Consider economic geography in infrastructure development
Posted Tuesday, January 29 2013 at 02:00
Of late, South Sudan is increasingly becoming an important trading partner for Uganda, even threatening to overtake some of the traditional ones like Rwanda and DR Congo.
Last week, I had an interesting trip across several districts of eastern Uganda. My journey started in Busia, where I drove to Mbale through Tororo. From Mbale I went to Sironko from where I embarked on my journey to Kamuli, passing through Budaka, Pallisa, Luuka, Buyende, and Kaliro districts. Through this journey, I had interesting observations.
Almost all these districts are connected to electricity but few people had the power connected into their houses. At night, large parts of these areas are in darkness. The reason why the majority of the people here are not connected to electricity is, of course, not difficult to figure out. Very few can afford the over Shs1 million connection fee, plus sustaining the regular bills which are very high due to high tariffs. Also, there isn’t much going on in terms of industrial activity.
Which brings me to this question: was electricity the most pressing need of these people? Would the government rather have invested into other more critical areas first?
This is not to trivialise the work done by the Rural Electrification Agency (REA). I think REA does a great job. However, my view is that a little more economic and social spatial analysis of these areas perhaps needed to be adequately carried out to ascertain the potential of the people to benefit from this initiative.
This is where Economic Geography-- the study of the location, distribution and spatial organisation of economic activities-- comes in. This definition shows how the quandary of investing in development doesn’t stop with electricity. It goes further to other infrastructural developments as well.
Last year, the World Bank published an interesting report titled “Uganda: Promoting Inclusive Growth”. One of the chapters of the report tackles ‘Geography’ of production and living standards. The report, for example, states that more than 80 per cent of Uganda’s formal external trade uses the eastern border through Busia and Malaba! One can only pray that the bridge at Owen Falls dam in Jinja does not collapse, as there is currently no alternative route to handle our export trade.
Of late, South Sudan is increasingly becoming an important trading partner for Uganda, even threatening to overtake some of the traditional ones like Rwanda and DRC. The road network connecting Uganda to South Sudan should, therefore, be among the priorities of the government. While the National Roads Development Plan (FY 2009- 10) stated this would be the case, (the plan lists these roads as those whose upgrade was to ‘commence’: Gulu – Atiak – Bibia-Nimule (104km), Vurra – Arua – Koboko – Oraba (92km), and Atiak – Moyo – Afoji (103 km)) most of them have, as of writing this, not been worked on.
Interestingly, the same World Bank report also notes that Oraba, the northwest connection to South Sudan and DRC is “the fastest growing route for regional trade in Uganda” accounting for an annual $400 million in informal export value. This is far more than Mpondwe in Kasese ($100 million), Busia ($80 million) Mutukula ($50 million) and Katuna ($30 million). Uganda’s road network, the World Bank report suggests, is “neither fully operational, nor sufficiently coordinated to drive economic transformation”. Does that suggest there are some roads which would rather have waited and priority given to others? Absolutely. Since our country’s economic potential doesn’t allow us to work on all the country’s infrastructure, we should prioritise. Investments in infrastructure should be done based more on economic than political considerations.
When one considers electricity generation again, and the fact that 70 percent of the energy generated in the country is consumed in Kampala, Jinja, and Entebbe, it becomes pivotal that government priotises its investments in infrastructure connecting far-flung areas to the major industrial and service centres, while wisely investing its resources where their returns make more economic sense.
Mr Sabiti is a programme officer with Development Research and Training.