Ode to a road

Previously on Harry Rud: a debate on the merits of roads, and the likelihood of them bringing peace and or prosperity. In which your humble (ever so ‘umble) correspondent suggested they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

I take it all back. Roads are great. I’d forgotten how great roads are. Really. Having recently driven along part of Afghanistan’s Great Ring Road for the first time, I am converted. It was so smooth not a single pothole did I feel, you could actually sit back and enjoy the ride instead of bracing yourself for the next whip-lash jolt. It had bridges instead of large gaps with rivers running through them. It had neatly painted milestones and, forgive my excitement, an elegant white line painted down the middle. What splendour!

Admittedly, being able to travel at speed, overtake on blind bends at speed, nearly run a herd of sheep over at speed and so on, did add an alternative element of cold fear (as opposed to crumbling ravines, perilous ascents, stampedes of crazed sheep etc), but at least it was smooth fear.

It also took us where we wanted to go in about one tenth of the time it would have taken to cover the same distance in the fair province of Ghor. And commerce, life blood of a country etc, was travelling along it most merrily.

Still, I would question who that commerce is really benefiting and would suggest it is not the largest and poorest section of society. Apart from maybe the large WFP convoy we passed (never seen one of those in Ghor, neither). Under the right conditions, roads may spur on economic development, but that’s not the same thing as poverty alleviation.

And as I was eulogising the road, one chap pointed out to me that these new roads have a nasty habit of crumbling away. Now the Russians, he said, they knew how to build roads. Their roads have lasted 50 years and are still good, they have only broken when directly hit by a rocket or bomb (so a bit of an exaggeration, but a fair point).

But let’s not quibble. Roads are great. Pave the country for peace, prosperity and a happy posterior!


Roads to prosperity?

Reading cars

And for all your other road related needs, go have a look-see at Registan and posts such as this.


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3 Responses to “Ode to a road”

  1. Joshua Foust Says:

    Yay! I love roads too! But I’m curious about the distinction between economic development and poverty alleviation. While I don’t doubt that development is uneven, isn’t that still a big net positive for the region? Or are you contrasting systemic changes with shorter-term challenges like poverty relief and vaccinations?

  2. harryrud Says:

    Damn it man, you’re making me have to think about what I write!

    You’re right that there are more pressing problems facing Afghans than roads – staying alive for instance. What I’m trying to get at though is more to do with long term development.

    Roads will encourage economic development, and that’s a good thing. What I don’t they will do for the vast majority, certainly not by themselves, is reduce inequality or make the poorest of the poor any less poor, that’s what I meant by poverty alleviation. The economic development that they will enable will be the development of a small minority of the population who have the resources to capitalise from them. Traders will be able move goods around for less. Some of the benefits of reduced prices will be passed on to the buyer, but it would be a strange trader who did not primarily try to increase his profit margin rather than help poorer people. The poorest segment of the population may get a few Afghanis off the price of their oil and sugar, but in many parts of Ghor, the poorest segment of the population are so indebted to traders they are in affect bonded labourers, without land or assets of their own. And a road won’t change that, or inequalities in land holding, or availability of pasture or water. I don’t personally have much faith in the idea that economic benefits will somehow ‘trickle down.’

    Roads will make migrant labour easier and so potentially increase remittances. Whether that’s a good thing or not is another question. But there is a gender issue here as well. Any benefits roads do bring will mostly be seen by the more powerful in a society, and that includes men in general. Roads will not increase the mobility of women, nor change their marginalised position. In my limited experience, the further away a village is from a road the less likely it is that women in that village will be wearing burquas. Not that burquas in themselves are a sign of women’s position in society, but still.

    Roads will improve access to essential services such as health clinics, for some. In the case of Ghor though, even if the central route were improved, that still leaves the majority of the population who don’t live along a narrow ribbon of land, far far away from any improved transport services (the chances of anything more than the main central route being improved in the next five years being too remote to contemplate). Even an improved central route will likely be cut off by snow for up to five months of the year, and just because there is a road doesn’t automatically mean people have any way of travelling along it.

    Of course, my comments are informed primarily by my experiences in Ghor, and things will no doubt be different in other parts of the country. Actually, my opinions are also influenced by experiences in Africa, and a lot of African literature. Which may not be at all relevant but hey ho. Writers such as Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi Wa Thiongo have often commented on the effects of roads being built into remote places, and often portray them as things of contradictory marginalisation.

    Roads are great. More need to be built. But I think we should be cautious in what we claim for them. Many countries have relatively well developed road systems and still have hugely impoverished rural and urban populations. Nor should it be assumed that all local populations would welcome a road closer to home – maybe it would be seen as an extension of an un-liked government/police/commander/insurgent’s presence into their village, or as increasing ‘undesirable’ traits such as foreign influences or prostitutes serving truck drivers, or as a misallocation of large sums of money. Probably not, but it could be.

    I spent ten hot hours driving in a car yesterday. I hate roads! (fickle? me?)

  3. harryrud Says:

    Have just seen a press release from the US military celebrating a new road in the Panjshir. http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900sid/ASIN-7FARFR?OpenDocument&rc=3&cc=afg

    Much that could be discussed, but one fact: $6 million for 18km of paved road.

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