Road to Nowhere Rural Road Programme Lags Behind Plan

While Ethiopia has been applauded by international organizations for its efficiency in developing roadways, analysts say that current efforts to build rural roads leaves a lot to be desired.  Less than half of the proposed roadways mentioned in the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) have been developed in the past four years. Stakeholders point to lack of management and machinery as well as inefficient contractors as the main reasons development lags behind. EBR’s Samson Hailu explains what, if anything, is being done to make Ethiopia’s road-building reputation come out on top once again.

Arguably, one of the success stories of the EPRDF-led Ethiopian government during the past two decades is its infrastructure development. Road construction is perhaps chief among these efforts. 

Despite the success in achieving the plans in asphalt and cross-country gravel highways in its successive Road Sector Development Programs (RSDP), the development efforts lag behind in its plans for rural roads connectivity- a plan envisioned to connect all Kebeles through a roadway system.

According to Ethiopian Roads Authority (ERA), approximately 64Pct of the land area in Ethiopia lies more than 5km from an all-weather road. Around 48 million people in rural areas live further than 2Km away from the nearest all-weather road. On average, households are often more than 10Km away from a dry-weather road and 18Km away from public transport services. And 43Pct of all Kebele do not have any motorable access and are impassable or unreachable by motorized transport in any season. 

Connecting these kebeles requires the construction of 71,523 km of all-weather access roads. “In response to this need, and as part of the RSDP-IV, [the] government embarked on a Universal Rural Road Access Program (URRAP) that sets out to connect all Kebele by roads of a standard that provides all-weather, year round access, meets the needs of the rural communities, [which] are affordable and maintainable,” says the programme document.

It has now been almost four years since the URRAP came to the picture with a vision of connecting all Kebele’s in the country to major all-weather roads by 2014/15 in addition to interlinking each Kebele’s with gravel roads. A little more than 71,500Km of rural road were planned to be constructed throughout the program duration. Achieving this means reducing the burden of most rural communities dramatically by enhancing the percentage of rural population with access to roads to 80Pct from only 30Pct at the beginning of the programme.

Regardless of the government’s enthusiasm, and the given due emphasis to the importance of enhancing rural road connectivity to create a wholesome growth momentum, the plan lags behind. 

In the first four years of the ambitious Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), only 35,126km road, less than 50Pct of the plan has been constructed. The remaining works to be executed account for 36,396km which is 50.8Pct of the overall plan.

This failure diminished the government’s hope of achieving its two objectives: creating market integration for farmers by enhancing the rural road connectivity and creating jobs for the wave of new graduates from public universities. 

The importance of rural roads also extends to the equitable distribution of health, water and education services, as well as reducing poverty and improving food security, crucial targets included in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). 

Despite its record of successfully implementing road projects in the past (in fact, international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank applauded the government commitment to execute four road development plans previously), it is surprising to see the government failing to achieve the targets set under URRAP.

The government’s massive public spending has created one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, according to the recently released Economic Report on Africa by the United Nation Economic Commission for Africa. Infrastructure development is the key for the rapid and uninterrupted economic growth Ethiopia has been registering between 2009 and 2013, which put the country on top of the content. Indeed, in the last 15 years a total of 81,363Km of federal road excluding routine maintenance work and community roads have been undertaken by the government in four separate RSDP phases. Compared to the planned target, physical accomplishment under the four phases of RSDP stood at 85Pct.

 Average Time, hrsAverage Distance, Km
All Weather Road 3.5 9.8
Health Centre 3.1 9.3
School 1.35 4.05
Water 1.41 4.2
Energy (Fuel) 1.71 5.15
Market Centre 4.41 13.25
Farm Area 1.02 3.05
Grazing Area 1.82 5.5
Grinding Mill 3.05 9.15

Experts, however, stress that the two programmes are distant and incomparable. “The government struggled for many years to accomplish the target set out in the RSDP by building the capacities of local contractors and securing finance,” says Asnake Adamu (PhD), assistant professor  of civil engineering at Addis Ababa University, Institute of Technology. “This shows that it is very difficult to compare the two programmes.” However, he stresses that lessons should be drawn from the past experience in order to avoid the same problem from occurring again. 

Low financial and managerial capacity of the local contractors, among other factors, has been the main problem during the RSDP periods, according to the report published by the Ethiopian Roads Authority (ERA) in December 2013. Initially, most local contractors used to have lower capacity for handling higher cost projects due to shortage of capital, equipment accompanied with its old age and lack of experience in project management. However, over time they managed to build their capacities and increase their involvement and efficiency.

