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Why we need world-class roads

The road leading to my office has been full of potholes for years. Negotiating them has always involved remarkable spins of the steering wheel. A few months ago, however, the potholes were filled in and the whole road was given a patching up. We rejoiced. Just one short rainy season later, the potholes are back. A bit of water beating down from the sky was all it took to wash out whatever had been put in those craters.

Meanwhile, India is on schedule to complete its Golden Quadrilateral: a six-lane expressway, as good as any in the world, linking the country’s four largest cities: Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata. This is the largest infrastructure project undertaken by the country since independence, and is expected to come in within budget: US$ 7.5 billion. If you think that’s ambitious, note that the Quadrilateral is merely the beginning: US$ 66 billion is earmarked for road projects to come.

Impressive? Yet India is merely playing catch-up. Its northern neighbour, China, invested US$ 34 billion every year on expanding its expressways throughout the 1990s. India woke up to the fact that poor infrastructure was the biggest brake on its development, and is using a combination of public and private funding to take its road network to first-world status.

Why do these countries spend such eye-popping amounts on their roads? Simply because a good national network of roads is an absolutely vital factor in economic development. Many economic studies have found a strong link between poverty and remoteness. In the developing world, roads are an economic lifeline. Agricultural produce is brought to market, and finished goods are transported to the buying public. Ports are connected to hinterlands. For most people in poor countries, roads provide the only form of physical connection available.

Bad roads have bad effects. Businesses suffer, as they have to haul their inputs and outputs (and their people) over horrible surfaces, and have to pay the cost in additional fuel bills and vehicle maintenance. Many African businesses estimate that poor infrastructure adds as much as 20 per cent to their costs. Who pays that cost? Ah, that would be us, reader.

As ever, the poor suffer the most. Poor people in remote areas have to haul heavy loads over crippling distances – often over 10 kilometres every day. They stay cut off from development, often living in a time warp not of their own making. Anyone doubting that should follow our former president’s recent footsteps towards the north of our land, and see which ‘country’ those forgotten people live in.

So that’s why countries that are serious about development are also serious about roads. Roads are akin to arteries: they get goods and people flowing across the country. They allow markets to flourish and livelihoods to grow. It is of no use to us to have Nairobi as a ‘pumping heart’ when there are no arteries to feed. The heart will soon collapse under its own weight.

There are other considerations. Randeep Ramesh, writing in the Guardian Weekly recently, points out that the arrival of smoother, wider roads has a more immediate effect: people buy more cars. This is happening in India: Ford estimates that its sales are rising at more than 30% per year, making India an international priority for the giant car-maker. Local producers have also stepped up production: India’s Maruti plant (a joint venture with Japan’s Suzuki) now produces half a million cars every year. Indeed, India has become the world’s third-largest producer of small cars.

So great roads have great spillover effects. Apart from the purchasing power injected into the economy in their construction, they ignite other industries and stimulate a wide range of markets. They even pay for themselves: a study quoted in The Economist recently estimated that a dollar put into road maintenance lowers the cost of vehicle maintenance by two to three dollars every year. These things are widely accepted: there is no rapid development story in the world that does not have infrastructure in a starring role.

I have written about this before, and no doubt will have to write about it again. For road-building in Kenya is stuck in a ridiculous impasse. We say we don’t build good roads because we are poor; and we will stay poor because we don’t build good roads. It is as though we believe that China, India, Singapore, Korea and South Africa were always rich, and could always afford good roads. No, they were as poor as us. They simply prioritised road networks, and they found intelligent ways of raising the money.

We have money – does the KenGen oversubscription leave anyone in any doubt about that? When wananchi believe the venture is good and will yield returns, they will emerge to fund it. So will the holders of international capital. We don’t always have to sit in desolation like beggars, waiting for someone to come along and build a road for us. We can set up consortia that fund good roads, using a mix of government money and private (local and international) capital. And we must not be afraid of allowing for road-pricing where it’s needed: most businesses I know would happily cough up road tolls in exchange for better roads.

What stops us is not a lack of awareness of the need. What stops us is the fact that a creepy cabal of contractors and civil servants has fed off the roads kitty for as long as I can remember. That is why we keep going round in circles; that is why no breakthroughs are made. We will always have road projects: but they will always be funded by silent taxpayers and they will always be unambitious. Our roads will almost never be well constructed, so that the endless repair and re-carpeting cycle continues. We will continue to have some of the highest per-kilometre road-building costs in the world – and for our pains, will continue to receive the world’s shoddiest road quality.

Who will sweep the cowboy contractors out into the ocean? Who will remove the bureaucrats who have enriched themselves from the roads game? Who will set up transparent tendering, mechanisms that are open to full public scrutiny? Who will modernise and privatise the key agencies? And who will set up a system of controls and performance measures that actually works?

In India’s case, Mr. Ramesh tells us that the job was given to a retired major-general in the Indian Army. Mr. B. C. Khanduri was appointed Roads Minister in 2000, and he cracked the whip with zest. He made sure deadlines were set and punitive penalties imposed on contractors who failed to deliver. And he set up an innovative system of giving handsome bonuses to those who finished on time and within budget.

These are the demands we must keep placing on our leaders, current and future. Our tattered road network is not a birth legacy in Kenya; it is the product of illicit relationships, condoned by a failure in political will by successive governments. Until we find the government with the vision, intelligence and guts to do something about it, we are on the road to nowhere.

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