The Big Picture 3
Introduction Fayzabad, the capital of Badakshan province, is hours away from the mountainous district of Khosh. Two local monitors, Hamrauddin and Gulbuddin, have been monitoring the building of a road in their district for over a year. The distance between them and Fayzabad is not vast, but the lack of paved roads has kept these districts relatively isolated.
When the World Bank started the National Rural Access Program (NRAP) in 2002, it was meant to end ‘centuries of rural isolation’ in Afghanistan. Road access means many things. It means the penetration of the state in the periphery where until recently government officials and institutions could not easily reach. It also means greater access of rural people to medicine, clinics, schools, trade routes, markets and provincial courts. Even poppy cultivation is tagged on as one of the goals of the program, with the justification that highly poppy dependent, isolated districts will reduce poppy cultivation given better access to “public and social services” and markets. But, it can also mean greater access of armed opposition groups and state military forces into isolated and thus, geographically protected areas.
The Ministry of Public Works (MPW) and Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) implement NRAP together and UNOPS provides technical advice as their facilitating partner. MPW focuses on improving secondary roads and MRRD works on tertiary roads. The Ministry of Finance (MoF) oversees the program. The contracts for the road are awarded to local contractors through a bidding process. Once the construction begins, engineers from MPW, MRRD and UNOPS are responsible for the regular monitoring of the road construction at predefined benchmarks, and once the engineers certify the quality of the construction, it can proceed to the next construction phase.
In Badakshan, two types of roads are being constructed: DBST (Double Bituminous Surface Treatment) and Surface Gravel roads. Both types of roads are fairly simple to understand for engineers and local monitors, alike. So, local monitors know that after each layer of the road has been laid down, such as the sub base or the bitumen, that it is necessary to moisten, then compact the entire length of the road before proceeding to the next layer. Without compaction, the bitumen—a byproduct of petroleum distillation—will not adhere to the gravel and sand. And after the first few days of rainy and windy weather, the road will begin to erode and eventually disappear. That is what happened to nearby Bagh Mobarak road, which was completed and handed over in November 2011. Today, according to local monitors and engineers, it stands completely eroded.
Until now, close to $1 billion dollars has been allocated for the NRAP program. Operating in all 34 provinces, NRAP has two objectives: (1) The building of rural transport and drainage infrastructure and (2) The creation of temporary jobs for rural residents (in coordination with the National Emergency Employment Program [NEEP]). Many of the roads have been built to proper standards. They are the correct width, length, have a retaining wall, had regular oversight and engineers conducted all the necessary tests. But, if we ask Hamrauddin and Gulbuddin, they would say they have not seen an engineer for a long time. The machinery for compaction is also conspicuously absent. They are afraid that the road will wash away within a few months. As they casually kicked the surface of the road, gravel began to fall out creating holes in the road. If the human foot could cause this type of damage, heavy road traffic would certainly destroy the road within months.
It is unclear to what degree these “social inclusion officers” have worked in local communities. In Khosh district, according to the local monitors, this had not happened. In fact, even the basic engineering monitoring was not being regularly conducted, so community participation is still a distant, hopeful goal.
The Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) who is supposed to implement and monitor these projects claim that their engineers based in Fayzabad—the provincial capital—are regularly monitoring these projects. But, as the Integrity Watch team based in Kabul probed deeper into the issue, they admitted that not all districts are equally monitored. Remote districts such as Yawan receive far fewer visits and due to the lack of paved roads, even nearby districts are hard to access. The hardships that engineers face in visiting all ongoing projects are legitimate. Signing off on the quality of roads, however, without adequate monitoring is irresponsible.
It is difficult to establish culpability of any one actor working with the NRAP program, since the challenges are prevalent within all institutions involved. The local monitors perceive the local engineers as corrupt and even allege that they are receiving bribes from the construction company to pass low quality roads. Though these allegations have not been proven, the mere perception of corruption delegitimizes both the state building effort and infrastructure development in Afghanistan.
Local monitors express their disappointment every time they see a culvert being built with substandard cement. Survey engineers often don’t visit the areas they should. And when they do visit, there can be little coordination between survey engineers and the designers. For example, a wash is designed where there should be a culvert. Many times, standardized designs are used that are not adapted to the local geography. Government engineers expressed their frustration with this as well. Some local construction contractors don’t even employ an engineer, who can check the problems in the original design and monitor. But, the community desperately needs the infrastructure and so ultimately accepts whatever they get knowing that it will not last long.
Conclusion The story of the NRAP program is neither a definitive success, nor failure. There are many roads that have been successfully built along rural corridors that have never had any access. A top NRAP official estimates that “60-70% [of roads] are implemented well, the rest are not.” But, the results vary with the level of supervision and monitoring. The NRAP project proposal clearly outlines the need for and benefits of community involvement at all levels, but the practice of community involvement is severely lacking. One major obstacle to community involvement is the negative attitude engineers have about community knowledge. Policy makers view the community as an asset, but engineers tend to view them as an obstacle. The difference in perception between policymakers sitting in western capitals or Kabul and those implementing projects has caused confusion regarding the role of communities in development.
Overall, “out of sight, out of mind” is the phenomenon that plagues rural development in Afghanistan. Community based monitoring, is thus, one small way of making rural people and their concerns visible to the central government.