By Huma Gupta
In April 2012, the sterile, fluorescent white walls of the Herat Regional Hospital’s 600-bed Emergency Room (ER) had not yet opened their doors to the masses of sick and wounded from western Afghanistan. Still under construction, the building had many technical problems as is common with such reconstruction and development projects. Usually these problems remain unsolved. And critical patients who are wheeled in on stretchers, even in their dying moments, may notice the paint peeling from the walls, that one crooked beam or those exposed wires dangling threateningly above them. But these days an assortment of suited and t-shirted gentlemen, who collectively call themselves the Herat Provincial Monitoring Board (PMB), are visiting the ER to make sure that the generations of future patients do not have to worry about the building collapsing on top of them.
Integrity Watch has created Provincial Monitoring Boards in every province where it operates. The idea for the PMB was formulated in 2007 by Integrity Watch co-founder Lorenzo Delesgues, who was inspired by the experience of the work of MKSS in India. The first PMB was set up in Jabal Saraj, Parwan. These boards are common forums where provincial government representatives, local monitors, construction companies, provincial development council representatives and donors sit together to address construction problems identified by the local monitors. Commitments made during the meetings and field visits are recorded in order to provide the communities an additional tool in holding authorities or companies accountable.
The Herat Case
In June 2010, Pajhwok Ghoori and his team set up the PMB in Herat. Since then, Engineer Ghafar Sadiqi, Integrity Watch engineer in Herat, has been the primary architect behind cultivating a passionate, youthful and dedicated team of civil servants on the PMB. As a result of these efforts, as one looks around the yellowed walls in one Department of Economy room, these meetings no longer seem like an Integrity Watch endeavor. The provincial governor’s infrastructure development specialists, the department of economy engineer, the Herat Hospital representative and the Italian donors [AISPO] organized the meeting with their own initiative. On this particular day, Integrity Watch became just one of the invitees. In fact the Provincial Governor’s office and the Department of Economy had been so worried about the construction of the ER, that they called for a PMB field visit and meeting to check the progress and discuss their concerns with the donor. After 2 years, 22 PMB meetings and 35 PMB project visits, it seems that the PMB may become a sustainable mechanism that will outlast Integrity Watch and perchance even the potential instability after the International forces withdraw in 2014.
Is it possible for civil society to create sustainable mechanisms, which bring together the government, private sector, donors and community stakeholders to monitor and ensure accountability of development projects in rural or insecure areas? We think so. Yes.
In early 2012, local monitors Muhammad Aref and Muhammad Abdul Majid complained about the dire state of the ER ramp, which would be wheeling hundreds of patients up and down the building every day. They indicated the poor quality of welding between the steel columns and steel beams and feared the structure would have a short lifespan or even, collapse resulting in injuries or casualties. Eng. Sadiqi and Farid Timory confirmed these complaints, documented the key problems and presented these issues to PMB members in a special report on March 8, 2012. After much negotiation with the construction company, they agreed to repair the ramp.
So, on April 24 2012, the PMB members pictured above walked around the new hospital annex inspecting the new changes and making sure the contractor had followed orders. They were equipped only with a few pages. These pages were the bill of quantity (BoQ) and the contract. To the untrained eye, these documents may not seem like much. In the hands of monitors however, they are powerful tools to hold the contractor and donor accountable. Checking the bill of quantity, the PMB team made certain that everything was up to standard. The Sammer Amini Construction Company employee followed the team with nervous energy, wringing his hands as he tried to answer each question and rebuff each criticism from the PMB. The company and the donor, unlike most others, were extremely cooperative and had handed over all the contract documents. The Sammer Amini employee knew that tomorrow this team would meet with the donor AISPO, his boss, and this visit could prove to be very expensive for the company depending on the number of changes suggested.
There is a complex web of accountability at play here. Usually, the contractor or subcontractor is only responsible to those that pay their bills. Accountability is only understood in monetary terms. Government officials, civil society and citizens rarely have a chance to demand questions or changes from these construction companies. But when international donors work more closely with government officials and civil society, they tell the private sector contractors that accountability is more than monetary. Accountability to beneficiaries is in fact the priority. The following day, on April 25, as the government officials started explaining point by point the inconsistencies in the emergency room construction, the AISPO representatives listened carefully. Though they did not accept every single suggestion, most were accepted. The government and the donor were on equal footing.
