Sunday, June 16, 2024
InterviewRethinking Ethiopia’s infrastructure drive

Rethinking Ethiopia’s infrastructure drive

Bekele Nigussie is the head of the new Federal Infrastructure Development Coordination Agency (FIDCA), an agency established to solve the long – standing problem of lack of coordination among various governmental agencies in Ethiopia. Bekele is someone who has served in the infrastructure sector for over 28 years. An economist by profession, Bekele’s career started in Ethiopian Road Authority (ERA) joining the authority as junior economist and making his way up to head of planning and the deputy general director. Bekele holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Addis Ababa University (AAU), but while on the job he was also able to attend a master’s program in transportation from a Dutch university, Delft University of Technology. Later on, he attended another master’s program in project management and recently Bekele he is doing his doctoral studies in construction sector competitiveness from US University. Bekele is also doing another PhD program in integration and accessibility in transportation from a French university in a distance learning program. Recently, the agency that Bekele leads has been officially launched and Wudineh Zenebe of The Reporter caught up with him to talk about the lack of serious planning and coordination in some of infrastructural projects that the government is undertaking in Ethiopia. Excerpts:

The ReporterSince you have a considerable experience in the infrastructure sector, roads to be exact, what do you think forced the government to establish the coordination agency?

Bekele Nigussie: In general, one can divide what FIDCA does into two broad categories. The first is the complicated task of integrating and coordinating various programs and projects undertaken by various government agencies. The other is the task of modernizing and standardizing the compensation scheme associated with the construction of infrastructure and property owners who are relocated to make way for such constructions. If you take our integration and coordination role, preparing a comprehensive infrastructure master plan for the country is probably the most important task that we had to accomplish. So far, Ethiopia does not have an integrated infrastructure master plan at the country level. To be fair, not a lot of countries have such master plans; it is quite a demanding task too. That is why we are planning to take on this challenge slowly. This plan will set out all the infrastructure needs of the country defining where energy, telecom, power, road and airport infrastructures will be developed and at what cost. This master plan would be the starting document for other agencies which will be undertaking the actual development works. The other thing that we will be working on is the availability of centralized database regarding all infrastructure assets in Ethiopia. This central database will have all relevant information with regard to infrastructure in Ethiopia; another area the country exhibits a huge deficit. On the other hand, we will also be doing some regulatory work with construction sectors eosically relating to occupational safety and health and the environment. In this regard, we will start to rate all the construction projects in Ethiopia with regard to performance and its impact on the environment. We are not going to do anything with this information as an agency but it could serve as an input for other relevant government agencies should they have the need for it. Also, evaluation of the overall standards and codes in the construction, energy, water or telecom sectors is something we are keen to do. We also plan to devise one when there is no standard and codes in some of these sectors. If we return to the compensation system, what lies ahead is modernizing the compensation system and developing a common standard when there is none.

Two decades have gone by since the government has embarked on an ambitious infrastructure building program. The agency that will sit at the helm of this program is just starting its operation. So, is it not late for you to start to coordinate infrastructure at this point? What was the cost of not having a coordinating agency until now?

There is no denying that Ethiopia has pushed the infrastructure frontier in the past two decades. If you compare Ethiopia to other nations at this level of development, there is no doubt that we have done so much. This is no surprise since we allocate a big chunk of our budget to infrastructure development. In fact, now we are at a point where we should evaluate thoroughly the positive and negative impact of our infrastructure expansion. Nevertheless, we are definitely very late to start our coordination work. What was happening so far was that all government agencies tasked with undertaking infrastructure development were doing things by their own plan and programs. There is something positive about it, of course. These institutions were able to achieve a great deal in a short span of time as they were planning and executing at their own speed. However, we have also sustained heavy wastage of resources in the process. If one looks at most of the projects we undertake, about 90 percent, give or take, do not reach their completion within the timeframe allotted to them. You know it is easy to blame contractors for project delay. But, it is not always the case; most of the time these projects trip along their implementation phase due to lack of ample planning and coordination. If you want to gage the impact of coordination failure on projects, there is a small survey that was conducted in the road construction sector in Addis Ababa. Although it is very difficult to quantify the loss due to lack of project coordination, this small survey shows only the direct impact of lack of coordination in the road sector. Hence, the survey indicated that road sector in the city loses close 300 million birr annually in terms of direct destruction to road infrastructure because of failure to coordinate among various other infrastructure projects. Mind you, this is only the impact on the road sector and it is only in Addis Ababa. If we were to see federal roads, or bring into the picture the impact of lack of coordination in other infrastructure facilities than road: electricity, water or telecom, the impact would be quite huge. This is one area which is tainting the massive infrastructure expansion efforts of the nations.

