New Internationalist

To Fetch and Carry

Issue 092

The Western industrial model has drawn the gaze of Third World transport planners away from the needs of the majority and towards the narrower world of highways and automobiles. The result, argues John Howe, has been a deepening of social divisions which developing countries could well do without.

One of the ironies of the considerable efforts to help small farms grow more in developing countries is that if successful they will worsen another problem in the production chain: transport. Farmers are above all carriers - typically some 70 per cent of their work involves transport.

Even with modest peasant cultivation the quantities of crops and farm inputs to be moved are substantial - see `Down on the Farm’ . Added to their burden is the water and firewood needed for household use. Combined they add up to a major transport requirement especially as in most of the Third World transport means hand or head or shoulders. The fact that people make and use crude and obviously inefficient devices to carry their loads speaks volumes about the desire to shift the burden from themselves and the lack of alternatives.

Not only is lifting things around the farm exhausting, it is also very time consuming. In Kenya the collection of firewood and water for the house takes between 3 and 6 hours a day: one study in Nepal put the figure for just firewood collection at 6 and 8 hours, There is little time left to be a good farmer, good mother or good anything. Of course much of the work falls on the women: no hard evidence is available, but there is widespread concern that the habitual carrying of heavy loads can cause them physical disabilities and injuries. In East Africa it is thought that the use of the head strap - from which loads are sus­pended onto the back - induces spinal and pelvic disorders with consequent difficulties in childbirth because of the stooped posture needed when carrying heavy loads.

The issue of movement of goods and people in the rural regions of the Third World has always been seen as one of providing or improving the quality of access in and out of the area. The term access has meant most exclusively ‘road access’ for motor vehicles. What has been ignored is that most movement is over rough tracks and paths within the area. Not only that, but planners have re­mained oblivious of how the tracks or highways will be used. They forget the humble wheelbarrow, bicycle or cart and always presume a motor car, bus or pick­up - which demands a high and expensive standard of roadbuilding. Past investment has favoured the construction or improve­ment of major rural highways rather than minor rural roads, although this emphasis is changing. The only recognition that developing countries might have special transport problems has been the effort devoted to the subject of `low cost roads’ still designed for motor vehicles and in reality less expensive rather than ‘low­cost’.

Until recently no-one has thought about the type of vehicles which will use these roads, or if there are vehicles perculiar to developing country needs. A kind of unwritten agreement between aid agencies and governments that it’s `a good thing’ to’ build roads, has emerged. The supply of vehicles and their appropriate­ness is left to the citizens own devices. Some nation’s citizens would have to be very ingenious indeed. For there are plenty of developing countries that are, on the one hand vigorously building rural roads, and on the other have restrictive import or production policies that deny any possibility of vehicles using those roads. Try finding a car showroom in Dar-es­Salaam which actually has something for sale! Even if you have the money, the waiting time for a new truck or pick-up in Bihar, India, is three years. Yet both countries have vigorous rural road con­struction programmes.

The separation of the road and vehicle sides of `road transport’ is yet another case of importing inappropriate ideas from the industrialised world. The separa­tion is traditional in most western countries. There, the private vehicle manufacturers are large and well organised; whilst road building has traditionally been a public monopoly. There is little common ground. Research into the transport requirements of developing countries has merely echoed the cultural and ideological backgrounds of research teams. Certainly the results show little concern for the needs of the poor. There are plenty of publications and research on the latest construction materials, computer models of vehicle operation characteristics, satellite mapping tech­niques of terrain and geology. And of course a plausible case can be always made out to rationalize, optimise, co­ordinate, save precious resources, etc., etc. But does this really help the poor? Who is trying to improve the handcarts, wheelbarrows, bicycles, and animal-drawn carts on which the great majority of Third World people are dependent? United Nations statistics do not even acknowledge their existence.

Investigations into the impact of road building and improvement show that without very careful planning the benefits accrue to the already advantaged success­ful businessmen and investors. Just providing more roads from the country to the town leads to:

• Farms being consolidated, small peasant holdings bought P and an in­crease crease in the number of landless.

• Local industries and crafts declining in the face of factory produce from the towns or overseas - increasing rural unemployment and drift to the squatter settlements of the cities.

• Peasants switching from growing food to growing cash crops. It brings them the money but who grows the food? Generally this means increasing reliance on the grain bowl of North America, and a higher import bill for food.

Perhaps the most telling indictment of efforts to improve the transport for the poor is that so little is known about what they want. Yet typically:

• they work at subsistence farming or harvest small marketable surpluses or are landless labourers.

• they have a family cash income of scarcely more than a hundred dollars a year.

• they are poorly served by all public amenities - including transport. Obviously their most significant trans­port needs are those around their pre­dominant activity - farming. One World Bank study in Kenya suggested that most transport needs were for the movement of small loads (20-300 pounds weight) over short distances (1-15miles). The study highlighted the farmers three great­est transport needs: on-farm, farm-to­roadside, and roadside to collection point or market. The first of these two had previous been completely ignored.

As most of these movements are over rough paths and tracks unsuited to motor vehicles, quite different, more basic vehicles are required. Given that for the poor, vehicles must be cheap, suitable for use on and around farms and be able to be made and repaired locally, there are a range of options:

• aids to head, shoulder and backloading

• handcarts and wheelbarrows

• pedal driven vehicles (bicycles, cycletrailers and tricycles)

• animal transport (pack animals and animal-drawn carts)

• low cost motor vehicles (often based on motorbike technology)

Many such basic vehicles already exist, although too often their use is severely localised. Some are primitive, traditional devices which have remained unchanged for years. Almost all are capable of im­provement using contempory technical knowledge to make them cheaper, easier to use or more widely available. Is it happening? In a limited way, yes.

The Indian government is completing a major study of bullock carts. This will provide the background information to guide the development of improved bullock carts appropriate to local conditions;

• A Korean university has developed an improved version of a traditional back­loading device - the Chee-ke;

• Improved cycle rickshaws are being developed in Bangladesh;

• In Swaziland a tractor/transporter suited to African conditions is in produc­tion;

• Animal carts suited to local condi­tions have been developed and are being manufactured in several African countries;

• The Oxtrike, a multi-purpose pedal tricycle suitable for small-scale manu­facture is now being evaluated in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

However these efforts merely scratch the surface of the problem. Much more needs to be done. It is time for govern­ment and aid institutions to go beyond the frenzied building of country roads and think about what and who will use them. Not only think, but act to ensure there is a sufficient number of efficient but cheap vehicles available to literally lighten the burden of those most heavily put upon in the countryside.

Dr John Howe is Executive Director of Inter­mediate Technology Transport Ltd. He worked previously at the University of Surrey and the Transport and Road Research Laboratory, U.K. He has had professional experience in more than 25 developing countries.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on To Fetch and Carry

Leave your comment