The Road Untravelable

Posted on February 16, 2008 by ELCA World Hunger

This winter has been brutal for the roads in Chicago. Huge temperature swings and plenty of snow and ice are crumbling the concrete. My commute to work has become an obstacle course of potholes. There are two strategies for navigating the course: 1) slow down and drive through the potholes, hoping you’re not causing too much damage to your suspension and tires, or 2) slow down and weave around – in your lane and out of it – to avoid hitting them. In the end, you do both, and so does everyone else. The main results are that it takes longer to get anywhere, and all the swerving makes driving scarier than usual. I’m guessing the mechanics are doing a better business than usual, too.

Winter-ravaged roads are a great illustration of their importance. If you don’t have good roads, life is harder. Poor road conditions mean it’s difficult to receive or send goods. Remote villages the world over experience poverty and hunger, partly due to the roads. When roads are badly rutted, frequently muddy, washed out, or in some other form of disrepair, vehicles trying to pass will have to go slowly and are likely to sustain damage. If you’re a business person trying to deliver goods, you’ll have to raise your prices to compensate for the time, fuel, and maintenance costs. Schedules may be irregular depending on when you can get through and how long it takes. If the goods being delivered are perishable, and if delivery schedules are dependent on road conditions and whether or not a truck breaks down, villagers may face perpetual shortages. And to top it all off, once the goods arrive, villagers may not be able to afford them. The suppliers must raise prices to cover their transportation costs, which may make the items too expensive for the small incomes of remote villagers. If suppliers are unable to sell their goods, they are likely to stop coming altogether.

This road is a two-way street (a little infrastructure humor, there). The transportation challenges are true for the villager trying to sell outside the village, too. The costs required to get goods or people to other markets may raise prices to such a degree that the villager can’t compete. The remote village is cut off from larger markets that can increase incomes, create jobs, and improve standards of living. Poverty and hunger become more common.

All of this about roads, and they are only one aspect of infrastructure! It still amazes me, sometimes, how many factors contribute to poverty and hunger. But if there’s a bright side, it’s that all these factors mean there are lots of ways to approach solutions, too.