Without a doubt, the people in developing countries are right in emphasizing the importance of roads. It is for many villages, the very definition of modernity. The road links the village to the rest of the country – bringing an expansion in the market whose importance Adam Smith has so forcefully written about. Getting the sick quickly to modern hospitals is impossible without roads.
In most of the analyses one sees on the question of roads in Africa, there are typically all of two different strands of debate going on. The first is the requirement of lots of money – billions and billions according to many observers, to make up for Africa’s infrastructure deficit. The other has to do with corruption – roads are not built because the contractors are corrupt, or the funds for roads are stolen by governments, used for political gains, or bribes have been extracted by unscrupulous officials.
Perhaps for this reason, there is little major work done on roads in the economics literature outside of these two big questions. As economists and engineers we should focus also on the question what is the current state of our roads, and, given limited resources, where should the roads be built. Also, what is the best structure for organizing the building of roads? If governments are so inept at managing the building of roads, what are the alternatives – the private sector? The Private-Public partnerships? NGO’s?
Anyway, our NYU CTED team is now working on roads. We are looking at the network, the road quality and how it affects economic development. We are hoping to have working papers out in the next couple of weeks so stay tuned.
I recall going on field work in the Volta region of Ghana. It can take 5 hours of extremely bumpy and dusty roads to traverse a distance which should take 2. On one such bumpy untarred road, I saw scratched on low wall around a bridge the words “no roads, no votes.” Hopefully more of the politicians in the sub-Saharan African countries with bad roads will take notice. *
* (Former NYU Ph.D student Robin Harding (http://www.robinharding.org/), now at U. Rochester, has done great research on voting and roads in Ghana.)