The organisation of road maintenance has a long and chequered history. Who should maintain them and who should pay for it was debated in the UK since the sixteenth century and was only finally resolved at the beginning of the last one. At the outset, management was decentralised, but those made responsible at the parish or community level had neither the knowledge, the motivation or the money to keep the roads in order. Gradually, glaring contradictions were corrected but massive privatisation of road management, relying on user financing through tolls, imposed itself as an intermediate solution in the UK durng the eighteenth century, leading eventually to today’s reasonably effective hierarchy of responsibility, which has become, with some variations, the international norm. In France, management was highly centralised and relatively effective, although the reliance on forced labour was, to put it mildly, unpopular. Today, an effective mixture of public and private management is in place. In North America, the desire for mobility in rural areas at the turn of the century pushed a community-based and very fragmented responsibility for rural roads towards public control, so that an adequate national motorable road network could be built and maintained.
The African experience
Road management in Africa has also seen many reversals but on a shorter time scale. In fact this more or less organic if hesitant growth from local to national responsibility over hundreds of years is happening in reverse. At first national governments enthusiastically accepted responsibility but conspicuously failed to raise the funds to maintain networks that had grown exponentially. Donors supported this fuite en avant by their enthusiasm for funding their construction then for maintaining them once built. Now, decentralized management and financing, together with the use of labor-based methods to efficiently use local resources, are gaining acceptance. However, the perennial problems of inadequate training, motivation and funds have not disappeared.
Decentralised maintenance management approaches are intimately linked with the road design adopted, the extent of the network selected and the construction technology chosen. Also it cannot be separated from the vital question as to whether a road is necessary in the first place. Even simple roads are very expensive to maintain in remote rural areas and every effort must be made to concentrate on carefully selected core networks while relying on local resources as much as possible. Their management should involve those who participated in selecting the roads in the first place since if they have no voice they are unlikely to contribute. Training is vital since management and technical and entrepreneurial capabilities are lacking in rural areas of the least-developed countries, particularly in Africa. A local contribution is necessary, in cash or kind, but it must be augmented by stable and predictable annual grants from higher levels, since it would be unfair and futile to expect the community to bear the entire burden for roads which benefits others more than them. To ensure coherent funding at the national level, the management of rural roads, even when decentralised, must be integrated within a larger national program. Only then can the public sector be an effective participant and the private construction sector find the markets necessary to its survival.