Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Introducing My ‘Road Hypothesis’

In search of an alternative prediction of economic prospects, and its application to GH land
Written by

Imagine if after an hour’s drive through a principal city of any country, you could instantly conclude on the investment decision, invest or not invest. Assuming this no-go decision was based on your estimation of the country’s future prospects, then basically I am proposing that we can arrive at an informed decision regarding that by spending an hour on the roads of the city!

Now before I’m branded a fully fledged lunatic and shipped off to Pantang Hospital, let me explain the origins and grounds on which these wild seeds were sown.

There’s an oft invoked debate waged amongst economists regarding the comparative economic prospects of India and China. Though most conclude that China is undoubtedly the hare in this race, many believe that India’s democratic institutions would ensure that this tortoise crosses the finishing line first. The argument chain is simple, democracy leads to peace which leads to open markets, which promotes growth and reinforces the cycle. China, they say, is set for a crash given its lack of democratic outlets for civic expression, which will inevitably cause economic growth to lead to increasing civil unrest as the suppressed populace seeks to partake fully in the wealth creation. And thus goes the liberalist view of which I was a pupil.

A visit to New Delhi made complete nonsense of this theory. India’s future prospects are no brighter than a soot-covered kerosene lamp on a hazy harmattan night. The chaos I witnessed on the roads was enough to leave me yearning for the tranquility of Kaneshie market. Driving through the heart of Delhi proper, I was never able to discern how many lanes of traffic the roads were intended for. I imagine from atop the cars must have looked like a disorderly stream of ants, each opportunistically forcing their way through momentary openings in the army of them! As though 4-legged madness isn’t sufficient, there are the 3-legged ‘auto rickshaws’ strategically designed to be small enough to squeeze through some 4-legged stalemates yet large enough to ‘fit’ six persons! The lineage descends further into the 2-legged motor bikes and bicycles, who refuse to be outdone and at times command more than their fair share of road space. The situation on the roads isn’t fully captured by the word ‘chaotic’. Imagine amidst all the road cacophony, a mother sitting sideways on the back of a motor bike, holding on to nothing but her baby! One’s heart is literally popped out of socket as you sense you’re constantly on the brink of some very present road danger.

What makes Delhi even more special was the ubiquitous ‘Blow Horn (Please)’ inscriptions on the back of many commercial vehicles – as if drivers needed any more encouragement to add their quota to the saturated backdrop of horn blowing that prevails day and night! Fate made a fool of me when I thought my three and a half hour car journey from Delhi to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra was going to be a nice opportunity to sit back and enjoy the India countryside. Instead my driver, with his hands postured strategically for easy horn blowing, honked his way from start to finish, making nonsense of all the beautiful music on my ipod! And yes, I did politely ask him to try not to honk as much, to which he responded with a helpless up and down shrug of his shoulders and honked! Either something was lost in translation or more likely he meant to demonstrate to me he couldn’t stop honking!

I sat back and thought, not in a million years! No sustainable growth could possible thrive under such a degenerate state of entropy!

My mind constantly flashed back to the calm streets of Accra - why was nobody comparing GH to India. I dare say that GH’s economic prospects are brighter than India’s. For one, our trotro drivers though they may be creative in jumping one queue or the other, do stop at red lights (this btw, is optional in New Delhi based on one’s judgement). Our streets are walkable and not overcrowded, just look at all the street commerce weaving through vehicles. Road users respect the lanes and basic traffic signals 95% of the time. ‘Truck pushers’ and other innovative yet potentially troublesome forms of transportation do not dominate our streets. Horn blowing in Accra, compared to India’s, does not exist! This leads me to conclude that GH land is a country ready to embrace formalized institutions, whilst interlacing them with some creative traditional approaches.

For further validation of my theory, let’s journey to the Far East city state of Singapore. Road theory suggests nothing but systematic steady growth. Singapore’s roads are a model of road-heaven. Minimal horn blowing, steady flow of traffic, clean easy to discern signage, and a general sense on the roads that inhabitants are moving in unity, underpinned by a common understanding of shared goals as a nation.

Take the case of New York City – roads are nowhere near as disorderly as New Delhi or Lagos. But consider the unchecked speed of drivers on the highways and the grid streets! I am yet to come across anyone in New York who’s ever gotten a speeding ticket yet speed limits across the city are brazenly ignored! It is as though New Yorkers have been handed a laissez faire on the streets, as long as they are not killing anyone in the dark alleys. Is it a surprise then that New York is a key origin of this global crisis, wherein our greatly empowered Wall Street bankers pushed the regulation to the hilt and were allowed to do so as long as they weren’t causing any direct observable harm?

By this point I’m sure the thoroughbred economists amongst us are crying bloody murder over this hypothesis. Where are the measurable factors that we believe to be determinate to the investment decision? Where’s the regression model? The beauty of road theory is it isn’t based on much touted economic principles and models that have failed us time and time again in their predictive power. Road theory is an assessment of whether the basic human or psychological tools are in place on which progress can be jointly forged by the country’s citizens, arrived at by simply taking road users as a representative sample. It would be further validated by readers extending it to other cities around the world.


  1. Your road test theory really sounds like fun, but it may not be the best. Imagine a place like South Africa, where the roads in places are just like New York etc, serene at night, and all traffic lights work. There is no honking and all that madeness in parts. Yet, you are strongly advised to decist from patronising such roads. The quieter the road, the more the chance that you will be robbed or killed.

    Yet South Africa remains one of the best places ever to be on earth. But its an interesting observation. Kind of reminds me of my first time in Cameroon. I was of the impression that there are no roads, and then if they were there, there were no rules. But slowly as I shook off my Southern African understanding of things, I began to see a pattern. You just have to learn how it is done, thats all.

    Such is life!

  2. An interesting theory. I especially like the wit and humour with which you arrived at your theory. Sometimes we take all those grand theories too seriously