, try hitting up donors with that image. It just doesn’t work.

Road Building, in other words, is the original Boring Development agenda: the stuff development agencies used to do back in a halcyon age back before the bloat agenda hobbled pragmatic interventions proven to work.

While donors dither, African governments – who need little reminding how important roads are to development – are taking the lead. Africa is on a road-building frenzy to expand its existing, woefully inadequate primary road network tenfold by 2040. Better still, the region is catching up not just in terms of asphalt, but also in terms of the “soft infrastructure” of road development: the institutional mechanisms that make roads useful and sustain a maintenance mindset:

road characteristics

It’s high time. Agencies love to talk vaguely about crafting “an enabling environment for development”, but the specifics are too often elided. When – to pick one example out of a million – it costs twice as much to move a cargo container from the south of Mozambique to the north of Mozambique as it does to ship it from Dubai to Mozambique in the first place, it’s not hard to grasp that any development intervention in the North is hobbled before it even starts.

Communities isolated from proper road access are condemned to a kind of perpetual poverty: cut off not just from basic services, but from markets desperately needed both as places to sell their products and to buy the necessities of a decent life.

6 thoughts on “Roads before bros”

  1. Well, it also cost more to move a container from Mcbo to Caracas by truck than Miami Caracas by ship – you know, the ship carries more volume so it becomes cheaper. But, overall you have a very good point.

  2. Roads are an example of a kind of ‘vanishing middle’ of investment. They’re obviously not sexy enough for NGOs to do. But they’re also not that popular with donors – DFID, for example, does very little physical infrastructure. I suspect there are more serious reasons for that than you give donors credit for – for example, in the absence of proper governance to ensure maintenance roads just end up crumbling, if they’re even built to spec in the first place which they usually aren’t. Donors used to fund a lot more physical infrastructure than they do now – I’m guessing they stopped for good reasons.

    When something that seems clearly a good idea isn’t being invested in, it isn’t necessarily because it just isn’t ‘sexy.’ Don’t let your very laudable disdain for the amount of money (partic private) going to silly, sexy projects distract you from the fact that some things that *seem* to deserve investment may have complex problems (see my comment on ag inputs for example).

    1. Good point. It just seems that there’s been a lot of institutional improvement in road building. Road funds for maintenance are now the rule, not the exception (see that chart!)

      I just think there isn’t any political traction behind road building in donor countries – it’s not just about “sexiness”, it’s about not being able to put together a coalition to push for this kind of project anymore.

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