The PMB in Herat is becoming a sustainable mechanism, insofar as government officials have started to take ownership of monitoring international donor projects. These officials are beginning to take the concerns of corruption and use of poor quality materials in infrastructure projects seriously. These concerns stem from the work of local monitors, who volunteer their time with Integrity Watch to monitor the construction of project like schools, bridges, clinics, roads and dams in their districts. Previously, these local monitors or community members could not hold the construction company implementing these projects directly accountable. But, within the framework of the CBM program and government agencies facilitating the dialogue between community concerns and private sector implementers, the accountability gap is slowly shrinking.
These days, there are two questions that test whether a civil society initiative is truly sustainable:
After 2014, when international military presence draws down, will these civil society initiatives to increase accountability endure and be carried on by local government and community actors?
If Integrity Watch is no longer around, will others carry on the work of Community Based Monitoring and continue to hold Provincial Monitoring Board meetings?
The first question prompts a lot of mixed emotions from respondents. 2014 represents uncertainty in the minds of citizens. But, one thing is certain. After 2014, the number of international development projects and overall donor presence will drastically decrease. This means that the Afghan government will become the primary architect of development schemes, and monitoring will be the sole prerogative of governmental monitoring committees. Eng. Sadiqi responded to the question of 2014 with skepticism: “The problem is that there are already these monitoring committees from the different sectoral departments, but they do not monitor the projects even those ones that are very near. Integrity Watch is good because it works between the people and the government. It tries to close the gap between the two.” Eng. Abdul Bari of the Department of Economy and Eng. Poyesh from the Herat Provincial Governor’s office see the issue differently. They believe that when government agencies become the sole owners of infrastructure projects without donor intervention, they will systematically monitor the projects because they will have all the project designs, budget information and directly dictate the use of contractors and subcontractors.
When the second question was posed to the Eng. Bari, he said that PMB meetings would continue without Integrity Watch, but would do so slowly. Since the Department of Economy chairs the PMB meetings, it is important for them to feel that the PMB is their own initiative. Though currently the Department of Economy is taking more and more ownership over these meetings, it is far from being institutionalized into their everyday duties. And this is because as new employees come into the government, each new employee needs to be convinced of the ability of community members to monitor and raise concerns of infrastructure projects. And then, each employee needs to accept the responsibility of responding to these concerns.
The primary challenge to deep institutionalization of not only the structure of the PMB, but more importantly the ideology behind the community-based monitoring program is convincing government technocrats of both the community’s ability and responsibility to monitor. When one speaks to bureaucrats and government engineers, it is readily evident that there is still a deep-seated skepticism of community participation. A common attitude that one finds in government agencies is: “How can these people [average, and often uneducated Afghan citizens] understand the complex, technical issues in projects! They are not educated. They are not engineers. They complain about whatever they want without understanding the real problems.” On the one hand, government officials can lack complete faith in the ability of citizens to effectively participate. While on the other hand, community members often lack complete faith in the ability of government officials to effectively govern. This is evidenced by community complaints about government officials: “All the government officials eat money. They don’t care about us. They never come here to visit these projects.” This mutual distrust and distance is what programs like CBM and mechanisms like the PMB are trying to eliminate.
Eng. Abdul Bari and Eng. Poyesh are both examples of the gradual reduction of this gap. They do not project a condescending attitude towards rural and marginalized citizens. It is thus, possible for government officials to simultaneously be civil servants and citizens, and act while conscious of both identities. This could not have been possible however, without the work of Eng. Sadiqi who tirelessly worked to build a friendly, working relationship with government officials and individually advocate for all the communities with whom he works. Sometimes all it takes is a handful of passionate civil servants and citizens to reverse the trend of callous corruption and general disregard of citizen needs.
This curious case of the Herat Provincial Monitoring Board shows that sustainable is not just a jargon word, casually thrown about in civil society discourse. Though it is not possible to say definitively whether the Board will continue to function in the absence of Integrity Watch or after the steady withdrawal of international aid in 2014, the chances of a meaningful accountability relationship between the public sector and the public it serves is far greater today.