Wednesday, November 17

Roads to Prosperity

Ethiopia's Office of the Road Fund Administration has some detailed plans in store for the future. The road density
of the country is the lowest in Africa; perhaps three-fourths of farms more than one-half day's walk from an all-weather road.
The European Union Country Report dealing with the road system is illustrative of the problem that the government has to deal with
Road infrastructure in the country had reached such a level of deterioration in the early 1990s that it became a serious obstacle to economic growth and development.Improving the road infrastructure is closely linked to poverty reduction: the bulk of agricultural production is by small-scale rural farmers, while markets and collection centres are located far from the producers, in urban centres. Improved accessibility of rural areas, including the main agricultural production centres, plays an important role in the fight against poverty and food insecurity. Opening up isolated pockets will allow the gradual economic, social and political integration of isolated populations.

Ethiopia’s population is widely dispersed over remote villages, and almost 90 per cent of the population lives by cultivating the land. But the major urban markets are located at considerable distance from each other. Many farmers are unable to transport their surplus to a marketplace within a reasonable time. This is a disincentive to increase production. Due to limited market integration, major price differences frequently occur between surplus and deficit areas. Transport is time consuming. Buses, trucks and other means of transport suffer from the poor quality of the road surface. Relief operations become extra expensive and difficult.

The rehabilitation of the road network is a core element of Ethiopia’s economic reform programme. More than one fifth of the capital budget has been allocated to road construction and repairs. In 1996 the government initiated a
‘Road Sector Development Programme’ (RSDP), which is now in its second phase. It's objective is to restore much of the country's road network, improve the capacity of road management agencies, and provide affordable transport for the rural poor.
A description of how vital new transport links are in rural Ethiopia The New York Times (registration required)"Roads Lead to a New Way of Life for Rural Ethiopia".
The dirt-and-gravel road may look like a timeless feature of the Great Rift Valley. But it is, in fact, part of a huge public road-building project that is slowly hauling one of the poorest, hungriest nations on earth into modernity.

The people who live along it divide time into two eras: Before the Road and After the Road. Because of the road, people can bring their sick to the hospital and their children to distant schools. Farmers who had only their own feet or a donkey's back for transport can now transport their crops to market.
Road-building is coming back in style as a way to combat rural poverty in Africa. Ethiopia, an agricultural society where most farmers still live more than a half day's walk from a road, has been especially hobbled by their absence.

Support for roads in Africa, particularly from the World Bank, is growing again after a decade of decline in the 1990's. Then, the bank reduced lending for roads. It was battered by aggressive opposition from international nonprofit groups, and concerned about ill-governed countries where roads deteriorated as fast as they could be built.

Senior policy makers also held the mistaken belief that the private sector would fill the void, building toll roads for profit.

"We were naïve," said Maryvonne Plessis-Fraissard, the World Bank's transport director. "Who was going to do rural roads in the middle of Africa?"
Ethiopia itself has spent $1 billion on roads in the past seven years - half from international donors - but plans to spend more than that in just the next three years. It has doubled the length of its rural road network and rebuilt crumbling highways.

Even with the new burst of investment, the country expects that by 2007 it will be able to reduce the total of farmers who live more than half a day's walk from a road only to 60 percent from 65 percent.
This is good news indeed and the Ethiopian government deserves praise for making road building a priority. In a previous post we noted an Economic Commission for Africa report that inter-African trade was severly limited by the absence of transport links - this is a problem within nations as well. The economic benefits of even small transport projects are significant.

One interesting point is how much all authorities talk of the deterioration of the road system. Road building had been a priority of the Haile Selassie government for decades. The value of roads was also immediately apparent to the cuurrent government. Road building and even maintenance were ignored by Mengistu Haile Mariam for most of two decades.

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