03/17/2008 03:39 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Poor Roads and the Broken Path to Development

Our drive through the picturesque Zomba region of southern Malawi, with its thick forests and rolling hills, is suddenly interrupted by ground so unstable we are thrown forward and backward in the seats of our truck.

It feels like an earthquake, but it's just a typical rural African road. The major highway out of the capital Lilongwe has ended, and the rest of the journey is on dirt roads that connect nearby cities. It's bumpy, full of enormous potholes, and thanks to the recent rain, covered in mud. Within 20 minutes, we are stuck.

This treacherous journey is part of everyday life in much of rural Africa, where roads are largely sub-par or non-existent. What turned into a mere inconvenience for us--it took an hour to free our truck from the mud--is far more serious for the locals, as the lack of a single useable road can determine whether they get an education or even basic medical care.

"In a life and death situation, if you don't have a road, you don't go to the clinic." explains Robin Wiszowaty, an American development worker in East Africa's famed Masai Mara region.

Infrastructure is one of the most fundamental elements of development, yet is often overlooked by both local governments and NGOs. So decent roads remain severely lacking in large parts of Africa. According to the World Bank, Sub-Saharan Africa has 0.08 kilometres of road for every square kilometre of land, compared to 0.58 kilometres of road in developed countries like France and England.

Rural African roads that do exist are often made of dirt and poorly kept, meaning they don't stand a chance against the rainy season, which can last for months. Even minimal use can cause the roads to deteriorate quickly, with gapping holes making them impassable and even dangerous. Produce trucks and farm tractors don't stand a chance and regularly become stuck, isolating communities from one another and trapping locals.

And when the roads are not useable for something as simple as walking to the next community, children have difficulty attending their schools, pregnant mothers cannot reach hospitals in town and farmers have no way of tending to and selling their crops at larger markets. It also means that deliveries of food aid, medical care and other supplies into these communities become a logistical nightmare.

Wiszowaty says she is regularly approached by people in her community who are in desperate need of a ride to the local hospital. If the roads are good enough, as they were when a woman suffering life-threatening labour complications recently knocked at her door, she drives them. If not, they have no choice but to attempt the 20 kilometre trek in a wheelbarrow.

"If she didn't have the road, she wouldn't have made it," Wiszowaty says of the pregnant woman.

In recent years, the World Bank has begun working with European and African governments to fund infrastructure projects in poor areas. One of these projects, which built all-season gravel roads in parts of Ethiopia, doubled the maize and wheat yields of local farmers in a year and a half, helping them earn a much better income for their families.

But a lot of work remains. The World Bank says that in places like Mali and Senegal, less than 30 per cent of the roads are in "good" or "fair" condition. Without more improvements, millions of people will remain isolated.

Without modern roads, other development advances in education, the economy and healthcare will remain out of reach for the people who need these services most. Infrastructure may not be the most glamorous project for NGOs and governments to fund, but it is a fundamental one.

Because the road to progress must not be an impassable one.