Rural roads – A lifeline for generating employment and fostering competitiveness in Guatemala

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Contar con mejores carreteras y caminos rurales es clave para la productividad agrícola y la competitividad Contar con mejores carreteras y caminos rurales es clave para la productividad agrícola y la competitividad

You wake up at 4 a.m. and reckon that if you leave your house soon, you will arrive just in time for your 11 a.m. appointment at the nearest health center. How is that possible if the health center is 20 kilometers from your home?  Yet that is the reality in rural Guatemala, where half of the Guatemalan population lives. In rural areas, one in four persons (i) has to walk more than two kilometers from home to get to an all-season road or highway. 

As a result, many Guatemalans basically live their lives in isolation away from the road network, far removed from opportunities and public services . This situation was all the more striking when the COVID-19 vaccination campaign was rolled out: people living far from highways were less likely to be vaccinated.

Despite being Central America’s largest economy, Guatemala performs poorly in the areas of road connectivity and road quality and ranks 134th out of 141 countries in road connectivity (i). In addition, the perception of the quality of road infrastructure has worsened, with the country ranking 84 out of 137 countries. Meanwhile, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and other comparator countries have posted better road connectivity and quality results.

Why does Guatemala have such a dilapidated road network? 

Guatemala’s sparse and dilapidated road network is due in part to low investment in road upgrading and maintenance works . Over the past decade, investments in road infrastructure have averaged only 0.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) each year (investment fell to a record low of 0.4 percent in 2017). Bridging the gaps in road infrastructure construction, maintenance, and replacement would require annual investments of about 1.0 percent of GDP.

Rains and disasters have also contributed to the deterioration of the roads. In Guatemala, 24 percent of the road network is exposed (i) to flooding, 51 percent to landslides, 70 percent to hurricanes, and 88 percent to earthquakes. Rural roads are especially vulnerable to climate risk because of their low resilience.

A new model for greater benefits 

More and better investment is needed for the road network in Guatemala, especially in rural areas. But what are the opportunities that will help investment in rural roads serve as a lifeline to generate more jobs and foster competitiveness?  

  • Better planned roads: a national connectivity plan designed on sound technical principles will make it possible to prioritize future works, define quality standards, establish the contracting model (with new construction and maintenance modalities), and allocate resources over no less than five years.
  • More resilient roads: strengthening the technical specifications in the design of rural and trunk roads will help make them usable all year round. Incorporating these specifications from project conception saves significant public resources in the medium term.
  • Safer roads: more than 40 percent of road accidents—the second leading cause of death in Guatemala—occur in rural areas, where they are much more likely to be fatal or serious because of poor access to healthcare facilities. Rural roads should include road safety infrastructure such as sidewalks, signage, dedicated lanes for non-motorized modes of transportation, and, where possible, lighting. Campaigns can complement these works to raise awareness and improve driving and driver licensing practices.
  • More inclusive roads: the current road infrastructure accentuates gender gaps. In the more remote rural areas, women have to travel in extremely unsafe and uncomfortable conditions. Another gap is the low female labor participation in the transport sector and road infrastructure jobs, especially in technical and managerial positions in the public sector. Another key opportunity for inclusion is greater participation of communities and the implementation of mechanisms that will adequately inform them and incorporate their feedback in civil works.

Investments that include these components will yield multiple benefits. Better rural roads and highways in Guatemala would provide rural populations with easier access to products, services, and opportunities . They would have a positive impact on nutritional security. They would provide greater access to medical services and supplies, especially for women. They would make it easier and safer for students to travel to school. Direct and indirect jobs would be generated locally and in the short term. They would also provide more efficient access to inputs for agricultural production and encourage small farmers to invest in high-value crops. They would increase productivity and competitiveness.

Now is the time to work toward positive change for the future. That is why the World Bank’s new Country Partnership Framework with Guatemala includes a rural roads project to improve access to basic services and infrastructure—and thus build human capital—as well as strengthen resilience to climate change and increase access to economic opportunities. More importantly, the project intends to establish a new infrastructure management model. The Guatemalan people and future generations deserve it. 

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Marco Scuriatti

World Bank Resident Representative for Guatemala

Fernando Paredes Solorzano

World Bank Senior Operations Officer in Guatemala

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