The Story behind 50 Years of Transport Investment in the Poorest Countries

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ImageThe 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.

“I need a summary of outputs from 50 years of transport sector IDA finance….” was the enquiry I received from the lady from IDA, one bright afternoon, a few months ago. I innocently agreed to this task, having little foresight into the complexities that lay ahead. Prior to 1986, project records become a paper trail, with intermittent reporting and few remaining staff with full recollections of project details from so long ago. But with an effort worthy of Sherlock Holmes, we put together, as far as we could ascertain, a picture of what IDA has accomplished over the past half-century.

ImageThe results were fascinating, as the shape and scope of the IDA portfolio has evolved with global economic trends, as well as evolving philosophies on what constitutes good transport investments. And the results were surprising in terms of their scale. In road transport, for instance, IDA funds have supported the construction, rehabilitation, and maintenance of close to 1 million kilometers of roads in developing countries. This is equivalent to circling the globe 25 times or one and a half trips to the Moon.  Ethiopia was the largest recipient.  A noticeable outcome in Ethiopia was the growth of the IDA backed road fund to six times its original size within ten years with IDA providing TA to create a strong and sustainable capacity to manage a road network.

For those of you interested in numbers, IDA has provided about US$28.3 billion to fund a total 1,115 transport projects over the last fifty years, on this total investment in transport, India has received most. The rural transport successes included the percentage of connected habitations increased from 40% to 70% in Himachal Pradesh, from 35% to 67% in Jharkhand, from 40% to 78% in Rajasthan, and from 40% to 80% in Uttar Pradesh.

For those of you that like lots of numbers, please feel free to read the full report (pdf). An even more techical analysis is available in the Technical Note, IDA: Fifty Years of Performance (Transport Sector).

IDA at Work: Transport
Fifty Years in Development (IDA at 50) - with its history and milestones

IDA at Work: India  - "New all-weather roads boost rural incomes"

IDA at Work: Vietnam - "Access to all-weather roads has development on the move" 

List of other IDA transport project stories

Things were very different in the Bank’s early days. Projects took place mainly in Japan and Europe, with railway and waterborne transport forming over two thirds of the transport portfolio. But with the formation of IDA in 1960, things really got swinging, with a new prioritization for infrastructure provision in  developing countries, especially the newly independent African states.

By the 1970s and 80s, roads had become the majority of the Bank’s portfolio, with IDA broadening the programs to include institutional reform, as well as maintenance and asset management components.  By the early 1990s, the IDA transport strategy was influenced by Agenda 21, from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, which described the integration of environment and development in order to fulfil basic needs, improve living standards, and ensure sustainability.


IDA further developed a focus on rural poverty with the renewed emphasis of infrastructure in the 1994 World Development Report and the publication of the 1996 World Bank Transport Strategy, and at that time, a significant portion of IDA transport activities focused on rural connectivity.

The UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of 2000 further influenced the shape of the IDA portfolio, with new emphasis on transport investments’ ability to help countries meet their MDGs. This emphasis was further solidified through the World Bank Infrastructure Action Plan (IAP) in 2003, which emphasized IDA priorities for poverty alleviation through a wide array of passenger and goods movement initiatives and capacity building activities. This focus remains today, with both IDA and traditional World Bank lending activities emphasizing safe, affordable, and clean transport systems and networks.



Peter O'Neill

Chief, Transport Policy and Development, UN ESCAP

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