Sunday, September 13, 2009

"Roads, roads, roads."

That is what John Garang famously (or apocryphally) answered when asked about development priorities for South Sudan. I've always been a skeptic... of course roads are good, but the question really is the opportunity cost of paved roads. Driving around Burkina Faso, I'm more than ever convinced of the low value of paved roads. The NGO I direct here in Burkina Faso, Friends of African Village Libraries (, has a library in the village of Sara, and the village is now at the midway point of a new 300km paved road between the regional towns of Bobo-Dioulasso and Dedougou. During our two hour visit to the library, no cars came down the road. When asked, everyone jokes: "One bus leaves each town in the morning, they cross near Sara, then they drive back in the evening." It's an exaggeration, but makes the point. The road isn't changing anybody's life.

Driving this weekend to Ghana, on the paved road from Ouagadougou to Po and then Bolgatanga, again, very little traffic. In fact, what I really noticed once again was the massive pileup of trucks at the border, all sitting idly while the customs men went about their Byzantine work. it struck me that here was the real opportunity cost of paved roads: what if instead of paving the road, it had been left as an improved graded gravel road, and the money for the asphalt had gone to build up the border infrastructure to expedite customs and enable trucks to get through in an hour. The time savings (and heck, maybe even the maintenance on the trucks- a rolling stone gathers no moss?) could easily be greater than the time savings by driving on a gravel road. And the gravel road might then be better maintained, and be made wider, so there would be fewer accidents than on the narrow paved and potholed roads (though the Burkina's credit, every year I see improvement in road maintenance).

And if it is this way for Burkina, how is it for South Sudan, clearly 20 years behind in terms of truck commerce? No, I say, a six-lane border crossing with transparent customs for a paved road! Or at least some more cost-benefit analysis along those lines.


  1. Tom Harford wrote a short while ago about a WB study on transport costs, which found that political barriers are a much more significant contribution to overall costs in West Africa than East Africa. Haven't read the study so I couldn't say how believable it really is.

    By the way have you seen Garang's masterplan for railways?!

  2. When I was in Bor the roads were constantly in use by many mini vans, most of which comes to a complete halt during the rainy season. I think the best option would be to pave roads in strategic places, like going to the big market outside Juba which would help all the people going there to sell things immensely as it's really difficult to get there when it rains.