Strengthening the backbone
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CTA. 1998. Strengthening the backbone. Spore 77. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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A country's infrastructure, and its transport system in particular, is very often seen as a key aspect of its development. Harbours, railways, roads and airports are literally the gateways that a country needs for exchange and communication, for its...
A country's infrastructure, and its transport system in particular, is very often seen as a key aspect of its development. Harbours, railways, roads and airports are literally the gateways that a country needs for exchange and communication, for its economic growth and for people to have access to basic goods and services. Despite their importance, it is hard to name a single ACP country whose transport systems function as they should. An inadequate, dilapidated transport network is the underlying cause of low levels of trade and export volumes. True, the situation is changing: there are cases of railway lines being renovated and modernised, roads being upgraded, air routes being reinstated and airports being improved. The involvement of the private sector, and novel forms of partnership and use of local resources should reinvigorate markets, increasing the competitiveness of products and opening up isolated regions. For many countries in the South, it is a long road to go down. Some are starting to show the way, with promising results. We take a trip through the landscape of ACP infrastructure, scattered with wreckage and waste, highlighted by hope of improvement. Transporting produce, people and goods in a typical ACP country is often likened to an obstacle race. The problem is especially acute in many countries of Africa which, as a continent, is recognised as being amongst the most poorly endowed as regards infrastructure in general, and reliable road networks in particular. In the countries of the Caribbean and the Pacific, the situation is none too good either, but it is of a different nature: the movement of goods and people is more dependent on properly functioning water-based transport (boats), and air transportation. The user is faced with many difficulties. Unreliable schedules, poor safety, prohibitive costs, not to mention natural disasters, all collude to disrupt the correct shipment of merchandise, and the free movement of people. Maintenance needed 'Trade and commerce is the motor of economic growth, and it can only flourish when it can rely upon transport systems that perform well; only then will farmers be able to ship their goods to market' asserts Veronique Jacobs of the World Bank group. A major obstacle to the development of the African continent is the parlous state of the transport infrastructure. A significant proportion of the investments made in road networks in the 1960's and 1970's has disappeared, due to lack of maintenance. The worsening condition of the road system is such that the amount of necessary repairs, or reconstruction, require levels of expenditure between three and five times as much as preventive maintenance would have cost. The World Bank estimates that the 'saving' of one dollar on road maintenance increases the cost of operating vehicles on that route by two to three dollars. This results in increases of sometimes twice, even thrice, the selling price of certain consumer items. The poor state of roads thus slows down the development of supply systems and food distribution, and it is the users and consumers who suffer, and pay the consequences. According to World Bank studies, in 85 countries, one-quarter of rural tarmacked roads need to be rebuilt, as well as one-third of non-paved roads. On top of the dilapidated state of the roads, and the deterioration of rural tracks, there is another layer of concern: the human dimension of road system management. Public services fiddle papers around in agonising detail, there are illegal road checks and 'flying' squads of excise officers with their associated costs; they all add to the inconvenience and expense of road transport (see box). On the road between Abidjan and Ouagadougou, for example, the expenses of informal tolls sometimes amount to 10% of the value of the goods in transit. The high costs are aggravated by high risks. Ramshackle vehicles hurtling at excess speed from pothole to pothole, overloaded with human and other cargo, are sometimes a fatal recipe for disaster. Travelling by road is more dangerous in Africa than elsewhere. The fatalism ? or is it a frantic desire for protection? ? of some drivers, shown by such slogans as 'Death ? who cares?' painted on their windscreens, speaks volumes about road safety. Directorate-General VIII of the European Commission, which is concerned with development issues, has calculated that the economic cost of road accidents in some developing countries equals up to 1% of the Gross Domestic Product, without even adding in the cost of human loss and grief. Railroads show a similarly damning picture. Generally speaking, rail has long lost its traditional image of being cheaper and safer than road transport. Starved of even minimal investment for years, and forced to use rolling stock ready for the breaker's yard, the railways of sub-Saharan Africa are in an alarming condition. Yet they have played a role of paramount importance in the economic development of such countries as Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger, all of which are more than 1,000 kilometres from the nearest coastal ports. And so we come to the ports and harbours. Here too, inadequate maintenance of installations lies at the root of poor service, of the excessive costs that come from inefficiency and which compromise the competitiveness of ACP States on world markets. Desperately seeking efficiency The efficient flow of agricultural produce requires a good quality system for shipping and moving goods. Allied to this is the need for well-oiled infrastructures for storage, consolidation, and wholesale and retail systems. These are essential for achieving the desired mixture of marketable goods with the right price/quality ratio, minimal postharvest losses and reduced health risks. More often than not, producers of fruits, vegetables and other fresh products (meat, fish) in developing countries are hindered by weak wholesale and retail marketing systems; the systems' shortcomings eat into their potential profits, and cut down any gains for consumers. Many advantages accrue from developing marketing infrastructures which will entice wholesalers and retailers alike to operate on a group basis, achieving economies of scale in their sales. Two changes are needed: regulations on marketing food and foodstuffs have to be modified, and physical facilities have to be built (or existing ones modernised). The new wholesale market in Bouaké, in Côte d'Ivoire (see Spore issue 76) is an example. True, in some countries, main roads are in a good state, and goods can be shipped in reasonable time from rural areas to urban markets, and from the ports to the most isolated areas. There is still plenty to be done. In some countries of the Pacific and the Caribbean, a more fundamental choice has to be faced between allowing the decline of some sectors of the economy because their level of commercial transactions is too low to justify the required investment in transport systems, and encouraging the surge of tourism, which is becoming the dominant, if not sole, source of foreign exchange.
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