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Regional Dialogue Helping to Solve a "Capability Trap": The Example of Overloaded Trucks in West Africa

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22 October 2012

Trucks overloaded with everything from cement to oil through rice and sugar crawl along West Africa’s road network, as the roads beneath their wheels crumble under the strain.

It’s a familiar site across West Africa and many places in the world where transport operators pile their vehicles high with goods, hoping to minimise their costs but flouting load bearing weight regulations.  In particular overloaded trucks incur massive costs for West African governments, who struggle to find adequate budget for road reconstruction and maintenance.

For years, some governments in the region sought to tackle the problem by setting tough load bearing limits. Paul Riembault, Head of Section, Capacity Development, at EuropeAid, remembers from his days working in the EU Delegation to Burkina Faso, how attempts to tighten the transport conditions failed because the solution wasn’t as simple as enforcing load-limit regulations.

“There was the experience in other countries of being extremely strict – but it didn’t work,” said Mr Riembault, as goods transporters and consumers would not tolerate a loss in their purchasing power.

Year after year, the widening gap between the legal framework of transport regulation and the real circumstances of transport led to an unmanageable situation. Allowing the widening between what the laws allowed trucks to transport in terms of weight, or de jure, and the reality of how much each truck really was carrying, or de facto. As a result, a laissez-faire approach appeared to many as the only reasonable solution.

But it was this laissez-faire approach that was exactly the cause of what specialists describe as a “capability trap”.

Indeed, from 2005, overloaded trucks involved in the transport of goods, both in and out of the country but also in transit, became a major emergency. Overloading had become an unmanageable problem, with trucks found weighing 140 tons, almost three times the then legal maximum of 51 tons.

Road damage rises exponentially with axle weight. A doubling of axle weight may therefore result in 50 times more road damage than a truck at the legal limit.

As a result, the number of traffic accidents and incidences of collapsed bridges and damage to roads multiplied. The wear and tear soon became a huge financial burden, costing an estimate 45 million euro in additional road maintenance budget in Burkina Faso alone, considerably reducing the service lifespan of roads.

When a “capability trap” happens, points out Mr Riembault, it is much more difficult to manage a change process. It is also much more difficult to have a capacity development process, as there is no connection between reality and the legal framework.

Calling a national forum for a regional mediation is now considered to have been a forward-looking decision by the regional body, the Economic and Monetary Union of West Africa, UEMOA, and the Government of Burkina Faso. The first event of 2009 was extremely important, because it created political momentum while the European Commission tried to facilitate the gathering with as many stakeholders as possible.

This regional process is a good illustration of the importance of a consistent and simultaneous approach between many stakeholders. Indeed, enforcing axle load regulation in one landlocked country such as Burkina Faso has limited impact if neighbouring coastal countries don’t follow the same path.

However, just putting the stakeholders around the same table, though a complex task, was not enough on its own. The role of the Commission was one of facilitation, trying to create opportunities for exchange to happen and for stakeholders to define common goals.

To this end, the Commission mobilised the best EU Member expertise available, and asked to propose tools that would have helped the stakeholders in finding a common ground. Two major gathering opportunities, workshops held in 2009 and 2010, were financed by the Commission with a cost in the range of 150,000 euro each. A significant amount of money of course, but a very soft investment compared to the 45 million euro annual budget costs caused by truck overloading in one single country. 

The agreement reached in 2010 was a compromise consisting of an adaptation in the legal framework, a middle way to reconcile the capability gap between the "de jure and de facto". The compromise created an opportunity for local and international private actors to change their behaviour and enter the formal system.

This road map was later incorporated in the wider context of ECOWAS, which represents a larger regional area for transnational transport corridors.

This process has been beneficial so far in two dimensions:

  • The year 2010 witnessed a reversal in the negative trend as regards the overloading of trucks.
  • A fleet modernisation process in Burkina Faso has begun, notably with support of the oil multinational Total, as well as local banks, resulting in the renewal of some of the tanker truck fleet of local transport companies in accordance with the new framework agreed during the 2010 workshop.

Finally, when the stakeholders of the dialogue realise that a change is possible, it may cast new light on collateral issues. For example in West Africa, success in tackling the problem of overloaded trucks has sparked interest in addressing the region’s ageing rail network.

Lessons learned

From this experience, while insisting that the process is far from over, Mr Riembault offers five lessons for colleagues in delegations and other persons involved in such facilitation processes:

  1. The EC can facilitate a multi-stakeholder process, bringing together public, private, formal and informal, etc. And from bringing together many stakeholders can emerge opportunities, which is key to the capacity development process.
  2. The value of bringing together several EU Delegations to work together in networks and with headquarters. Had the tool been available, he would have also used capacity4dev to aid knowledge sharing.
  3. The Delegation’s needs to invest in technical knowledge. It is very important to be a trusted partner for the stakeholders involved.
  4. There are important synergies between policy dialogue and investment – we would not have been able to facilitate this process had we not invested so much in infrastructure.
  5. Ownership comes from trial and error. We cannot just impose the best technical solution. Instead our role is to allow room for stakeholders to find their own way.

See a related powerpoint presentation here.

EC Staff can access further information on the policy dialogue case study in Burkina Faso, here.

This collaborative piece was drafted with input from Paul Riembault, Julien Tami and Ahamadou Bolly with support from the Coordination Team.


DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.


Interesting and encouraging post! Sometimes it is not easy to assess the progress achieved and the contribution from the EU Delegations. Thank you.

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