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Examples of poor governance

The following examples illustrate some of the governance problems that are found in the road sector. The problems, and the details, vary from country to country, depending on what measures have been taken to support good governance. In general, the more transparency there is in making information available in the public domain, the more difficult it becomes to ignore governance problems. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but the following examples may assist in understanding where changes may be needed. If you think that other examples should be included, please e-mail details.

Selecting the wrong projects: The selection of major road construction projects is sometimes dictated by Ministers or politicians, rather than being based upon sound commercial judgement. There are well established economic principles to determine appropriate priorities for road construction. Funds are limited so objective and practical choices need to be made. As well as new projects, the selection of road maintenance activities is also subject to political interference. Roads carrying heavier traffic or serving remote communities may have more need for maintenance than roads serving politicians' home towns! Politicians may also seek to gain votes in elections by building high profile roads projects for publicity, when these projects are not really the most effective use of limited resources.

Systematic high level corruption ("leakage" of funds): In some countries, it has become regular practice that the contractor who wins a construction project needs to pay a percentage (eg 2% or 10%) of the contract price as a condition of being allowed to work. The payment of this money is hidden in various ways, as payment for extra work that isn't actually carried out, or payment into a foreign bank account, or other methods which disguise where the money is actually going. By various methods the money normally ends up in the hands of one or more senior government officials. This type of corruption will only thrive where senior officials fail to control it because of their own self interests. Folklore of "leakage" as high as 40% or 50% is talked about in some countries. These payments may not actually change the work that is done at all; they may just absorb money that could have been spent on other work, such as maintaining rural roads. At a much more serious level though, politicians and senior government officials may promote and approve unnecessary major projects just to get their percentage of the project value.

Facilitation payments: In certain countries there is a tradition of "facilitation" payments, that when a signature is needed or a decision needs to be approved, the official concerned expects to receive a payment for doing this. This is sometimes called "speed money", because it speeds up the approval or decision. If the money isn't paid, progress may be deferred indefinitely, justified by the official concerned as a delay caused by bureaucratic procedures. In many cases this is just paying someone to do the job that they were supposed to do anyway, but the costs can add up and there is no accountability for the delays caused.

Poor quality of construction or maintenance: A road may have been designed properly, but unless it is constructed and maintained properly it will rapidly deteriorate. Typical problems include:

  • failing to compact the layers under the surface of the road
  • inappropriate construction materials, eg soft earth instead of crushed rock
  • poor quality concrete in bridges and culverts
  • blocked drains holding water and making the ground go soft
  • lack of camber on unpaved roads, so rain doesn't drain off

Most of these problems are easily observed by trained engineers, yet they still all regularly occur. This may be as result of a shortage of trained staff to supervise the work properly, or in more serious cases a bribe might have been paid to supervision staff to ignore failings such as not putting enough cement into concrete. A little more knowledge in the hands of members of the public about how work should be done properly might assist in improving construction and maintenance standards.

Inappropriate construction or maintenance methods:

The choice of construction or maintenance methods may be inappropriate. Sometimes this may be due to a genuine lack of skills or experience by the designer, but it may also be in order expand the size of a contract and resulting corrupt payments. On a major scale, this may involve building a much grander road or bridge than the traffic that will use it can justify, at a more local level this might involve resurfacing several kilometres of a road where the localised repair of a few potholes would have been quite sufficient.