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:
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.