Can better roads reduce poverty?


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This  question  was on my mind when, in the Meme region of Cameroon, I saw motorcycle passengers come to a full stop, dismount, carry the bags of vegetables they were transporting on their backs, and start pushing the vehicle to the side, over a field--to circumvent the huge pool of water interrupting the rural road in front of us. Soon, they were on their way again.
Meme is a remote region with almost four meters of rain per year.  The state of its roads reflects the very limited investment they have seen in the last decade.

The motorcycle story from Meme shows that, even in extreme climatic conditions, the connectivity of roads is maintained.  A road may be impassable for cars, but motorcycles find their way around.  Therefore, most rural populations are somehow connected to markets, whereas connectivity is usually thought of as either 0 or 1.

This means that investments in roads could have a lower-than-expected impact on economic development since most households are already somehow connected.

We demonstrate in a paper that investing uniformly in tarred roads in Africa is likely to have a much lower impact on poverty than expected. In some cases, construction or rehabilitation of rural roads (suitable for trucks) created major difficulties. They are expensive to build relative to the economic development they make possible; they are expensive to maintain;  and normally they are underused.

In a study covering 50 villages in Burkina Faso, out of 47 rural access roads, 19 had no car or truck traffic at all (despite traffic of up to 250 bicycles, 100 pedestrians, and 100 motorcycles a day).

Given current agricultural production and plot size of many African countries, when it comes to rural roads, as long as a motorcycle or a bicycle can go through, access to market exists.

Considering that an increase in non-farming activities is the main driver of poverty reduction in rural Africa, road investments should be made in places where non-farming activities could be developed.  In most cases, the last mile should not even be a road.


Gael Raballand

Senior Public Sector Specialist

Join the Conversation

Hudson Lucky Masheti
March 10, 2010

Better roads cannot reduce poverty for roads are only used as a means/link for farm produce/ industrial products to reach the consumers. Thus, roads do not contribute in the production process, other than the value of manpower. In fact where roads are tarmacked, more idlers will be seen loitering on road sides.

Economists have long emphasized that the wealth on nations is determined by hard work, creative thinking and initiative. Thus, human resources are crucial for economic development to reduce abject poverty. In this regard, people should be considered as inventive individuals willing and capable of contributing not only to the growth of wealth, but also to the shaping of their societies and reducing the menace poverty.

Julien Katchinoff
March 05, 2010

Gael, Enjoyed your piece. However, I was surprised you did not mention any environmental impacts of rural roads! In a country where deforestation is a concern, this could have deepened your analysis.



Sam Gardner
March 05, 2010

If you live along a rural road without regular pickup traffic, you will only produce for yourself, as the cost to get it to a faraway market is prohibitive. So you will produce for your own needs, and a safety reserve for if harvest is bad. Meaning if you have surplus, all your neighbors will have the same surplus product. Without transport, you can imagine the prices you will get. If you don't have enough (one year in 3 or 4) without transport the prices will skyrocket.

Only when there are decent roads AND enough pickups going to the market you can begin to produce with the objective to sell. This means you will also be able to go for real cash crops. The prices will be better too, as the cost of transport per unit is lower. Decent roads to the market means that the distance to the (untarred) road can be a few miles, but there it should be, if you want to develop agriculture. You cannot carry an hectare worth of pineapples on the back of a motorcycle.

You can expect a time lag of 3 to 5 years between the coming of the road and the establishment of a real market linked agriculture, with regular road transport. And only if you are investing also in the transport sector, what apparently nobody in Cameroon does (or do they have those tax barriers every few miles I have seen in other African countries?)

Of course, if you don't want to invest in agricultural development, the road should only be good enough to bring the farmers to town to find a new life.

Patrick Mwendwa
March 21, 2010

It is imperative to understand that infrastructure such as better roads carry a profound role towerds reducing poverty. In fact, most developed nations embrace the ideal of better road networks towards improving the quality of life.

