As we drove along the rugged, potholed, rust-colored dirt road in a remote area of the Central African Republic (CAR), we passed a scattering of huts. These areas are strikingly destitute, having been looted by various armed groups passing through.
My team and I are here to prepare the $45 million Rural Connectivity Project (currently in the implementation phase). A landlocked country in the middle of the African continent, CAR is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 188 out of 189 on the Human Development Index (2018). We are travelling from the capital, Bangui, to Ouham in the North-West of the country to inspect the roads to be rehabilitated under the project.
The long journey has given me some time to reflect. Landing at Bangui Airport in late 2016 for the first of several missions, I saw a city of tents. It was a camp for the internally displaced that had formed next to the airport runway. Because of the military troops stationed there, the airport had become a refuge from the violence. It is estimated that the ongoing conflict, which began in 2013, has displaced approximately 25% of the population, and lawlessness prevails in much of the country. MINUSCA, the United Nations’ peacekeeping forces, have been present since 2014. The World Bank is one of the first international donors to significantly reengage following the conflict.
The country’s security situation is constantly shifting before our eyes, and this unpredictability presents an ongoing challenge for implementation. Field visits require a lot of planning and coordination with partners, and given the volatile situation, last minute “no go’s” are always a possibility.
As we traveled further north, we’ve been instructed to wear helmets and bulletproof vests, and Cameroonian peacekeepers flanked our convoy for protection. The journey from Bangui to Bossangoa, Ouham is about 300km but would take us an entire day.
After staying overnight at a peacekeeping base, we set off early the next day to inspect the rural roads. Our driver cautiously steered the 4x4 on the badly rutted dirt road, while trying to keep up with the convoy in front. Only a handful of other vehicles were on the road, some with as many as 10 people crammed into a car. The road network in CAR is not only insufficient, but poorly maintained. Sections of the road are impassable in the rainy season, cutting off connectivity for entire communities. A large part of the country remains beyond the reach of the road network.
The project aims to improve a network of targeted rural roads, which have been selected to ensure maximum impact on agricultural production. This would ensure farmers have better access to markets to sell their products and buy agricultural inputs. It would also improve access to basic social services such as schools and medical clinics and facilitate humanitarian activities.
The region used to be a major cotton producing area, but all the main cotton factories were destroyed during the conflict. In Bossangoa, we visited the only one that remains in the entire country. Despite the harvest, the farmers haven’t been paid and debts have accumulated. As transport and logistics continue to be major constraints, we are working to ensure synergies with an agriculture project under preparation, which will target the same intervention area.
We then headed to the local townhall to hear from people who might benefit from the project. About 30 local stakeholders, including representatives from the local community, NGOs and the agriculture and cotton industries, have gathered to meet with us to discuss the project and share ideas for improvements. We heard about a range of topics, from the specific locations of bottlenecks in the road network, to the need for storage units near the markets. What encouraged me most was that women-led community groups, despite being fewer in number, voiced their needs as well.
We end the visit with an impromptu meeting with Clotilde Namboi, the prefect of Ouham, huddled on the patio outside her residence. She is particularly keen on hearing about how we will engage the community to implement the project. An important element of the project involves labor-intensive public works by community-based crews to carry out non-mechanized tasks, for example, clearing vegetation along the roads, pothole filling, and cleaning culverts. Adapted from another ongoing project, the project is using a transparent lottery-based system for the selection of workers. The objective is to engage local communities and provide temporary employment for vulnerable groups, such as ex-combatants, women and youth. The project will be designed to ensure women constitute at least one-third of the labor force participating in the project. It will also supply each team with training and tools to carry out the work, including bicycles to travel to work sites.
What I find most striking is the project’s potential impact beyond infrastructure. The road rehabilitation will yield better connectivity, but can also contribute to so much more, including employment opportunities, social cohesion and peacebuilding. By helping to reopen parts of the country that were previously isolated, we are contributing to CAR’s recovery efforts, and I leave feeling hopeful.
Sometimes we have to go to extremes in our effort to end poverty and that includes traveling to places where security is nearly non-existent, and risks are high. Nonetheless, the needs are also high and in these remote parts of CAR we have an opportunity to help some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people to rebuild in the midst of a devastating conflict. Times like these help me keep perspective on why I wanted to work in development in the first place.