It may not be as dramatic as millions of dollars in emergency aid to fight famine, but the recent US$110 million road-building aid package for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) announced by the World Bank and Great Britain may save more lives in the long run. It’s a pittance in comparison to what’s needed, of course, but as part of a larger long-term effort, even this small package will have an impact.
The DRC has 2,250 km of paved roads—-supposedly. Even if they all actually existed in passable form and were laid end-to-end, they wouldn’t reach all the way across the nation. The UN Joint Logistics Center reported in 2006 (before it ceased operations in the DRC due to the ongoing conflicts) that the Congo has an additional 15,000 km of unpaved roads, 43,000 km of tracks, 21,000 km of country roads, and 90,000 km of local roads.
Lack of passable all-weather roads is one of the most significant infrastructure shortcomings in the country. Roads are necessary to provide access to important services such as schools and hospitals, deliver aid, and enable peace-keeping forces to reach remote areas under attack by rebel war lords. On a much more mundane, level, however, they are essential for boot-strapping efforts to help the agricultural economy. Great Britain is contributing $60 million to the project because, as British ambassador Nick Kay pointed out, roads
“…are also of a major importance in the agricultural sector, whose revival constitutes an important way of reducing poverty in the DRC.”
The funds are slated for the rehabilitation and upgrading of 1,800 km of high priority roads in the DRC provinces of Orientale, South Kivu and Katanga. Even while much use of them will be made by the mining interests in those regions, others will benefit as well since highways, unlike railroads, can be used by everyone from long-haul truckers to short-haul bicyclists. Other, similar projects in the DRC are being financed by the European Union and the African Development Bank.
Modern transportation systems are the backbones of modern agricultural economies. If farmers can’t get their goods to world markets, they can’t compete in them (all other issues notwithstanding). Farmers who can’t send their goods to market have no incentive to produce more food than their own family needs to survive, so they don’t invest in equipment, fertilizer, irrigation, or land.
It may be overly simplistic, but the $60,000 spent to provide a mile of passable road in the Congo may feed more people than the 120 tons of rice (at recent prices) the same $60,000 would purchase for famine relief.