Lack of an articulate road network leads to inefficiency as to how goods are moved within a counntry. It should be noted that some of the greatest leaders that ever lived on the face of this earth could not have emphasized the importance of a trade routes i.e. Genghis Khan opened up 1/3 of this world by cutting trade routes from Asia to Europe.

Therefore, if one is to take the stand that roads do not reduce poverty, they need to look and learn from great leaders such as Genghis Khan who understood the great benefits that came along with trade routes that acted as roads and highways back then. Otherwise, I would be left to question whether one qualifies to be a leader when they don't have this basic understanding in their interest.

Patrick M
Native African (Kenyan)

March 26, 2010

I acknowledge your responds to my contribution, but for your information, before you comment on any other article from participating author, try to understand the key concept of the matter. Therefore in my first paragraph re-read lines one and two.

In summary, you transport / export what you have produced from the land not from the road.

jean H. Doyen
May 06, 2010

The Bank has struggled for years to develop an economic analysis methodology that could capture the so-called generated benefits from road investments. The Rural Road component of the SSATP tried to bridge the divide between the Bank and its clients who felt that the Bank failed to take into account the impact of roads on agricultural production and access to services. The problems lay generally in two areas. First, the assurance that complementary investments needed to bring about these impacts would actually be undertaken. Second, policies needed to support the increases in production and income were not in place especially concerning marketing.

Hudson Lucky Masheti
May 09, 2010

I acknowledge and applaud your comment, as I found it having substance, very precise and comprehensive. The key words identified in your commentary second paragraph are "ACCESS TO SERVICES". These words depicts that 'Better Roads "CONTRIBUTE" to poverty reduction', but not in the tittle "Can Better Roads Reduce Poverty?".

The "NO" word in my tittle that is being capitalized on is because the question tittle was not "Can better Roads CONTRIBUTE to Poverty Reduction?"

Thanks Jean H. Doyen.

Hudson Lucky Masheti
Kenya (East Africa)

kazuo inoue
May 24, 2010

Dear Dr. Devarajan,

I found your article very interesting and reasonable. In Japan, an innovative technology has been developed to construct rural road with Do-nou (Soil bags)at very low cost and has been applied successfully in Papua new Guinea, Philippines and Kenya. "Do-nou" means sand bags or soil bags in Japanese and villagers were invloved in constructing and maintaining roads with this technology in these coutries.

This technology developed by Professor Makoto Kimura of Kyoto National University consists in placement of fine aggregates inside bags arranged usually in two layers one above the other.

When filled-in bags are subjected to extraneous moving loads, tensile strength develops along the bags. This induces a sort of "membrane effect" enabling the bags to sustain higher loads.

Locally available bags, such as for sugar, crop-seeds, or jute bags can be used for the consturaction.

I belive that your bank should promote this kind of low cost technology for rural road in the world, which not only alleviate poverty, but also empower the rural community for maintaining their communication.

Please refer to Professor Kimura`s web site.

This is the non profit orgnization which he has established.
His email address is: [email protected]

kind regards,
Kazuo Inoue

peio revuelta
October 10, 2010

Better roads surely reduce poverty because roads are the mirror of development of countries. When you have better roads, you can transport easier faster and it also encourages the traders. When there are undeveloped roads, no one wants to use them and transportation of goods stops as time goes on. All people should have good understanding in importance of the roads and it requires education, i found a well web site giving good informations about it and i hope you will learn more things in there;

October 04, 2011

Pour moi aussi, les routes sont une porte pour le developpement d´un pays!!!

Sans route comment se ferait le transport des marchandises? S une region possede de nombreuses matieres et qu elle est coupée du monde, à quoi lui servirait tout ce potentiel...à se nourrir? Oui c est certain, mais qu´en est il des restes? ils pouriront certainement qunad on sait que les matieres vivrieres malhereusemnt "pourissent" assez facilement ou alors comment aurait elle accès au developpement??