Development that Works
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    This blog highlights effective ideas in the fight against poverty and exclusion, and analyzes the impact of development projects in Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • Reinventing the wheel



    If you like trains, you must love reading Paul Theroux. As all good travel writers, Theroux balances crankiness, curiosity and charm. One of his best books is Dark Star Safari in which he describes his travels through the arteriosclerotic veins – trains, roads, rivers – of Africa.

    Theroux goes down the Nile by train and boat, through the Sudan by train and bush taxi, ferries across Lake Victoria. When he reaches Maputo he is surprised by its rail station:

    trains africa

    Maputo’s main railway terminal, dating from about 1910, seemed to me the most beautiful station in Africa.  The station with its distinctive iron dome had been designed by Gustave Eiffel and was easily as elegant as his tower in Paris, though hardly more practical. 

    Beautiful but “hardly more practical”

    This is not the message from Chaves, Engerman and Robinson (previous version here-ungated) for the Gold Coast, Nigeria and Sierra Leone:

    One of the great puzzles of Sub-Saharan African economic history is that wheeled transportation was barely used prior to the colonial period. Instead, head porterage was the main method of transportation. […]

    In this paper we have undertaken some preliminary calculations to examine the economic benefits of introducing modern methods of transportation into the British West African colonies of the Gold Coast, Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the early 20th century. […]

    The main question we ask is whether or not constructing the railways was economically rational compared to moving goods by head porterage and moving passengers by foot. We tackle this issue in two ways.

    First, using the social savings approach of Fogel (1964) and secondly by calculating the social rate of return. Our results are very contrary to the conventional wisdom.

    Though it is true that the social savings created by railways were modest compared to estimates of national income, the more interesting concept, the social rate of return on capital, was very high.

    In the case of Nigeria it averaged around 100% per annum suggesting that the social savings in one year were sufficient to cover the entire capital expenditures up until then.

    One Response to “Reinventing the wheel”

    • Railway transport has not fundamentally changed in the 200 years since the invention of metal rails but a new wave of transport ideas – from ones already in development to “concept” contraptions – could change the way we commute forever.

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