Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Highways and Poverty

The simplest way to measure the harm caused by bad infrastructure is to look at how prices change as you move away from big cities. A bottle of Coca-Cola, for example, costs 300CFA in Yaoundé, where it is bottled. A mere 125km down the road, in the small town of Ayos, it is 315CFA, and at a smaller village 100km further on, it is 350CFA. Once you leave the main road, prices rise sharply. A Guinness that costs 350CFA in Douala will set you back 450CFA in an eastern village that can be reached only on foot.

What is true of bottled drinks is also true of more or less any other manufactured good. Soap, axe-heads and kerosene are all much more expensive in remote hamlets than in the big cities. Even lighter goods, which do not cost so much to transport, such as matches and malaria pills, are significantly dearer.

At the same time, the stuff that the poor have to sell—yams, cassava, mangoes—fetch less in the villages than they do in the towns. Yet, thanks to poor roads, it is hard and costly to get such perishable, heavy items to market. So peasant farmers are doubly squeezed by bad roads. They pay more for what they buy, and receive less for what they sell. Small wonder that the African Development Bank finds "a strong link between poverty and remoteness".

The UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development estimates that African villages with better physical infrastructure produce one-third more crops per hectare than those with poor infrastructure, enjoy wages 12% higher, and pay 14% less for fertiliser. And no country with good roads has ever suffered famine.

Where roads improve, incomes tend to rise in parallel. One study estimated that each dollar put into road maintenance in Africa would lower vehicle maintenance costs by $2-3 a year. In Cameroon, where the soil is wondrously fertile, farmers start growing cash crops as soon as nearby roads are repaired. Big commercial farmers benefit too. Along the highway to Douala lie great plantations of sugar cane, and banana trees whose fruit is wrapped in blue plastic bags, to keep at bay the birds and bugs that might mar the visual perfection demanded by European consumers.

Where roads are left to deteriorate, women bear the heaviest burden. According to the World Bank, a typical Ugandan woman carries the equivalent of a 10-litre (21-pint) jug of water for 10km every day, while her husband humps only a fifth as much. With better roads, both men and women can, if nothing else, hitch rides on lorries, thereby sparing their feet and getting their goods more swiftly to market.
FZ sent me the link to this very interesting article about the road infrastructure in Cameroon. I never realized how strong the correlation is between highways and poverty, especially in developing countries.

Read more here. (You might need to watch a web ad before the article comes up.)

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