The European Union has spent billions of euros to build roads in sub-Saharan Africa that are left to deteriorate because of poor maintenance, the European Court of Auditors said on Tuesday (15 January).

A review of the European Development Fund (EDF) shows that despite the €7.4 billion spent to build modern highways between 1995 and 2011, the investments “were less successful than expected” because governments in beneficiary countries failed to follow up with maintenance or to enforce weight limits, said Szabolcs Fazakas, a member of the Luxembourg-based audit body.

Auditors investigated 48 projects in six countries to determine if the investments were sustainable over the long term.

Road transport handles more than 80% of cargo movement in sub-Saharan Africa, and good regional and national transportation links are seen as vital in the fight to reduce poverty and hunger, with 230 million people or one-quarter of Africans classified as undernourished.

“The problem of hunger and malnutrition is related to food availability but is not the only factor,” said Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, who heads Oxfam’s research team in Britain and is the author on a new report on hunger in Africa.

“One of the main elements when people go hungry is that they can’t access the existing food meaning they cannot reach the markets,” he told EurActiv in an interview. “And that happens a lot in some places in rural Africa where markets disappear when there is a natural disaster … or where roads or communications are really bad.”

The auditors did not monitor potential corruption, governance nor the stability of the 43 nations that received road-sector financing from the European Union.

For example, Mali was the third highest recipient of road-sector funds from the EDF – €419.6 million – after Ethiopia (€669.9 million) and Uganda (€466.7 million). But the West African nation has descended into chaos following a military coup last March and is embroiled in a conflict with Islamic rebels that prompted France to send an intervention force earlier this week.

Ethiopia has been involved in its own political turmoil, including the mass arrest of opposition politicians and journalists following the East African country’s 2005 political elections and more recently a crackdown on civil society groups.

The auditors cited areas where the European Commission failed to hold beneficiary governments accountable once the highways were completed.

In Zambia, which has received €288 million for roadworks since 1995, the Commission temporarily suspended support for road projects “because of insufficient progress in policy reforms, in particular in respect of road maintenance.” A year later, the Commission agreed to fund a highway project “with no conditions attached,” the auditors said.

Some countries also failed to enforce cargo weight limits despite extensive damage heavy loads can cause to roads. National government highway budgets tend to go into financing new roads rather than maintaining existing ones, the auditors found.

Besides Zambia, the auditors also investigated EU-funded projects in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad and Tanzania. The audit covered some 2,400 kilometres of highways.

Commission officials, in a response to the audit, vowed to improve oversight.

“We are very confident, with the help of this report, that the sustainability of roads constructed with European Union funds will lead to improved road sustainability in sub-Saharan Africa,” Fazakas told journalists.

Problems in the water sector

The roads report came more than months after the Court of Auditors said many EU-backed sanitation and water projects in sub-Saharan Africa are unsustainable because of missing technical and financial support.

The Court of Auditors said investments worth millions of euros in six African countries are at risk because many of the projects lack the maintenance and revenues to sustain future operations.

“For a majority of projects, resulting benefits will not continue to flow in the medium and long term unless non-tariff revenue is insured or because of institutional weaknesses,” David Bostock, a member of the court, told journalists at the release of the audit on 28 September.

The auditors reviewed 23 projects in Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania. They found that fewer than half the water and sanitation projects were meeting the needs of beneficiaries.

Those nations account for some €320 million of the €1 billion spent by the European Commission from 2001 to 2010 to improve water and sanitation in the Sub-Saharan Africa.

The EU is collectively the largest aid donor, providing €54 billion, or 56% of the total in 2010, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.