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A typically rough stretch of road in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, between Kitchanga and Goma.

Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith

Until now, I would have given Afghanistan the gold medal in the competition for the world's most terrible roads.

I remember a road over a mountain in the Hindu Kush that took two days to negotiate. One wooden bridge over a deep gorge was so dangerously rickety that I tiptoed across it, then watched in amazement as my driver managed to steer our pick-up truck over it.

But if Afghanistan has always owned the podium in the pothole slalom, now there is a challenger to its supremacy: the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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In my recent visit to eastern Congo, I had the misfortune of discovering some of the most appalling roads that I've ever had to endure. These were not really roads at all. These were scars in the bush, just trails or foot paths, where cars are hardly ever seen. To navigate the roads, our vehicle had to scrape across volcanic rock and crawl through miniature lakes.

The roads were so bad that a 15-kilometre stretch from Kitchanga to Mweso took a full hour and a quarter to traverse. That's an average speed of barely 12 kilometres an hour.

This is not just an idle complaint by a journalist. The horrendous roads are a key reason for many of Congo's problems. Because of the bad roads, it's difficult for UN peacekeepers to maintain stability in the region. In fact the UN often prefers to hire helicopters or airplanes to get around the eastern Congo because the roads are so impenetrable. Without the peacekeepers, there is no stability in Congo, and without stability there can be no peace or progress.

The terrible roads are also a serious obstacle to economic development. Trapped by bad roads, most of Congo's people are virtually inaccessible in their villages and farms. Trade is severely hampered, supplies can't be distributed, businesses can't survive, and economic growth is almost impossible.

The contrast with neighboring Rwanda could not be more stark. When you cross the border from Congo to Rwanda, suddenly the roads are a dream. You discover a series of beautifully paved, smooth highways, whisking motorists all the way from the Congo border to the capital, Kigali.

Roads and other infrastructure projects have been a top priority for Rwanda's government in recent years. This is a government with relentless attention to detail. Kigali is a spotlessly clean city, considered a model for Africa.

Is it any coincidence that Rwanda's economy has been one of the fastest-growing in Africa, while Congo continues to be one of the poorest in Africa? Without good roads, a country is doomed to stagnation.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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