Who Loves Roads?

by Joshua Foust on 5/30/2008 · 2 comments

Harry Rud certainly does. At least now.

I take it all back. Roads are great. I’d forgotten how great roads are. Really. Having recently driven along part of Afghanistan’s Great Ring Road for the first time, I am converted. It was so smooth not a single pothole did I feel, you could actually sit back and enjoy the ride instead of bracing yourself for the next whip-lash jolt. It had bridges instead of large gaps with rivers running through them. It had neatly painted milestones and, forgive my excitement, an elegant white line painted down the middle. What splendour!

…It also took us where we wanted to go in about one tenth of the time it would have taken to cover the same distance in the fair province of Ghor. And commerce, life blood of a country etc, was travelling along it most merrily.

He raises an interesting point, however: is economic development the same as poverty alleviation? Groups like Next Billion and The World Bank certainly would—that by creating sound markets, you create the structural economy that “lifts all boats” (to mangle an analogy). The problem with this is that it is a long term solution: absolutely necessary for the long-term health of a society (and I’m sure Rud wouldn’t disagree with that), but not necessarily helpful in the short run.

The short term needs of Afghanistan are very severe. While the U.S. and NATO prefer to focus on security—Marines and clearing towns and air strikes—survey after survey indicate the problems that loom largest in their minds is development and corruption.

More immediately still, the global crisis in wheat has had serious repercussions on typical Afghan households, as families have been forced to spend the majority of their income—in some cases pushing 70%—just on food. There were even rumors of people reduced to eating grass in Ghazni. The price spikes have raised tensions along the already-tense border.

And so on. What I’m getting at is that Rud is probably onto something huge: that, even though roads are indeed essential for the long-term health of Afghanistan (recall my only problem with them was the attempt to sell their construction as a counter-IED strategy), to focus on them without a concurrent (and, truth be told, massive) focus on the immediate and pressing needs of Afghan families is like telling an overweight middle aged man to eat more fiber while he’s having a heart attack. It’s not wrong per se, but the timing is probably poor.

This isn’t to advocate the cessation of road construction. Quite the opposite: I shall repeat again my entreaty for additional roads. But there must be more done to address the pressing needs of the hundreds of thousands of families who are staring starvation in the face. We owe them at least that much.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 2 comments }

Tim Stevens June 6, 2008 at 4:30 am

You might be interested in this new article in the Journal of Cultural Economy: ‘Otherwise Engaged’: Culture, deviance and the quest for connectivity through road construction.

Şarkı Dinle June 6, 2008 at 3:10 pm

This writer is good.. :S

The short term needs of Afghanistan are very severe. While the U.S. and NATO prefer to focus on security—Marines and clearing towns and air strikes—survey after survey indicate the problems that loom largest in their minds is development and corruption.

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