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As you have explained your mini-survey has covered only the Addis Ababa and only the road sector. But, if one were to take an informed guess as to the loss of resources due to lack of coordination, what would it look like?

Well as I have told you, it will be hard to quantify the exact loss due to lack of coordination. However, if you see projects around the country, as I have said before, most of them were not completed within their time frame. In fact, most of them elapse their project completion time by 70 percent and if you attribute around half of this time and delay to failure of coordination, it is a huge amount of resources. If you take, the compensation system, for instance, it is one area which is making the government’s noble development efforts to be viewed as something negative. The government has not given any direction, nor did it want to minimize its compensation obligations, not even once. But, as you can tell, the society is generally dissatisfied with the amount of compensation which is offered for its properties. This could in part be about lack of knowledge when administrating the compensation scheme or it could be about modernizing the system; or a time it could be linked to maladministration. Regardless, the government wants to correct these gaps. It is also the same with failure of coordination. It does not mean that there is an absolute lack of planning when undertaking infrastructure projects; there is planning. But, the planning is not well done; the executing agencies did not take time to incorporate all aspects into the project planning. So, when you put the two together, from the start if the compensation plan is dissatisfactory to the people who are being relocated and at the end of the end of the project are at low quality, it reinforces the bad attitude towards these projects. Apart from that, it is also causing wastage of resources for both the government and the public.

You have discussed the shortcomings in infrastructure projects due to both lack of coordination and inadequate planning. Can you elaborate on the two separately?

 If you see the international experience, infrastructure planning is something that takes years to be perfected. For example, if you see the experience of countries which have advanced in infrastructure, it is clear that it has taken them quite a while to perfect their planning; at most it takes around two decades. When one plans to construct an airport, for instance, it will have to consider all aspects of this project before proceeding with the implementation. As a planner, determining the prevailing demand of a specific infrastructure and for how long it will be used is a daunting task by itself. This is one aspect. However, when one is contemplating to construct an airport there are serious coordination considerations which have to be met. For example, an airport requires another mode of transportation like road or railway. There are also serious considerations of power, telecom, waterlines and the like. If you come to our case, the agency which is building that airport would solely focused on completing the construction of the airport and in most cases might think seriously about other necessary facilities altogether or at least before starting the construction of the airport facility. You see, any infrastructure is useless alone; it should be coordinated with others to offer meaningful services. So, this is a serious planning error. If you take the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, it was said that it was a big airport and would have huge capacity which will accommodate the passenger load. But, look at it now; it is saturating already and another expansion is imminent. That is a case in point where proper demand forecast and hence proper planning falls short. You can also take our telecom expansion efforts; they were started at very small level and eventually the demand had necessitated subsequent expansion. You can also take the ring-road around Addis Ababa. Back then, we thought it will be enough; in fact we thought it will be empty. Now, it is not only full but it is becoming inadequate to cater to vehicles in the capital. One factor behind weakly integrated and coordinated infrastructure is an over-exaggerated sense of urgency. When implementation agencies feel that they are racing against time to complete a certain project, their single focus could most likely be on constructing the infrastructure they plan to construct. But, given Ethiopia’s situation, you have to understand that we are trying to build everything at once. This is because of the objective realities on the ground that is the need to accommodate demand that is long overdue. And make no mistake about it; the demand is still mounting. So, under these conditions, it might seem to us that we are wasting time by taking time to plan properly before executing our projects. Hence, the way we do things until now was indeed justifiable because of the demand pressure. We had the choice back then; the choice to take things slowly. Yes, we have built roads only to bulldoze them later to make way for our light rail. People feel that it is severe maladministration; but not quite. But, by the time we were building the road we were not even sure that we will secure funding to build our light rail project. So, personally, I do not want to digress over the loss until now. since partly we were on our learning curve and partly it was done in response to the realities on the ground. Nevertheless, there were both coordination and planning problems.

