Thursday, May 7, 2009

More of the Basics, Please

A recent report concludes that road traffic accidents (RTA) kill more people than malaria and recommends a worldwide improvement in road safety. RTAs kill 1.3 million, compared with 1 million deaths from malaria. The report authors estimate that a $300 million investment in road improvements, campaigns and more traffic police could save 5 million lives over a 10 year period. The cost of RTAs worldwide is estimated at $100 billion.

I took a bus from Arusha to Nairobi yesterday and most of the journey was on temporary roads, disintegrating roads and congested roads. It wasn’t the worst journey I have ever made in East Africa but it was fairly typical. There were many dangers and we passed many accident scenes, the usual story.

However, it seems ironic that the report recommends more traffic police. Vehicles are stopped every few kilometres by traffic police. In fact, they are a major cost for drivers and they simply slow everyone down, they don’t actually prevent accidents. The police are only interested in collecting the ‘revenue’ that drivers and conductors surreptitiously hand to them as they pass.

And if traffic police don’t ensure that people keep to the rules of the road, a campaign to raise awareness will be of little use. As for improving the roads, that may only result in people going faster. That sounds very defeatist and I don’t wish to be defeatist. I think road and other infrastructure improvements are vital. But there are other problems on the roads aside from their terrible state.

As for public spending on infrastructure, much of that is controlled by donors, such as the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund). They have for a long time been reducing the amount spent on infrastructure projects, social services, health, education and what not. They have applied wage caps for public sector workers, so even where facilities can be built, they are not usually supplied with enough of the requisite staff, resources or anything else needed to operate.

Improvements in roads and other infrastructure would have many benefits, in addition to reducing RTAs. Many businesses are struggling to distribute or sell their products because they are isolated by lack of good roads. Many areas don’t have any businesses or trade with the outside world because they are just not connected by road, rail, air or anything else; water and electricity supplies are infrequent or non-existent.

Another article considers the level of disaster preparedness in developing countries and finds it ‘woefully inadequate’. When that petrol tanker exploded in the Kenyan Rift Valley, partly as a result of the country’s poor infrastructure, there were predictable problems getting emergency services there and getting people to hospitals quickly. When Nakumatt was on fire, there were problems getting to the site, getting enough water and directing people away from the fire area safely.

Supposing large consignments of drugs are needed in isolated areas, say antiretroviral drugs, the cost of getting those drugs to the people who need them is made up to a large extent of the logistics of the exercise. Many antiretroviral and other drugs are funded by donors and a large part of the money will go on providing ad hoc and often temporary infrastructure. The health professionals that are needed to ensure the proper distribution and use of these drugs are also let down by the lack of infrastructure.

If a disease were to start spreading rapidly in Kenya, or any other developing country, it could spread far and wide before much could be done, perhaps even before anyone would notice. Some countries are expected to have a problem identifying diseases that have flu-like symptoms because there are so many of them. But a lot of health and other disasters could be averted if the country’s resilience were to be improved substantially. However, in the past in Kenya, people's immediate needs have been ignored and everything is left until it becomes a crisis. This which must be the most inefficient and expensive way of doing things.

Incidentally, there is a lot of hype at the moment about the new high speed internet connection that should cover the whole of Kenya some time in the middle of this year. It would be great if such coverage were to be achieved. But it seems unlikely to solve internet connection problems if the country continues to experience long periods of insufficient or unreliable power supply. Reliable power supply would seem to be a more immediate need than a high speed internet connection and it certainly needs to be in place for the internet connection to be of any use.

There may be a lot of scope for mobile internet but there are a lot of problems with mobile phones that need to be ironed out first, including the electricity supply problem. But what I find surprising is the number of people who hardly ever use the internet or who have never used it. Literacy and school achievement in some areas are very low. And the fact that many people can access the mobile internet does not mean that low literacy and academic achievement will become a thing of the past. I’m all for technology, I spent many years as an IT consultant, but it needs to be appropriate and people’s immediate needs have to be addressed. Development must not be dominated by a purely commercial agenda.

Give people more of the basics, more of the things they need immediately; things like roads, water, electricity, health, education and social services. Once they have these, the advanced technologies may have a place in developing countries.


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