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OPINION

It All Starts With A Road

Inger Andersen, Vice President of the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank

International Road Federation website

November 12, 2013

The World Bank Group is now unified behind the clear mission of ending extreme poverty by 2030 while at the same time boosting the income of the bottom 40 percent in every country. These twin goals present innumerable challenges, not the least of which will be prioritizing our actions on a wide range of urgent needs.

Universal access to water is an obvious candidate for our attention, as is the fact that some 600 million people in Africa alone still lack a reliable source of electricity.  The list is long and every item of critical importance. But if we listen to the voices of the poor, one clear demand emerges.

They all want roads.

It is the recurring theme in Voices of the Poor, a study that collected the views of more than 60,000 poor people from 60 countries. The fact that 1.2 billion people worldwide still lack access to an all-weather road underscores both the scope and urgency of the demand.

Roads for development

Technological innovation has brought immense benefits to countless people, with the promise of yet more to come. A cellphone now enables a farmer to know the demand and prices for the crops she produces. Without a road that allows her to transport her goods to market, however, that information has little value.

Roads open the door to transformational shifts enabled by technology. People and goods need to move for an economy to grow, for wealth to be created, for prosperity to be shared.

In short, it all starts with a road. Mobility is a precondition for development. Much as a dynamic economy depends on the movement of goods and services, people rely on roads to access employment, education and health.

The results of our investments in roads have shown how transformative an infrastructure they can be. Our support for the rehabilitation and construction of rural roads in Morocco, through the First National Rural Roads Program, helped double the primary education enrollment and the frequency of hospital visits in the beneficiary communities.

In recognition that transport services underpin trade, we are supporting the Iraq Transport corridor Project and the Yemen Corridor Highway Project. These road networks will boost internal trade by connecting agricultural, fish, oil, gas and mineral production sites to consumption, manufacturing and export outlets.

Safe, clean and affordable

Roads and transport services are fundamental building blocks for human and economic development but they also pose risks.  To realize the full potential of this transformative infrastructure, steps must be taken to ensure they are inclusive and to mitigate their negative effects on the environment and public health. This is the thrust of the World Bank Group’s transport sector strategy: Safe, Clean, and Affordable Transport for Development.

Along with linking previously marginalized communities, inclusiveness also means increasing access to transport for Persons with Limited Mobility – people with disabilities or injuries, the elderly, pregnant women, and women with babies. Safe, accessible and affordable transportation for this vulnerable group is an economic and social imperative.

While roads have had a positive effect on health, bringing people within reach of medical facilities, they are also the source of one the greatest dangers to public health in the Middle East and North Africa region.  

Iran, Libya, Oman and Saudi Arabia are among the 10 countries with the highest traffic fatality rates in the world. Road crashes cost up to six percent of Gross Domestic Product in Saudi Arabia and seven percent in Oman.

Roads can be made safer. The World Bank Group actively supports the United Nations Decade of Action for Road Safety and will do its utmost, through its Global Road Safety Facility, to help halve the expected death and injury rates on the roads of the developing world. Actions on road safety would save some 380,000 lives in the region over the next 10 years and avoid approximately 3.8 million serious injuries. There are signs that the region has begun to take the matter seriously, with Saudi Arabia launching a National road Safety Strategy.

For the sake of future generations, and to gain the maximum benefit, roads need to be made safer and cleaner.

It is essential to transition to a low-emission transport sector as it is currently a big polluter, contributing 20 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions. Road construction today must incorporate technical developments that will reduce emissions from expected traffic, along with investment in low-emission modes of transport that will avoid a lock-in to high fossil fuel intensity and costs for the future.

A Bank study on the economic costs of traffic congestion in Cairo, for example, estimates that about seven million tons of CO2 could be saved every year if congestion were reduced. 

Sharing a common good

Roads are a common good and need to be approached as such. Their impacts transcend national borders. We need to commit to sharing this common good for development and poverty reduction, and for the benefit of all.

(First published on International Road Federation website, November 11, 2013)