Roads to prosperity?

I’m jumping on the bandwagon with this one. Or about to get run over by it. Either way.

Ghosts of Alexander and some other clever folk like Registan have been discussing this article from The Small Wars Journal about roads in Afghanistan and their role in military matters.
Roads have been on my list of ‘interesting things to blog about,’ though more from a development perspective, ever since a NATO political big-wig parachuted into Chagcharan last year for a few hours.

Sitting in a crowded room of government and NGO types, he asked several random questions such as: ‘Do you have a problem with corruption here?’ The demur reply to which being along the lines of: ‘Oh no, of course not. The governor and police chief are both very good and not corrupt.’

Having asked a few more such penetrating and diplomatically phrased questions, and before flying off by helicopter, he firmly declared that what this province really needed to sort it out was a good road running through it, and someone really should do something about building one.

Quite right to. There is not a paved road anywhere in the province, and having one would make my life so much more comfortable.

The central route from Kabul to Herat

A good road in Ghor – the central route from Kabul to Herat

This is why I’m sceptical of oft-made claims about the need for better roads to bring about development. I can’t get over the feeling that when we development folk say how important roads are, what we really mean is how important roads are for us.

Us, as in those of us with nice big Land Cruisers at our disposal. It’s all well and good having a nice shiny vehicle, but not so great if the roads you’ve got to drive it along are little better than mountain-goat tracks. It’s impossible to speed, wrecks the shock-absorbers, and is still bloody uncomfortable.

And you can simply forget about trying to drink a chilled G&T as you go along.

Of course, some Afghans have cars or motorbikes too, though a minority, and there are some mini-vans that bravely ply the route to Herat or Kabul.

The vast majority of people living in Ghor, however, have no access to motor-vehicles. Nor do they live anywhere near a ‘main road.’ If you are walking or riding a donkey, it doesn’t make a great deal of difference if you’re travelling along a sheep-path or a six-lane highway. Apart from the fact that better roads would mean faster vehicles and more danger of being hit by one.

There are, I know, some very good reasons why better transport would help more people. If the road (singular: let’s not get over optimistic) were better, it would cost truck drivers less money to transport stuff here, in theory bringing down the price of food and basic items. If the road were better, it would cost people less money to travel to the rest of the country as migrant labourers. (Not that you could put that in your funding proposal for a road. Migrant labour from here means working in Iran or in the poppy fields to the south. Remittances are one of the key sources of cash income. But we don’t like to talk about that.) If a lot of roads were better, and there was transport available along them, it would help improve access to health and educational services in district centres.

These are good reasons. But I’m still not entirely convinced that the benefits a road would bring to the people of Ghor would significantly reduce poverty and inequality, or that there wouldn’t be better ways of spending the huge amount of money it would cost to build a half-way decent and useful road.

I’ve heard tales of other road-building projects that have cost millions of dollars for just a few thousand meters, and have then been washed away over the winter. And other roads, while of some small benefit to locally hired Afghan labourers, that have been sub-contracted out, and sub-contracted out, and sub-contracted out again – each contracting company creaming off ‘a bit’ for themselves.

I’m dredging up the memory of an essay I wrote way back in school now, and donning my wannabe academic hat.

In a paper attempting to develop an econometric model for evaluating the benefits of roads, Hanan Jacoby suggests “that providing extensive road access to markets would confer substantial benefits on average, much of these going to poor households. However, the benefits would not be large enough or targeted efficiently enough to greatly reduce income inequality in the population.” (2000: 735)

The economic evidence is, as far as I’m aware (not even a stone’s throw), inconclusive. But detailed, micro-level studies do seem to suggest that the benefits of roads are limited to a handful of traders and big businessmen.

In an influential account (that may or may not be influential, I just stumbled across it one day and have no idea, but felt the need for an adjective) of the geo-politics of routes in Central Asia, Mahnaz Z. Ispahani argues that land routes bring together two crucial aspects of state activity: security and development. In his book Roads and Rivals, there is one tale I remember of a Soviet-built road in northern Afghanistan that was intended to increase trade and develop the economy, and just happened to be constructed to technical standards suitable for driving a tank along. This shortly before the Soviets invaded.

Some anthropologists, like my academic hero James Ferguson, have argued that while the intended developmental benefits of roads are minor, what they really achieve is the extension of state and military control into otherwise marginal areas.

If your concern is state security, ‘force multipliers’ or ‘projecting military force’ this is just fine and dandy. The trouble begins when this road building project is dressed up as, and funded as, a development project that will benefit poor people.

This being the other reason I am cautious of claims for the humanitarian or economic benefits of roads.

And then, as some have recently pointed out with regards to Afghanistan, roads aren’t always that great at improving security either (though Registan does claim they are good for economic development and nation-building, though gives no evidence for this). What they do provide is good places to ambush convoys and plant IEDs.

I suspect why that NATO chap, and others, was so convinced of the need for a decent road through Ghor was first, because there isn’t one, and any civilized, developed place must surely have a road. And secondly, because it would help link Kabul and Herat and so provide a route that avoids the dangerous southern ring road via Kandahar. There would be many benefits to that, and hopefully one day it will happen, but I doubt many people living in Ghor would gain much prosperity from it.

What I really want is a horse. That’d be the way to travel, road or not.



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4 Responses to “Roads to prosperity?”

  1. Joshua Foust Says:


    Thanks for the comment! I think you raise a good point, in that it’s important not to over-sell roads from an economic perspective. But at the same time they do wonders for the economy. Kabul, for example, didn’t see an economic boom until the newer, more accessible Kabul-Jalalabad-Peshawar road was built. Similarly, in many places in RC-East, the construction of paved roads (done smartly, of course, which is the real trick) actually has had noticeably economic and political gains. And even if roads only benefit “a few traders and big businessmen,” isn’t that one of the primary drivers of economic development, since they also usually control investment? Roads by themselves are not just about “solving” poverty, because Afghanistan’s poverty has far deeper roots than a paved highway. But they are an important component.

  2. harryrud Says:

    For some reason, when I try and look at Registan while in Kabul, I get a ‘403 Forbidden’ message. I’m guessing this is a peculiarity of the server I’m on rather than government censorship.

    Of course you’re right that roads – particualrly those linking with other countries (but much less so in Ghor I believe) – do help the economy. But I still feel the benefits of this is limited to a minority, and distrust any development approach that basically relies on the trickle down effect. I also wonder how, if roads sometimes decrease security as you say, this then helps the places they run through economically. A question of whose security and whose economy I guess.

    As you say, roads by themsleves are not going to ‘solve’ poverty that has deeper roots. That’s what gets me; when roads are held up as a panacea, given as more than they are worth. ‘What this place needs is a good road’, rather than ‘this place needs x, y and z, and a good road would help as well.’

    Anyhow, thanks for dropping by! I’ll be out of Kabul again soon so able to resume reading Registan uncensored.

  3. ash Says:

    Wouldn’t it be helpful, and I’m just speculating, to consider mastering a road system that is well put-together w/in the country first? B.c like you, I wonder about the security of the country, since it still has a lot of strengthing to do in areas of security.

  4. Ode to a road « harry rud Says:

    […] Roads to prosperity? […]

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