Transport in Africa viewed through the lens of fragility

27/11/2015
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Although government policy-makers and their development partners both recognize the importance of investing in infrastructure and using a fragility lens when making broad policy decisions, there has been little attempt to systematically integrate thinking about fragility into investments in roads. Day 1 of the African Development Bank Transport Forum in Abidjan offered a discussion on the importance of roads to political stability, social cohesion, and institution-building, and, through these conduits, to the reduction of state fragility.

The session, “Sustainability - Inclusive and Resilient Transport”, was organized by the Bank’s Transition Support Department in collaboration with the Transport Department, featuring as panelists Seth Kaplan (Johns Hopkins University), Jeff Turner (AfDB), Jackson Paye (Government of Liberia) and Teferra Mengesha (Consultant). During the discussions, the speakers explored the link between Africa’s road infrastructure and fragility, drawing on the examples of Liberia, Mali, Ethiopia and China to showcase the strategic use – or lack thereof – of investments in this sector.

Kaplan identified five primary channels through which roads can reduce state fragility. These dimensions need to be considered when deciding on investments in the road sector, both in rebuilding fragile states, and to avoid today’s stable states becoming tomorrow’s fragile states. Applying a fragility-lens to this sector means, therefore, assessing to what extent a road investment promotes (i) social cohesion; (ii) effectiveness of state institutions across distance and makes them more equitable and inclusive; (iii) multiple growth poles, growth corridors and rural regions to make development less concentrated in the capital city; (iv) the ability of governments to provide equal levels of public services across their territories, making growth more balanced; and (v) connectivity with neighbouring countries, addressing cross-border challenges.

Building on these entry points, Turner emphasized that the traditional notion of “a road, is a road, is a road” needs to be revisited in these environments, as the impact on the population depends on the type of road (highways vs. rural roads) and the construction process (labour-intensive vs. capital-intensive). In addition, women tend to suffer most from an unequal access to roads, as maternal mortality increases over distance.

For his part, Paye illustrated the opportunities and challenges of connecting different regions and groups in post-conflict Liberia through road construction. Building roads was given the highest priority under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, necessary to both consolidate peace and foster inclusive economic growth. Road investments are mainly funded by development finance institutions, but the needs gap remains huge, as illustrated during the recent Ebola outbreak. It shows that even when the policy framework is right, mobilizing the necessary resources for construction and maintenance remains a challenge.

Drawing on the example of Ethiopia, Mengesha introduced a framework for monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and impact assessments that needs to accompany road investments. The US $1 billion Universal Rural Road Access Project (URRAP) was used as a case study, as it will cover over 70,000 kilometres of roads over a five-year period.

The discussion highlighted the importance of policy-makers, development finance institutions and regional organizations to work together to ensure that a fragility lens is applied to the sector. This will ensure that investments in roads contribute to state-building in all countries.

There was a call for development finance institutions to pay closer attention to the requests of governments for building roads that in the short-term may not yield high economic benefits, but are crucial for state-building. These roads will contribute to advancing the agricultural transformation agenda on the continent. The AfDB, through its Transition Support and Transport Departments, is committed to take this agenda forward to ensure that its investments in this sector systematically take into consideration these dimensions.

Organized by the AfDB’s Transport Department, the two-day Transport Forum concludes on Friday, November 27.