Stop this craze about tarmacked roads, they don't guarantee development

By PATRICK MBATARU
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In Kenya, we assume more tarmacked roads is all we need for economic development. This is grounded on unsound presumptions.

Firstly, policymakers assume everyone has enough skills to draw maximum benefits from a new road. When a road is paved, do markets automatically crop up? What if there are no markets or those already there have failed? Markets themselves require specific skills, which do not come packaged in a new road. And what if farmers can’t afford tools and inputs to produce goods for the supposed markets?

Secondly, it is assumed the only problem poor people have is income. In Theology and Poverty, Catholic scholar Gustavo Gutiérrez writes that social and political alienation are also crucial problems. People need to participate meaningfully in the social, religious, and political affairs in their societies, otherwise income becomes secondary. Failure to address this alienation explains why we have an increasingly restless generation, despite all the roads we have been constructing.

Thirdly, leaders assume everyone has equal access rights to supporting resources required to enable them benefit substantially from a new road. Does everyone near a new road project have the necessary rights to resources like land to enable them reap maximum benefits from the project? In Kenya, land prices quickly skyrocket at the smallest whiff of a new infrastructure, effectively pushing many further away from the project. 

Then this argument: Paved roads attract industries. Now, how many industries have been set up along Thika Road since its improvement? Rather, there is a boom of malls full of Chinese made goods.

Concretely, who benefits from these brown or greenfield road projects? There are about five million car owners in Kenya. It is a pleasure riding on the newly paved roads up to remote hamlets. But the majority have to walk around, or rely on an exploitative public transport. More taxation is often necessary to fund roads expansion. Obviously, the poor suffer higher prices of basic goods and services.

Why can’t our leaders see the political benefits of rapid mass transit? Surely, the guy who puts a tram system in Nairobi could easily be our president forever, the Constitution be damned! Addis Ababa has a new light railway system. Dar-es-Salaam is experimenting with Bus Rapid Transport (BRT). We are dilly-dallying about it and it is not difficult to see why. Our political system is structured in such a way as to benefit only a favoured few.

It is called “client politics”.  A new road avails about 15 avenues for “eating”: from buying land to road furniture. A tramline has fewer opportunities of extracting rent. Road infrastructure economists say that in comparison to the cost of improving Thika Superhighway, it would have cost less to build a tramway connecting Embakasi-Kikuyu-Thika-Ongata Rongai areas. Thika Road improvement cost about Sh40 billion and gobbles up one billion shillings yearly to maintain! In client politics, the government is beholden to cartels. The owners of matatus will do anything to scuttle plans to streamline the public transport if their interests are threatened.

Finally, no amount of infrastructural development will prevent the feeling of alienation in sections of the society, if people feel left out from these projects. Eventually, there could be a heavy social cost to pay if we do not address this problem.

By Kenyan Digest

The Kenyan Digest Team