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Roadways – whether asphalt or digital – can facilitate growth, health, knowledge and equality.
Roadways – whether asphalt or digital – can facilitate growth, health, knowledge and equality.

Roads - Paths to prosperity

If you build it, they will come ...These were the illustrious words on the wind that inspired an Iowa farmer in the 1989 blockbuster movie Field of Dreams to level corn and plant a baseball diamond for resurrected legends in its stead. But the words that brought back a Chicago White Sox team are not only good for a night of Totally 80s: Trivial Pursuit; they’re handy in the boardrooms of world economic development.

If you build a road, they will also come.

That’s essentially the idea that built the Silk Road and shaped the geopolitical terrain of central Asia. It’s the motive behind turnpike construction in 19th century industrial America, and it’s still one of the greatest catalysts for growth within the developing world today. As our technologies continue to evolve and recraft our infrastructure solutions, the strategies to stimulate economies and tap into new markets can easily appear daunting and dizzying in complexity.

But history - and basic economic theory - could argue that the same logic that built the industrialised world still applies today. Build a corridor, and by default help build a nation.

There is a kingpin theory of economics that says movement is money. The broader your market, the greater your chance to expand your business and pump more money back into the local economy. More access equals more connectivity; the more connectivity, more influence and profitability.

Geographical isolation, however, hinders economic growth and blocks innovative momentum. According to a UN Habitat study on poverty and sustainable transport, the majority of rural Africa does not live within five kilometres of an all-weather road. In Latin America, 78 per cent of the total road network is rendered unusable because of unpaved and unkempt conditions. The result is a type of economic paralysis that forces local markets to stay small, expensive and vulnerable to regional conditions.

Management scholar CK Prahalad argues the degree to which the market potential of these remote, under-invested communities can be unlocked will determine our future economic prosperity. He says our most potent entrepreneurial talent and consumer opportunities can be found among the two-thirds of the world’s population living at or near the poverty line. These four billion people are brimming with tremendous opportunity, skills and knowledge that in fact make them the engine for the next round of global trade and prosperity.

“If we stop thinking of the poor as victims or as a burden and start recognising them as resilient, creative entrepreneurs and value conscious consumers, a whole new world of opportunity will open up,” Prahalad says.

This type of action requires a massive shift in mindset, in which the developed world no longer sees its role as donors or mentors, but as potential colleagues and consumers. The assumption here is that “everybody, not just the elite” will take part in the story of globalisation and reap its rewards. For this to happen, a change in posture is needed, one that offers a handshake over a handout.

The concept of fighting poverty with profitability is intriguing; it overrides the classic language of international development that teems with top-down terminology around teaching communities “how to fish”. Essentially Prahalad says: “They’ve been fishing all along. We need to connect them to bigger ports.”

So, when it comes to uncorking and connecting this latent potential of disconnected communities within the developing world, a good road network is a good place to begin. Suddenly, agricultural communities have new markets for buying and trading; the ease of travel lifts production and lowers freight costs; human connectedness increases local employment and profitability boosts living standards. Shop owners can reduce prices, thanks to lower import costs, and ease the burden on local consumers. There’s new space for entrepreneurial innovation. And there’s impetus for consumers to buy better cars.

Or roadways could take on less visceral forms, linking isolated communities to markets that rely primarily on the digital movement of data. Countries only starting with industrialisation may be more poised to leapfrog expensive, traditional infrastructure and go straight into more efficient, digital forms. Information highways can potentially unlock profound market value, even if the asphalt is never laid. After all, the corridors of the future are becoming all the more invisible as the future unfolds.

Roads facilitate growth and health, knowledge and equality - all cornerstone elements of civil society. They are pipelines for empowerment and mobility - catalytic forms of economic opportunity within rural and under-developed areas. They are also increasingly invisible and potentially more profound as a pathway out of poverty. Both forms are needed as hard-hitting solutions in the arena of international development. In asphalt or digital, the simple lessons of history remain. If all else fails, start by building a road.

This article courtesy of

Portia Derby

Portia Derby is a senior regional director with Aurecon South Africa.

Thursday, 18 October, 2018 05:47am
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