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The Road to Everywhere

by Dr Eric Boa

I’ve spent a lot of my working life on the road, an inevitable consequence of a long career in international development and working in agriculture and with plants. You can grow crops in most places and plants are adapted to all environments, so if you want to find out what’s going on then you need to get on the road. It’s often boring and frequently uncomfortable but there are bonuses. One of the biggest is the opportunity to witness how people go about their lives.

In Bangladesh roads hum with an ever-changing array of vehicles, from wandering bicycles and rowdy rickshaws to aggressive trucks and bullying buses. Roads provide a raised place for farmers to dry their rice, guarded by family members who valiantly try to prevent impatient cars and lorries from scattering their grains. Roads in Niger are a calmer affair, long and straight, with few people and vehicles. The view rarely changes in the flat southern swathes of the country. One shrub and tree looks like another. I fell asleep for several hours on the 660 km drive, as a passenger, from Niamey to Maradi and woke up thinking that the car hadn’t moved.

I become particularly irritated by events that make journeys longer and more hazardous. The return from Tingo Maria to Lima in Peru was delayed by two days because half a hillside collapsed. I learnt three new words in Spanish: derrumbe, terremoto and transbordero, which respectively mean landslide, earthquake and ‘nutcases who clamber up the treacherous mudslide to breach the blockage’. Traffic jams I can sort of cope with, but transport strikes in Bolivia (paro) and Bangladesh (hartal) are deeply frustrating and often hazardous. Venture on to the road during a hartal and you risk having your windscreen smashed. My one and only whiff of tear gas was in La Paz.

Coastal highway, Lima

The quality of roads is often poor, and not just in the global south. Suburban roads in south-west London, where I live, have been dug up more often than nearby allotments. The condition of Interstate highways in the US is just that: somewhere between bad and awful. I include these observations to avoid a condition I’ll call ‘things are always better at home’. Ever aware of unconscious bias, let me say I’ve driven on splendid roads in Honduras, courtesy of the EU, and the glorious Comilla bypass in Bangladesh, funded by the Asian Development Bank.

I have been gratefully surprised by the excellent condition of the main highways in Nigeria and the eight-lane Jagorawi toll road that sped us – albeit only four lanes when I lived in Indonesia in the 1980s – on our way from Jakarta to Bogor. The joy of reaching these roads was admittedly enhanced by escaping the mayhem of congested feeder roads from nearby urban areas, but that’s a familiar feeling anywhere.

Road building and repair in the global south is intimately related to donor funding. It follows a simple rule: improving transport and reducing travel times is good for everyone. Even, counter-intuitively, in the Chapare, the main coca-producing area in Bolivia. Better roads enables farmers to switch to valuable export crops and get them fresh to market. Some new roads are better than others. A wonderful 15 km stretch of road, paid for by the EU, just stopped. There’s always the suspicion that road building is a route to someone’s pocket rather than a deserving destination.

It’s easy to be suspicious in international development, preferring venal to noble explanations for big projects, whether it’s a road or some other major construction. Yet I’m keen to know who decides to build roads and why. Donor funding always has an element of self-interest, from noble altruism to crude influence-peddling and geopolitical status. Which brings me to a mysterious pile of gravel outside Butembo, in eastern DR Congo, one I’ve passed several times. The pile hinted at big improvements to the crumbling and pitted road to Beni, part of the main north-south artery that ends in Goma, yet remained unused over those several years. A friend said that the Chinese wanted to improve the road yet they were denied by the government based in faraway Kinshasa because of political differences with Eastern Congo.

Further north, the road from Beni to Komanda is now graded, also with help from the Chinese government. My delight at the smoother ride was slightly tempered by the increasing speed of vehicles. Despite local rumours, no convicts were used in the upgrading of the road. The use of cheap labour by Chinese companies is a common accusation in East Africa, yet there’s scant evidence this happens. I’d like to offer a big xièxie, thank you in Mandarin Chinese, as do millions of other folk around the world who’ve benefited from the world’s biggest and most expensive project. Welcome to the Road to Everywhere, better known as the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI).

Despite its huge and staggering size and scope you may not have heard of the BRI. In short, the BRI involves 134 countries, began in 2013 and has a value of around $4 trillion. Think of it as a modern-day Silk Road, except the BRI also includes maritime routes. I wasn’t thinking of the BRI when looking at the Butembo gravel pile, or indeed the capacious deep seaport at Hambantota in Sri Lanka, also funded from China. But then I remembered that the controversial new port is in the heartland of the Rajapaksa family, one of whom is currently President. So was his brother.

My interest in the BRI has been further piqued not only because of the implications of expanding Chinese investments - cries of financial foul and debt crises in recipient countries are increasing in frequency and volume. I’m interested in the consequences of improved road and rail networks for the movement of plants and the pests and diseases that are as big a threat as any human pathogen.

Entrepreneurial adventurism and empire-building by European countries has left a legacy of resource depletion and a failure to strengthen new nations in the global south, many of which were created by arbitrary borders created to suit the colonising nations. As China undertakes a global expansion of trade and investment, the immediate opportunity to maximize returns comes with other responsibilities. Building a new road may sooth the backsides of weary travellers and get them to their destination quicker but does little to improve governance, society and livelihoods.

Transporter on road to Dushanbe, Tajikistan

I’ll talk more about these responsibilities in a future article and reflect further on the BRI in China’s near-neighbours, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and well beyond. Not for nothing do I call it the Road to Everywhere. I’m still grateful for smoother drives and shorter journeys, but I’m also thinking more widely about how agriculture and farmers are being affected by the global ambitions of China. I will of course be taking my Chinese-made phone, camera gear and other goods that have helped China achieve a remarkable reduction in poverty. But perhaps there are some potholes along the way and cracks appearing in the tarmac.


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