Rethinking the design of rural roads
Re-examining the design of rural road projects will make them more effective in improving the lives of the people living nearby.
More than 70% of poor people in developing countries live in rural areas, where all-weather roads can be chronically insufficient. People in these areas often have limited accessibility to basic services and livelihood opportunities that might help them get out of poverty.
International finance institutions and developing countries have recognized this problem and, over the years, have financed constructing or rehabilitating rural roads as one approach to reducing poverty in rural areas. Good quality roads are expected to enhance the accessibility of the nearby population to vital services and lift them from poverty. Despite this, some people remain poor after project completion.
To understand why this is the case, I conducted extensive research to look into how rural road projects were designed in developing countries and to identify what could be done to increase their beneficial impacts on local populations, including the poor. My research was particularly focused on whether these roads improved the accessibility of services and opportunities for the people.
I reviewed five rural road projects, financed by various international finance institutions, and found that those projects were principally expected to improve people’s accessibility to their needs, either economic or social, and ultimately lead to poverty reduction, and greater economic development of the region and project area. The projects were found to have been designed taking into account a variety of factors when selecting roads for construction or rehabilitation. These included strategic and operational issues, such as abilities and development policies of the projects’ executing agency, international financial institutions’ aid strategies in the areas and sectors, and economic return from the investment. It also involved socioeconomic or demographic aspects, such as population densities, poverty rates and connectivity to trunk roads.
An in-depth analysis of one of the projects revealed the improvement of living environments of the population along the project roads. This included ease of traveling around their neighborhoods or to markets or access to economic opportunities, social service facilities and networks. However, such improvements were not enjoyed by the entire population. It was found that the project primarily benefitted educated, land-owning rice farmers who were able to maximize benefits of the improved road conditions for their existing economic activities. Some people did not perceive significant changes in their access to immediate needs for daily life. Those who did not benefit were often those who did not have resources to use the improved road for better livelihoods.
These findings imply that rural road projects aiming at the improvement of the accessibility of the population to services often did not actually enhance this accessibility. Possible reasons for this include: the criteria employed for selecting roads for project intervention did not account for increased accessibility; and obtaining accessibility would require other types of resources at individual levels, such as basic education and land/monetary assets for income generation, which would not be gained directly through the projects.
This could be addressed by taking the following steps during project preparation:
- Discuss with project stakeholders their accessibility issues that a planned rural road project would help resolve, and how resolving those issues would benefit livelihoods of the population in the project area.
- Define indicators related to “accessibility” by reflecting the above discussion in factors considered to select and determine roads included in the project and their design.
These steps could be undertaken in the project preparatory work that often looks at broader national strategies, as well as other general socio-demographic data. If people have urgent needs for strengthening accessibility to specific places, it is suggested that relevant locations be identified and it be simulated how the project roads at completion would facilitate people’s accessibility to the places.
Rural roads have a wide variety of benefits to local populations as well as to the national and regional economy. Therefore it is essential that we consider how their improvement would benefit those populations living near the roads and enhance their accessibility to services and opportunities for better livelihoods and well-being.