Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Is improved transport and communication a blessing?

It is very common that people explain lack of development with deficient infrastructure, e.g. bad roads, no railroad etc. If you look at where economic development takes place it is clear that coastal areas compares very well compared with others. Three percent of the land area that is within 100 km from the coastline has 13% of the world's population and 32% of the world's GDP. With the exception of a few European countries , all land-locked countries are relatively poor. Outside of Europe, the 29 countries without coast have a GDP of US$1,771 per person and those with coast had a GDP per person of US$5,567 in the end of the 1990s. Even if you compare the development in countries without a coast (e.g. Bolivia, Paraguay, Rwanda, Zambia and Nepal with the inland of big countries with a coast (Brazil, China and India), the economic development is stronger in those inlands, despite that their distance to the coast is as great (FAO 2003). Coastal zones are often rich and give human settlements the combination of drawing from resources both in the sea an on shore. Even more important is probably that communications and trade are well developed in coastal areas. So it is a fair assumption that improved communication is a boon for economic development. But are things so simple?

The transportation sector accounts for over a quarter of total world energy use, and the proportion has increased since 1973. Cars, trucks and air transport take most of the transport energy; in the EU, road transport represents 82% and air transport represent 14% of the transport energy. Transport of people both for work and for leisure increase dramatically as people become wealthier. A flight from England to Mallorca was a big thing, and very costly in the 1960s, now it is almost like catching a bus, and would be a lot more so if it weren’t for all the security measures. Unless there is a major shift away from current patterns of energy use, world transportation energy use is expected to grow at 2% per year, with energy use 80% above 2002 levels by 2030 (UNEP 2009, IEA 2009, EU 2010). In that perspective, the transport sector is problematic to say the least.

Lev Tolstoy's character Levin in Anna Karenina notes that the railways provided no support for the agriculture sector, on the contrary, it supported the expansion of credit and industry at the expense of the farm sector (Tolstoy 1925). The roads and railways that once were built to generate wealth can finally also be used for moving people away; many of the early railway hubs are now empty of people. The highways criss-crossing the USA didn't prevent the interior from going empty. And the better roads of the inland of Sweden seems to promote the expansion of large malls in the outskirts of county capitals as well as being the final blow to small rural shops.

Improvements in transportation technology, in particular steamships and rail-roads were both a driver and prerequisite for the increased trade. A bushel of wheat cost 60 cents in Chicago 1870 and the double in London. By the end of the century transport costs, and thereby the price difference, had shrunk to 10 cents (FAO 2003). This increased global competition tremendously, which of course was good for the winners - but for the losers? A report from the World Bank, ”Rural Roads: The Development Impact Evaluation Initiative” concludes that richer people have better possibilities to increase their income through improved communication than the poor. The Asian Development Bank says:
Most of the journeys made by the rural poor are for subsistence tasks. For them, access to local facilities and the primary transport network is critical during times of need, especially for health and social reasons. Improvements to the primary village network of paths, tracks, culverts,and access routes that reduce the burden of basic household and productive tasks, as well as the increased availability of intermediate modes of transport with larger carrying capacity to collect water, firewood, etc., are likely to have a greater initial impact on the well-being of the poor than improved availability of motorized transport services, which they do not or cannot afford to use.
A World Bank research paper from Uganda concludes that:

Taking into account the fact that plot size is limited on average to less than 1 hectare, a farmer's transport requirement is usually minimal and does not necessarily involve massive investments in infrastructure. This is because most farmers cannot fully load a truck or pay for this service and, even if productivity were to increase significantly, the production threshold would not be reached by most individual farmers. Therefore, in terms of public policy, maintenance of the existing rural roads rather than opening new roads should be given priority.
The similarity in effects of globalisation and "improved" (read cheap) communication/transportation is very cleary. After writing this post, I read a post in the Ttransition Culture blog that says: "In the same way that vast amounts of cheap fossil fuels made globalisation possible, the end of the age of cheap oil will inevitably put globalisation into reverse." It was also posted in the Guardian.

All in all, I guess, roads give more opportunities to people, but it seems less clear to me that they necessarily leads to improvements in rural areas.  The fact that countries with good rural networks are the ones that lost most of their rural population is disturbing.

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