Poverty is easy to recognize but difficult to define. Vollmann has proposed the following characteristics of being poor. They are invisible and excluded from society, often deformed or in pain, without hope, unwanted, totally dependent, and vulnerable. It is a chasm into which many fall. Its width and depth, defining the chances of falling in and getting out again, depend on the wealth of the country and its will to distribute it. Like Dante’s circles of hell, there are many levels. Once at the lower ones, it is unlikely that roads, or any other measure to reduce their isolation, can be of help. Only charity or humanitarian aid can and must. Poverty and isolation are linked. but development aid can only save those who are on the edge or have not fallen far. Nevertheless social justice also requires that as many as possible should have at least the possibility of using motorised transport, if only in emergency situations. In other words some level of basic access should be available to all.
Poverty reduction has become an overriding objective for governments and donors, It always has been, of course, in words if not in actions. However, too great a faith was placed in maximising economic growth, with the result that differences between rich and poor often increased rather than decreased. In the very long run, everyone may benefit from growth. In the shorter term, the one we live in, those already well off are too often the best placed to take advantage.
Traditional criteria for roads prioritisation have been clearly ineffective in targeting poverty. Roads may contribute to mobility, but the poor are often the worst placed to profit from it. Economic benefits are captured by the better off. Careful targeting is necessary to ensure that road improvements reach those whose poor access to where they and their produce need to go is a contributing factor to their deprivation. The basic access approach, using a criterion based on the maximum acceptable distance to be covered on foot to get to a motorable road, provides a way of identifying rapidly the poor and isolated, and offers an effective strategy for targeting poverty through road investment.
However, providing road access to poor and isolated areas requires road network improvements and extensions, costly to maintain and not necessarily sustainable since motor vehicles are few. Sustainability can only be guaranteed by building upon a coherent and economically viable core network, ensuring access to the major hubs of activity, capable of being maintained by a mix of local and national funding to a standard that satisfies user needs for basic year-round motorable access. Without this network, poverty targeting will be unsustainable and ineffective.
The core network is thus an over-riding priority. Heavily used roads, major assets but the most vulnerable, ranked according to conventional cost-benefit criteria, despite their bias and their rudimentary image of reality, must continue to be a priority for improvement works and subsequent maintenance. They serve as collectors for travel from the villages to the market towns, and are normally linked by all-weather roads to major population centres. They are thus vital to agricultural marketing structures and guarantee most of the income of the rural population. If they are in bad condition, then the entire rural network is affected. Their tributaries, low-volume roads, tracks and paths, may be ranked, in close collaboration with stakeholders from the standpoint of network coherence and basic access, using a simple effectiveness criterion such as total population served relative to the costs of provision. It goes without saying that a serious effort to reduce poverty should integrate labour-based methods to raise local incomes and to provide training for maintenance.
Such a programme still only marginally addresses poverty reduction. All-year motorable roads alone will not provide access to services for the poor. Community access roads, tributary to the core network, where bicycles and pedestrians are almost the sole users, must also be selectively improved. Given the weakness of management structures at the community or local level, sustainability is again a perennial problem unless community management capacity is simultaneously strengthened.
The basic access method is simple to apply. Maps, fleshed out by local knowledge, can be used to identify those who are geographically isolated from the core network. Visits must confirm that isolation in fact does contribute to their poverty and that improved mobility offered by motor vehicles will alleviate it. If this is so, a minimal programme of road improvement to connect them to the core network can be agreed upon and costed.
Nevertheless, roads are not enough, neither to guarantee access to services, nor to combat poverty. The approach offered by Integrated Rural Accessibility Planning (IRAP) offers more promise for poverty targeting than a roads driven approach. It analyses external and internal accessibility problems directly with those who must live with them and proposes a wide range of solutions, including roads, to solve them.
In conclusion, economic criteria relying on motor vehicle benefits are very blunt instruments. However, they are useful to identify the sustainable core network on which poverty reduction initiatives, themselves normally unsustainable without subsidy, must be built. Poverty reduction demands criteria which explicitly seek out the poor and isolated and propose solutions tailored to their needs. More precisely, which show where they are and determine whether roads are likely to be of any use and if not, how best can the services they need be made more accessible to them. Motor vehicles play a minor role in the lives of the poor, so measures which target isolation and explore a wide range of ways to increase mobility, for example by introducing appropriate means of transport, will be the most effective.