Roads are the arteries through which the economy pulses. By linking producers to markets, workers to jobs, students to school, and the sick to hospitals, roads are vital to any development agenda. Since 2002, the World Bank has constructed or rehabilitated more than 260,000 km of roads. It lends more for roads than for education, health, and social services combined. However, while roads bring economic and social benefits, they can also come with social costs such as pollution or deforestation. The Amazon rainforest is crisscrossed by almost 100,000 km of roads—enough to circle the Earth two and a half times. And the transport sector accounts for about 23 percent of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions and a significant share of local particle pollution. Such tradeoffs need to be weighed when planning any intervention.
Vietnam’s economic emergence is perhaps best experienced along its rural roads: more than 175,000 kilometers of pavement, rubble and dirt track extend to two-thirds of the country’s population, including nearly all of the poorest people, who live among its productive farms, lush forests and meandering river valleys.
In recent years, road investments in Vietnam’s rural areas have improved socioeconomic development and promoted gender equity, social participation, improved school attendance, and more inclusive health services to impoverished regions. However, all but a few hundred communes remain off-grid, and infrastructural roadblocks and bureaucratic potholes have delayed the goal of a fully integrated road system.
The World Bank’s Third Rural Transport Project (RTP3) supported a win-win solution: employing ethnic minority women to sustainably manage road maintenance through an innovative participatory approach to local development. This blog entry describes the experience of improving the roads — and women’s lives — in rural Vietnam. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way:
Lesson 1: Solutions can come from unexpected sources.
The RTP3 task team’s investigation showed that up to a third of the population in Vietnam’s Northern Uplands provinces would be expected to contribute up to 10 percent of their total annual household expenditure to ensure safe passage along local roads — too much for most to afford. Furthermore, even when adequate resources are made available for maintenance, contractors have sometimes been unwilling to work in inaccessible regions for fear of mudslides during the rainy season.
We arrived in the village of La Redonda-El Aguila, Honduras at ten o’clock in the morning, when the temperature was already about 94 degrees Fahrenheit. We were warmly welcomed and invited to take a short walk to the place they had prepared specially for us to hold our meeting. We were offered bean tamales and coffee, and began the meeting with members of two road maintenance microenterprises that are supported through a World Bank-financed project.
The microenterprises program was launched in 2013 under the Second Roads Rehabilitation and Maintenance project with a goal of creating 10 microenterprises to maintain 310 kilometers (192 miles) of roads. The routine maintenance work includes cutting and clearing vegetation on both sides of the road to ensure good visibility, cleaning drainage systems, keeping the roads free of debris and occasionally patching holes in the road. Microenterprise members earn wages from their work, which they invest into their households and communities.
Each microenterprise is supported by a supervisor, usually a civil engineer, who teaches members how to do the road maintenance work efficiently and effectively. Additionally, members learn how to meet conservation standards, as well as gain understanding of why maintenance activities are so important to extend the life of the road. The supervisor performs a progressive evaluation and on-the-job training for all micro-entrepreneurs. Upon completion of the training, the microenterprise is granted a contract to carry out labor-intensive routine maintenance activities over a stretch of road (at a ratio of about three kilometers per partner) for a period of 12 months, which is renewable subject to satisfactory performance.
Ultimately, the program empowers entrepreneurs to become permanent contributors to the conservation of their roads.
How can improved roads change peoples’ lives? How much do people benefit from road projects? Answering these seemingly simple questions is, in fact, much trickier than it appears.
We recently concluded an impact evaluation to measure the socio-economic impacts of World Bank-financed municipal road improvements on poor rural households in the state of Tocantins, Brazil. After 10 years of study, what were the results and lessons learned? And how did we go about conducting the evaluation?
The study followed a methodology traditionally used in impact evaluations in the social sector and was based on a precedent in Vietnam. Throughout the state, one of the least-developed and least-populated in Brazil, most municipal roads are unpaved with inadequate maintenance. The World Bank’s municipal roads project helped construct 700 concrete bridges and 2,100 culverts crossing rivers and streams, providing year-round access to remote populations that once couldn’t access municipal centers during rainy season.
The anticipated result chain of the project was as follows: improvement of physical accessibility would contribute to increase travel demand to markets, schools and health services. This would, in turn, contribute to improved education, better health and increased business opportunities. Finally, it would result in long-term household income growth.
Our study aimed at measuring these impacts through a “difference in differences with matching,” a method that compares a treatment group (population benefiting from the interventions) and a control group (population that does not), while ensuring similar socio-economic characteristics (or comparability) between groups. An “instrumental variables estimator” was then used to confirm the robustness of the results.
The results show positive socio-economic impacts to rural residents, as well as provides for several policy implications:
Additionally, farmers can travel farther to sell their produce and get better prices, children can go to schools more easily and, migrants who go elsewhere to work can come back to their families.
- Download and read "Maximizing value for money in rural road investments," a paper that describes how road construction costs in India can be decreased by 20 percent by using local materials
A major constraint with developing and maintaining rural roads is the fact that they are, unfortunately, rural. The areas where they are needed are often difficult to access, logistics become complicated, local contracting capability is limited, engineers are few and far between, and younger engineers especially, are not keen to leave the urban environment.
The International Development Association (IDA) is a vital, yet oddly lesser known, arm of the World Bank Group. Briefly, IDA receives donor remittances and a portion of interest payments received from World Bank lending programs and disburses these funds as interest-free grants and subsidized loans to the poorest countries in lieu of traditional lending.
The only thing worse than taking 5 hours to drive 106 km along winding and often damaged mountainous roads, is the realization that having reached your destination you have to turn around and repeat the trip to get home. That was in the forefront of my mind as I sat in the very quiet town of Ainaro, south of the capital in Dili.