Making science work for development

Low mobility in rural Africa

Protecting vulnerable populations from the negative effects of low mobility

Transport and mobility are often considered essential ingredients for development, but limited means of transport disproportionally affecting certain groups in rural areas is often overlooked. Researchers from Durham University have revealed the many challenges that low mobility poses to vulnerable groups. Their work with governments and NGOs has influenced policy changes across Sub-Saharan Africa that helps improve economic and social wellbeing for children, women and the elderly.

Limited and expensive transport options and poor road infrastructure can create significant challenges for people living in rural Africa. Farmers can’t take their crops to market and families must travel long, dangerous routes to collect water and other provisions.

In rural Malawi, the journey home from school can be long and dangerous (Image Gina Porter)

To examine what impact this has, researchers from Durham University studied how the lack of mobility in Africa affects different members of the community. With funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Department for International Development, they trained local people in Ghana, Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania to become co-researchers on their projects and help uncover the consequences of low mobility.  

They found that while hand-carts or bicycles made it easier for families to move goods and get around, it meant children may do more manual work operating transport equipment. Heavy work responsibilities – combined with long, tough journeys to school – led to poorer educational achievements, particularly for girls. Teachers that didn’t understand why pupils arrived late to school would then often punish them unduly. In response to these findings, the Ghanaian government has committed to curriculum changes, to reduce punishments for late pupils. These changes affect around 24,000 trainee teachers every year and, by extension, thousands of school pupils across Ghana.

The elderly are also a vulnerable group with mobility difficulties. In collaboration with HelpAge Tanzania (HAI), the Durham researchers and their local co-researchers explored how limited access to transport had negative effects on older people’s health and livelihoods. They found it severely affected economic circumstances in both households and communities, and increased the workload of resident grandchildren in their care. This collaborative research motivated HAI Tanzania to develop further plans to address mobility by exploring the role of new technologies, like mobile health, to support the needs of older people. Their work also helped inform the United Nations Population Fund report on the global challenges of ageing in the 21st century.

From a policy perspective, the research has also had a significant impact both nationally and internationally. For the first time in Tanzania, the Draft National Transport Policy Framework has explicitly recognised that the mobility needs of children, the elderly and women must be addressed. The World Bank and DFID have also focused on mainstreaming gender issues, using Durham’s findings to inform government officials and transport professionals.

Poor transport options are common across rural Africa (Image Day Donaldson)

DFID’s African Community Access Programme utilised this research when creating a Transport Services Training Manual, which was used in regional workshops across Sub-Saharan Africa with transport policy makers and practitioners. Twenty-two people from eight African countries were trained using the manual during the pilot workshop, while a training programme is being rolled out to all other Anglophone African countries.

On both a conceptual and instrumental level, Durham University’s research has changed governments’ and NGOs’ perceptions of the negative impacts of low mobility, and encouraged them to take action in protecting vulnerable populations.

Read more about this research in the original impact case study submitted to the Research Excellence Framework 2014.

Department for International Development | Economic and Social Research Council