This is another in my burgeoning genre of “op-eds I tried to publish somewhere else but couldn’t so here you go.” I wrote it in fall of last year when I knew slightly less about African infrastructure development.
For the past two years I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mbala District, Zambia, teaching fish farming to rural farmers. I also worked on projects in malaria and HIV prevention, nutrition, and women’s empowerment. I was enthusiastic about the work and unlike many PCVs I came back feeling energized about the ability to impact change in developing countries. But I also came back convinced that in a whole career of development work, there is nothing anyone could do in that village that would help them as much as building a paved road would.
My village was a mere 12km from the town of Mbala and connected via a dirt road. The quality of the road changed throughout the year, with the community spending weeks repairing it during the dry season only to have the rainy season carve deep chasms and massive mud pits into it. When rain hadn’t turned the road into a river, it took a 4×4 Land Cruiser about an hour to make the trip. Based on my experiences with that road, I have become an absolute convert to the school of infrastructure development.
I think the biggest long-term impact of building infrastructure will be on education. Newly hired teachers in Zambia are assigned to rural schools which probably don’t have access to electricity or running water. Teachers work as hard as they can to get transferred from these schools as quickly as possible. Building a road to a village followed quickly by power lines means rural schools will be better able to recruit and keep teachers so the kids in a village actually have a shot at education.
Even in schools with the best teachers, the lack of infrastructure massively hampers education. There are basic problems: students in Zambia have a required computer course to graduate secondary school, but at a school without electricity students will never see a computer, let alone get experience on one. Schools in Zambia are also responsible for printing standardized tests. At a school near me, which had only one government teacher and no electricity, printing these tests meant he had to walk 12km to town during the week. After printing them, he then had to walk back, leaving his students without a teacher for the day. With electricity and a printer, this all-day task becomes a 20-minute one.
Better infrastructure leads directly to better health outcomes. One of the major determining factors for the risk of a child dying of malaria in Zambia is the distance between that child and the nearest hospital. Right now, a child sick with malaria faces a walk under the African sun or an impossibly expensive taxi ride. Hiring a taxi to drive to my village over the dirt road cost 150-200 kwatcha. The farmers I knew struggled to earn 60 kwatcha for school fees every year. But in Zambia, paved roads are quickly followed by minibus service provided by plucky entrepreneurs. A minibus service over the same distance on a paved road would probably cost about 10 kwatcha. With paved roads, a sick child can actually get to a hospital when they need one.
Patients living with HIV have to travel to the hospital monthly to receive their medicine. An all-day 24km round trip walk every month can be insurmountable. That paved road and minibus service would save their lives too. Lacking their own transportation, health outreach workers rarely if ever make it to distant villages. A paved road makes it possible for these workers to actually go out and conduct bed net checks, provide training on malaria transmission and sexual health, and help make sure people are sticking to their regimens. Northern Zambia has one of the highest rates of malaria and HIV and both are problems that will never be kept in check until the infrastructure network is in place to make sure change happens.
The existence of basic infrastructure spurs other aid and development. Despite there being a variety of NGOs based in the town of Mbala, none of them operated in my area. They were willing to drive 50km west along the paved Chinese-built Mbala-Nakonde road (pictured up top), where they could access target villages in under an hour from town, but would not drive 12km east over a dirt road to my village. A village with a paved road is suddenly actually connected to the world’s development resources.
Roads extend the rule of law. The police in Zambia are chronically underfunded, and getting them to travel to a rural village often requires covering their expenses. Given the difficulty of getting to a rural village like mine, the police are unlikely to ever come. With a road in place, the police can actually show up. It would be easier for every other aspect of government to show up too: forestry officers can come and fight illegal logging, land surveyors can come and do the inspections necessary for rural farmers to get deeds to their farms, and the list goes on.
The United States has not helped to contribute to Zambian road infrastructure. From 2013-2018, the Millennium Challenge Corporation spent $332 million to help upgrade Lusaka’s water supply, which is necessary infrastructure I support, but nothing advertises America’s good will like a road. I never heard anyone talk about the water supply, but every road I traveled over people knew exactly who built it. Zambia is nearing completion of their Link 8000 project, named for the 8201km of roads constructed under the program. This should have been an ideal project for the US to get involved in; it was initiated by the local government and had clear, tangible goals. The US was invited to participate, but did not join. Zambia turned to China for funding instead, with work done by Chinese contractors. Spending America’s time and money on basic road infrastructure is a fantastic way to show the world how to do it right: at a reasonable cost, with as much skill and technology transfer as possible, to produce a high-quality product. Every kilometer of road America helps pave accrues good will and helps improve people’s lives.