Another issue which is surfacing recently is the incompatibility between the oversee contractors and local agencies with regard to the speed with which projects are completed. If you take the likes of Gibe III hydropower plant, the construction of the dam was completed but the delay in the power transmission lines is preventing it from contributing much to the national greed. How are you going to reconcile such planning issues?

Surely, there are planning and execution departments in all of the government agencies tasked with undertaking significant infrastructure projects. However, weakness in comprehensive and strategic planning is a common trait in all of these departments. This could have various reasons: urgency, knowhow or resources. If I tell you my experience in ERA, when we built the Addis Ababa-Adama express way, most of us were thinking about widening the existing Addis-Adama road. But, deep down, most of us had a sneaky suspicion that stretching the existing road will never be enough. One, thing that is for sure is that we were planning and forecasting the traffic load on our own. Most of us believed that we just had to build the road, the traffic will come by itself. If we go to the power sector, the same holds true. The only focus would be on building the power plant, not transmission lines. Nobody notices how big of an issue is a transmission line before the power plant is completed and ready to generate electricity. So, some vital components of projects could easily be overseen. Usually, our problem is getting drawn to the main component of the projects and not giving adequate attention to others. The same is true for roads. We build roads without thinking about transport. So, I can really say that this is our strategic problems as a nation.    

Your office is established to see the bigger picture in the infrastructure sector. However, there are some areas that need a very swift solution. For example, the Ethio-Djibouti railway line, a project that is under your auspices, was built and has reached Djibouti ports. However, dry ports facilities are not yet built to accommodate the imported items. Yet it is going to start operation with the coming few months .So, what is your short – term plan to address these issue?

It is right. We are dealing with it to provide a swift solution. It is a problem of integration. In this regard, the government is determined to sort it out in a very short period of time. Since it is the major issue, it has contributed to delaying the project. Therefore, the government is working to address the issue. The second thing here is that we need to have an infrastructure master plan. An infrastructure by itself is nothing. It only supports one thing. For instance, a road by itself is nothing. It is important to support transportation and ease the access to transportation facility. Therefore, the infrastructure master plan should address issues associated to handle these things together. The issue that you raised about the railway system, associated transport and port facilities is also fundamental. To address the issues we need to collaborate with each other and we are working on that but it is a long-term plan to integrate all these. These are addressed first by identifying the role of the areas. Therefore, the short term plan is creating the process of integration.

Currently, vast industry zones are being built across the country. There are also other railway lines whose construction have not yet started. That is a very good opportunity for your office to undertake the construction in line with the master plan. So, what are you doing in this regard?

What we are doing now is that we asked different government offices to provide us their five-year master plans and the plans for the current fiscal year. However, many of the offices have not submitted their plans yet. Therefore, as of next week, we are going to demand that each agency bring its plan soon. Subsequently, we will inform these agencies to bring to us project with which they are struggling; projects which has defects in their implementation. So far, only two offices brought their defective projects to us. First of all, we should know what they are doing and then they should provide us details of their projects. We will accept problematic projects, as it is. However, in the future, any federal project is not allowed to commence, any construction without receiving an approval from us. Therefore, during that time, things will be integrated. Regarding the already started projects, our agency will interfere. A simple example for this is the Modjo-Hawassa Road project. It is already started. However, there are so many issues in the project and we are following them up. We will prohibit other projects not to be implemented without receiving an approval from the agency. We will provide them the list of requirements that the project should fulfill. That doesn’t mean that this agency will interfere in all projects; we rather focus on supporting the existing projects to accomplish their targets and through time we will shape the sector based on the standards on the proclamation.

