Roads. Who can be against them, right? They allow us to get from A-to-B. And as anyone who has been to a place where there were no roads can attest, their absence is a real impediment to the modern political economy. The construction of roads is thus a central feature of the international development agenda. The World Bank publishes analysis of road investment by developing countries. The World Trade Organization claims ~30% of all overseas development aid ($25-$30 billion) is spent on trade related development—central to which is road construction and maintenance.
Which is why a recent study released on the ecological impact of roads is so depressing. The abstract:
We conducted an analysis of global forest cover to reveal that 70% of remaining forest is within 1 km of the forest’s edge, subject to the degrading effects of fragmentation. A synthesis of fragmentation experiments spanning multiple biomes and scales, five continents, and 35 years demonstrates that habitat fragmentation reduces biodiversity by 13 to 75% and impairs key ecosystem functions by decreasing biomass and altering nutrient cycles. Effects are greatest in the smallest and most isolated fragments, and they magnify with the passage of time. These findings indicate an urgent need for conservation and restoration measures to improve landscape connectivity, which will reduce extinction rates and help maintain ecosystem services.
In a New Yorker piece on the study, Dr. William Laurance at James Cook University in Australia is quoted as saying “Roads scare the hell out of ecologists.” In the context of arguments about a human-driven sixth mass extinction, the news about roads highlights the increasingly relevant tension between development in the model of Western-style industrialization and the capacity of natural systems to cope. None of this, of course, is news to scholars in development or in environmental policy. But for generalist IR scholars it is yet more evidence that the environment needs to be a factor in our analysis.
Respectfully, I’d disagree. I don’t think that physical infrastructure development in general, and road construction in particular, is a central feature of the current international development agenda… The WTO report says that physical infrastructure spending in the ODA of the OECD countries was $12 billion in 2005 — a sum which includes investment in storage, energy, and communications. Given the large number of low and middle income countries that need massive investment, this seems a truly paltry figure. (The US spends more than 10 times that amount annually just on building, maintaining, and operating its own highways.)
I would agree with Lant Pritchett’s argument (https://www.cgdev.org/publication/ft/can-rich-countries-be-reliable-partners-national-development) that there has been an overemphasis on what he calls the “kinky development agenda.” Environmental concerns in this regard often contribute to making Western donor countries fickle and increasingly irrelevant assistance partners. I think as Constructivists, our interests ought to be in tracing how these “post-materialist” groups — such as environmentalists — come to dominate the development agenda in donor countries, define their concerns as antecedent to other claims through narratives, and therefore (often) crowd out the voices of the recipients of aid.
Good points Vikash!