Similar to the initial stages of RSDP, a large proportion of the problem in URRAP arises from the inexperience of the contractors. URRAP is mainly perused by construction professionals with four or more years of experience, who can form a group of at least four individuals including two civil engineers, a foreman and a surveyor. These contractors are given up to 20Km gravel rural road projects. Roughly 944 contractors and 271 consultation enterprises under the URRAP programme were created across the country. These allowed almost 417,000 individuals to be engaged in the sector. 

Close to 1,500 engineers, including Sofonias Fekade, 29, left their jobs in order to take this exciting opportunity in 2010. Sofonias, who was at the time an office engineer at the road construction site in Tigray Region, used to get 15,000 birr net salary. When he heard about the URRAP, however, he immediately decided to leave his job and form a group to take part in the programme in the Amhara Region. “I was eager at the time to be my own boss and work together with my friends,” Sofonias told EBR. However, he did not hide the fact that most of his colleagues in the company had little experience about road construction.

“It is true. Individuals organised under the enterprises have little practical experience in managing projects,” says Yohannes Mola, 30, an engineer who had been involved in URRAP in Oromia Region until last year. “Besides, most of the shareholders of the enterprises engaged in the programmes focus on short-term gains, rather than long-term success.” 

Shareholders conflict and resource abuse are the reasons why Yohannes left the URRAP and got employed at the private construction company. “I know many enterprises that are shutdown by the government because of their poor performance,” he told EBR.

In connection to this, in the last fiscal year the government identified 69 low performing contractors, according to ERA’s annual report. Of these, ERA terminated the contracts of eight immediately and will terminate the contracts of 10 other contractors after they finish their existing projects.

However, many professionals remained in their jobs, hoping for a better future. Although stakeholders stress that most of the problems such as lack of construction machinery and low involvement of the community is now resolved, most of the construction work is now lagging behind because of payment issues. 

 2010/112011/122012/132013/142014/15
Plan (Km) 9,568 24,299 40,044 55,790 71,523
Achievement (Km) 845 9,365 21,221 35,126 -
Achievement Against Plan (%) 8.8 38 53 62* -

Last year, Sofonias and his friends waited for at least four months in order to get the payment and this delayed the 14Km gravel road project they were constructing around Dajen, in Amhara Region. Some believe that the sluggish budget approval system by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development contributes to the problem. When the government takes a long time to make disbursements, the lead time of projects will increase. 

Though the annual report of ERA says that the government has actually disbursed 98Pct of the 14.3 billion birr planned finance, the physical work hoped to achieve was far behind its plan. A little over 40,000Km of gravel road was planned to be constructed until last fiscal year; but the achievement stood only at 53Pct of the plan. 

In the first two years of the GTP, the performance of the programme was also minimal. All-weather road network has increased to 845km in 2010/11 under URRAP, which is 8.8Pct of the plan. “Almost the entire 2010/11 fiscal year was spent on preparatory works which are deemed important for the successful implementation of the URRAP for the consecutive years,” says Samson Wondimu, Corporate Communication Director at ERA. As the result the performance of the program improved after the first year of GTP”. 

Indeed, in 2011/12, the total constructed all weather road increased by 9,365km, which accounts for about 38.54Pct of the target. Combining the performances of the first three years of GTP, the government managed to construct 21,221Km rural road. This shows that the total all-weather road length constructed in the past three years is only 53Pct compared to the target set in the GTP. “Although the achievement is below the target, there are improvements because the government gave solutions for most of the constraints such as lack of construction machinery and payment lag,” says Samson. “The government is also discussing with stakeholders to resolve the remaining problem at hand.

When the Minister of Transport, Workneh Gebeyehu, presented the ten month performance of his office to the parliament on June 24, 2014, he admitted that many problems were observed in the programme. “Lack of proper follow up by higher officials and budget delays are the critical factors that hamper the progress of the programme,” he told members of the parliament.

Despite below average achievement, however, the average time required to reach an all weather road decreased from 3.5 hours in 2010/11 to 3.2 hours in 2011/12 and 2.7 hours in 2012/13. The average time planned required to reach to an all weather road in 2014/15 is 1.4 hours.

Besides the construction delay, however, experts point to poor quality as another problem in the programme. ERA itself echoed the same concern when the Authority reviewed its performance at the beginning of this fiscal year. “We are now discussing the quality of the roads with contractors and consultants,” says Alemayehu Bekele, an expert at the planning and management department at the Authority.

Since Weredas and regions take all the responsibility for supervising the progress of contractors and the quality of their work, experts advise the government to focus on increasing the capacities of supervisors, in addition to engineers involved in URRAP, to come out a winner.

Stakeholders agree that there is some progress and evidence to show government focus on URRAP. However, there are constraints in resource allocation and prioritization. Experts argue that if the nation could give more priority to for URRAP, then that will lead the nation meet most of the MDGs targets on time.


2nd Year . August 2014 . No.17


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