Concerning the Modjo-Hawasa road project, one issue that is raised is the necessities of that infrastructure project. As you may know, Hawassa have many infrastructures projects on pipeline at the moment: the airport, the express way and others. So, given the proximity to Addis Ababa, don’t you think this road is a terrible redundancy? Is the project feasible in terms of its cost?

We are looking at the feasibility study at the moment. But, if we are talking about road networks, airport facilities and so on within a distance of 210 or 300s, it might seem it is too much. However, it seems much because we always see things from the perspective of Addis Ababa. We don’t see it from Kenya, Djibouti, Sudan, Tigray and Bahirdar. Therefore, if we look at the projects from this perspective the projects are very small for Hawassa. As I have mentioned earlier, when we transport goods to Hawassa from different ports, it may not be sufficient to accommodate the load.

There have been so many problems in the infrastructure sector of the country in the past. Therefore, how organized is your agency to tackle the problems in terms of manpower, resource and other related matters?

The issue of capacity is very crucial, because we are saying that any infrastructure activity of the country should not be conducted without our permission. At the same time, we are also saying that all potential infrastructure plans should emanate from us. This is very difficult. In other words this is a problem of the county, and a problem of the country can’t be solved or addressed by a single agency or office. What we are doing initially is that we launched our activity by having some 90 percent junior engineers. Therefore, though there is no problem of knowledge, there is a problem of experience and hence what we are doing is mobilizing energetic and enthusiastic professionals. In this regard, the progress so far is good. But, there is a problem of experience. Therefore, we are using the experienced professionals both from home and abroad.

Your office is working on an infrastructure master plan to deal with the expansion of infrastructure in the country. On the other hand, there is also another commission which deals with the economy side of the equation; that is the National Planning Commission. So, what is your relation with the commission?

We are the major source of data for the national planning commission since we collect a lot of information to develop the infrastructure of the country. And they will also use our master plan instead of devising another master plan and assimilate it with the macro economy.  We have a mutual understanding and coordination with the commission. Many issues, which seem to have contradictory effects, are now eliminated by the proclamation.

You have been in the road sector for so long and in this regard one of the major problems in the road construction is mainly associated with change in design after the commencement of projects. What are you going to do in this regard?

This is a major problem which needs to be addressed quickly. Relatively speaking, the road sector has a good planning compared to others. However, the problem associated with the road sector is that in most of the areas we are building new roads while the demand is in constant dynamics. Therefore, what we are planning for today might change tomorrow. Industrial parks, for instance, were not in the list but it will appear in the next plan. This is the situation where the country is in. We didn’t have any difficulty while we were constructing the Addis – Adama express way project since there was an already existing road line. But, when we construct new road things become more complicated. There is always a problem when we construct a new road. We might plan to construct a gravel road but suddenly the traffic increases and forces us to change it. But, at least we are making sure that the cause of the change in design should be clear and announced to the public.

There are suggestions from the society that the change in design mainly occurred when officials forced contractors to have the road projects to pass through their locality. At the same time, there is also the issue of corruption, How do you see such claims?

Such kind of issues in federal roads are very minimal. It is impossible to say it is non-existent. However, it is negligible. Because federal road is very vast, so when the change started it had its own problem. What’s happening now is that in some areas the residents asked to have a by- pass road so that it could boost the economy of the town or the city. That’s good but there are also those who don’t support this. In this regard, the situation there is a squabble and resulted in some complaints but it is very difficult to change the direction of roads to one’s own locality in the federal road construction level.

Many of the government offices under your auspices have a strong management and board and you are also to have your own board. So don’t you think there might be an overlap between your board and the others?

We have currently delayed the establishment of our board deliberately. We don’t want to establish a board just for sake of saying that we have a board. First of all, the necessity of a board is to cooperate. That doesn’t mean also that the board will meet every time. At the same time, when it is said the agency is accountable to the PM that doesn’t mean we meet the PM every time. Therefore, it is very important to have a board that could balance these and lead. The overlap might happen but the major player here is the agency. The main issue is the power and culture of the agency. It appeared as a supporter to perform and achieve better performance in the development of the infrastructure of the country.

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