Don’t repeat the pastInfrastructural projects have been stalled since long. It’s time to change that
Slow progress of infrastructural projects is unfortunate, yet common in Nepal. At least two out of every three large infrastructural development projects either fails or are completed after multiple extensions. Although mere five months is a brief period for a government mandated to rule for five years, the KP Oli-led government too, it seems, is going to be no different when it comes to good governance.
Every government that comes to power talks about unleashing Nepal’s potential to achieve high economic growth rate and share prosperity. Yet, if the current working style of the government is anything to go by, then there will be much to be desired on the development front. The government is relishing by investing huge resources in already failed large projects and the country is burdened with huge financial liabilities without any clear-cut vision of development. Therefore, the current pace of our development can be mostly considered as a natural development phenomenon. This level of development was possible even if there was no government.
There is no sign of improvement on the traditionally failed project management system. All the players and coaches are the same—the most influential factors are contractors, project management procedure, INGOs-donors, long bureaucratic procedures, corruption and political interference. Our development model is a contractors-based model where we provide budget to contractors mostly at the year-end and they hurriedly work for us. Government institutions have become weak, and contractor’s cartel very strong. This has led to misuse of money. And Parliament, the legislative arm of the country, has been controlled by members who have conflict of interests in a number of important issues ranging from education, medicine, contract to syndicates in transport.
The government’s incapability to manage properly all the resources—be it a tangible or intangible resource, in time serves as the major impediments in project implementation. There is tiny motive to think that the current projects and programs will be more successful than those of the past. Quality requirements are seldom discussed, thereby allowing different people to have different expectations of what is being produced and the standards to be achieved. The weak roads and falling bridges structures are cases in point.
Nepal is implementing projects normally financed by bilateral and multilateral donors and tax-payers money. Research on cross-cultural management indicates that western management concepts, models and practices are incompatible with our culture and social setting. This is because most concepts do not have cross-cultural validity. Directly importing concepts and our failure to properly contextualise them have led to increased failure rate of donor assisted projects. As a corollary, donors seem reluctant to assist projects due to the disappointing project outcomes.
Our neighbouring countries too have no confidence in us that we will utilise the aid money properly. For example, China is spending its assistance through its own contractors in Nepal and India is supporting its assistance—for earthquake reconstructions through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOP) and through its embassy as direct spending.
Yet, thorough studies are not done on how the substandard quality of projects will impact the treasury and the economy. Only spending money and taking huge debts to complete the project will but prove as the incompetency of the government.
Successful implementation of any project demands changes from the inside out. Starting from the basics like creating a comprehensive list of tasks, being clear on the work plan, increasing shift of works, making individual accountable and using sophisticated technology—we need to start afresh. It is also important to be clear, right from the start, that to achieve the final deadline, several other ‘mini-deadlines’ will have to be met.
Top level decision makers hardly take expert advice when making critical decisions. Projects are being prepared without sufficient information or analysis. Hardly any serious attention is paid whether the governance structures are appropriate to the needs of the project or not. The risk averse working culture of implementing agencies, ineffective institutional set up, heavy dependence on donors and traditional laws have raised many questions and suspicions to accomplish desired result set by the project.
Currently, we lack well-educated and experienced human resources and technologies in these areas of construction. To overcome that, it’s high time to shift our technology and engineering expertise towards most modern and sophisticated know-how for the construction of tunnels, flyovers, railways, expressways, waterways, satellite, airports, industrial zones etc. Dependence on a few contractors who are well connected to and well protected by a few political leaders in the infrastructure sector cannot bring about the desired change in this sector. If anything, sole reliance on them will only undercut our development efforts.
The aspiration to find political stability and to move on to development agendas is encouraging, but we will lose this opportunity too should we fail to change our ways and keep repeating the past.
Shrestha is a former under-secretary at the Ministry of Finance and was associated with the United Nations Development Programme in South Sudan and Sierra Leone