Living in a Walking World: Rural Mobility and Social Equity Issues in Sub-Saharan Africa


Porter, Gina. 2002. “Living in a Walking World: Rural Mobility and Social Equity Issues in Sub-Saharan Africa.” World Development 30 (2): 285–300.

Author: Gina Porter


Accessibility and mobility are embedded in the development nexus in far-reaching ways. Field studies of mobility among women and men in rural settlements with poor road access illustrate the frustrations and costs of living off-road. They are frequently marginalized and invisible, even to local administrations. State decentralization appears to have had little positive impact in reducing “tarmac bias” and improving rural service delivery. A range of potential interventions, from Intermediate Means of Transport to electronic communications is reviewed, and opportunities for building social capital in off-road areas through nurturing improvements in state–civil society relations are considered.


Gina Porter’s article on “walking” men and women in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) focuses on a specific rural demographic of people who have no access to motorized vehicles. These people live in off-road settlements, away from paved or gravel roads that are inaccessible (or accessible with difficulty) for at least part of the year. Often looked over by development literature, this population has markedly limited access to services. In a departure from mainstream transport studies, Porter focuses on the lived experiences of people in these localities, their access to social services, and the power relationships that exist between roadside and off-road locations.

Rural transport conditions in SSA are very poor when compared to Asia and Latin America. Historically-speaking, infrastructure investment in African came late into the colonial period, often linking export zones to coastal ports. While this process gave rural areas greater access to markets, across rural SSA women still bear the burden of head loading goods between rural households. Economic decline and structural adjustment programs in the 1980s and 1990s strained the already inadequate transport system. Since the 1990s some improvements have been made, but liberalization has also increased the service gap between on and off-road settlements. Poor design and construction, coupled with a lack of proper maintenance, greatly increases the costs of operating vehicles. The vehicles that do operate on these roads tend to be old and in poor condition, and charge comparatively higher rates (sometimes double) for travel. Due to a low density of demand for travel to off-road settlement, as well as the costs of this travel, vehicle owners have little incentive to offer a more affordable option.

People living in off-road settlements throughout SSA face many difficulties related to transport. A major issue is limited access to health care for people living in off-road settlements, a problem exacerbated in many countries by the high costs of transport as well as medical care. Off-road communities also have limited access to traders and markets which results in many economic disadvantages for these communities: bargaining power of producers is weakened by their isolation from markets and traders, women bear the burden of head loading products long distances to markets, and delays in getting to market can result in a failure to find buyers, or product spoilage. Another difficulty associated with off-road communities and transport is a lack of access to credit and rural banks. While obtaining credit is difficult enough (particularly for women) in rural areas, it is even more challenging in remote off-road areas. Finally, in off-road settlements women are at even more of a disadvantage. While they often cannot afford transport, they face the burden of transporting goods to market in addition to transport related to domestic work (taking grains to be milled, transporting water, etc.). In addition to these difficulties, people living off-road are often left out of decision-making and other political processes.

Porter offers a few prospects for change to ameliorate the situation of people living in off-road settlements. She first recommends improving physical access to roads, a project that may be difficult to realize but one that would improve peoples’ access to transport. This project could entail improvements in road and path maintenance, investigating potential for cooperative transport, and the introduction of intermediate means of travel (IMT). She also recommends certain non-transport interventions, as well as the formation of groups and networks to build social capital in off-road areas. Porter sheds light on a demographic that is often “invisible” in studies of transport in developing countries. Off-road communities are high-risk groups who pose special challenges to the problems of transport and development.

Topics: Civil Society, Development, Economies, Poverty, Infrastructure, Transportation Regions: Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, Southern Africa, West Africa

Year: 2002

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