09 February 2008

Back in Liberia: roads revisited

I've just got back from another trip to Liberia, this time to do some research on the Poverty Reduction Strategy and the government's policy for agriculture. It was great fun catching up with friends and seeing the progress that is being made - as well as enjoy the hot, sunny weather, which we didn't see much of last summer!

The international airport is still a little ramshackle (though it's also the friendliest airport I know!), but the visitor experience has improved a lot, thanks to a new hotel in Mamba Point and the resurfacing of Tubman Boulevard in Monrovia. The Chinese-Liberian crews were working hard to finish this when I visited, in order to impress visiting dignitaries like World Bank President Robert Zoellick, who spent two days there last week. The road will speed up the journey into town for the thousands of commuters who pile into little share-taxis that crawl gingerly around potholes while the UN classes LandCruise past them.

But with a bill of $27m for just ten miles of road, is this really the best use of money? Of course, it's donors' money, but instead of fancy machines like the one on the left, I wish I had seen more gangs digging ditches, grading dirt roads and relaying bridges in the rural areas. The paved roads from Monrovia to Buchanan and Ganta are clearly improving, but there's a big difference between cutting an hour off the 6-hour taxi ride to Ganta and actually connecting places like River Cess and Grand Kru counties to the capital. The fascinating Liberia Market Review (2007) suggests that only half the communities in the country have road access at all, and even fewer in the rainy season.

This matters for agricultural development, because research in Asia shows that villages with roads produce one-third more crops per head than villages without. It matters for public services, because education and health workers find it hard to visit these villages, let alone set up schools or dispensaries. (That you can find teachers and health posts in some of them anyway testifies to the ingenuity and dedication of entrepreneurs and NGOs). Rural development comes from turning little tracks into all-season roads with drainage ditches. $27m would dig a lot of ditches.

The people of Liberia know this better than any economist. When the government consulted the counties recently on its Poverty Reduction Strategy, people in every one of the 15 counties cited roads as their top priority. If you really want to pave roads, a few extra miles here or there would make a big difference - say, on the border between Liberia and Guinea, shown below. The paved road ends just 3 miles before the border. Now, if only the Guineans paved the road on their side too . . .


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