Adapting to Regional Needs
Securing community goodwill and leveraging the unique advantages of private contractors have been essential in facilitating beneficial redevelopment projects in Iraq and Afghanistan.
BY COL. DANIEL GREY, P.E., M.SAME, USA (RET.)
The Dahane Barikab micro-hydro plant in Afghanistan exemplifies the important role that achieving local buy-in plays in international development programs. PHOTOS COURTESY THE LOUIS BERGER GROUP INC.
While military and international aid leadership operate on rotating assignments through a region, contractor partners often spend years on the ground. These extensive tours provide a unique long-range perspective on the engineering challenges in conflict/post-conflict regions.
The Louis Berger Group Inc. is one of the largest contractors to provide construction management services for the U.S. government in Iraq and Afghanistan, having completed more than 20 large-scale post-conflict redevelopment projects. Two primary lessons have emerged from these last 12 years: the importance of securing local buy-in for “outside-the-wire projects” and the value of leveraging private contractors to facilitate inter-agency cooperation.
SECURING COMMUNITY BUY-IN
Over the course of the firm’s involvement in redevelopment projects in Afghanistan it became clear that local communities had to be invested to effectively deliver services to clients. Generating community support requires understanding and adapting to local needs. On numerous occasions considerable effort was made to open dialogue with community leaders and train locals to make projects self-sustaining.
The Keshim-Faizabad Road, a 103-km national highway in the remote Badahkshan Province of Afghanistan, provided an opportunity to use a microhydro project to solve right-of-way issues and garner community support. This U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funded task order (initiated in 2007) proposed an alignment of the road that would have displaced residents in a village near Keshim who were unwilling to relocate. Once the task order manager began asking locals what services could be provided to help, it was obvious that repairing the village’s electricity source would be key to garnering local support.
In response to local concerns, Louis Berger rebuilt a non-functioning microhydroelectric plant. Once members of the community realized the plant’s benefit, they came together to help residents affected by the project relocate to other areas of the town with electricity.
This effort inspired other projects that were constructed along the Bamyan-Dushi Road to facilitate the USAID-funded Afghanistan Infrastructure Rehabilitation Project in 2009. Under this task order Louis Berger undertook construction activities to repair road segments, while facing numerous security challenges. To develop community support and build capacity for construction skills among locals, the project team identified outreach development projects, including micro hydropower plants, wells, small roads, flood walls, and water distribution/supply systems.
Construction was carried out by regionally- based subcontractors supported by local labor, with the firm’s site construction managers providing direction and quality assurance. Unlike other major infrastructure projects that were adopted into national or provincial government inventories, these programs helped locals understand that their power depended entirely on taking responsibility for the operations and maintenance of these plants.
Achieving local buy-in is essential, not just for the benefit of those communities engaged in a project, but also for those workers whose lives are threatened by tenuous security challenges. In an insurgent environment there is always the question of whether or not outsider presence will be condoned. Empowering those locals who have the ability to work and addressing their unique community values and long-term needs enhances the security of all those involved.
ROAD TO UNDERSTANDING
In summer 2008, Louis Berger was engaged in the USAID-funded Southern Strategy Road, running through the Arghestan District Center—a notoriously insecure area in southwest Afghanistan. During construction, project personnel encountered numerous IEDs, insurgent ambushes, indirect fire and harassment events. That fall, staff had invited village, tribal and district leadership to Kandahar City to discuss a possible solution. Out of that first meeting grew “Biweekly Tribal Leadership Meetings,” which allowed communities along the road to voice their concerns regarding construction activities and civil affairs. The forum went beyond its original intention of discussing security concerns, evolving into a holistic disputeresolution platform that provided locals better access to central government.
In the case of the Southern Strategy Road, achieving true buy-in also took keen observation of the regional socio-economic conditions. The locals had already determined that education was important, but had limited resources to address the needs of the community children. Chris Humphries, Louis Berger’s Project Lead for the road had noticed the dilapidated, cramped structure that was being used as the local school and decided to build a new one. Humphries collected donations and built this new school at no cost to USAID. The project included the hiring of locals to help with the manual labor, thus encouraging community investment in the project.
Establishing such a relationship with the community proved to be a security asset. Locals would warn employees to avoid areas of the road embedded with IEDs or expected to be dangerous. Louis Berger suffered no casualties operating in what was—and still is—one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous regions.
In conflict zones, it is common for government agencies, donors and contractors to operate in the same areas and sometimes in similar or overlapping capacities. Contractors who work in active war zones often hire military retirees who have extensive contacts in the military and USAID. There are opportunities to leverage these relationships, inter-agency knowledge and experiences. Moreover, contractors tend to be solution-driven negotiators with a longer-term perspective. They can identify disconnections between stakeholders and help bridge them.
In general, the military pursues infrastructure projects that provide near-term results that meet strategic goals. USAID focuses more on long-range development projects. Yet both seek the same result: stability in an environment permeated with insurgents.
USAID and the military can, and should, work jointly to deliver results. Such cooperation was evident when Louis Berger teamed with the U.S. Army’s 864th Engineer Battalion to build a rural road from Kandahar to Tirin Kot in 2006. The unit was skilled in certain aspects of the road construction, but had minimal experience with actual paving as that is no longer a skill that the Army maintains. Louis Berger, however, previously had provided construction management services on the Kabul to Kandahar and Kandahar to Herat roads, and brought significant experience in paving operations in the region. Cooperation between the two organizations provided the immediate impact the military needed while strengthening a critical link for Afghanistan’s long-term development.
The military and USAID again displayed coordination during construction of the USAID-funded road from Gardez to Khost in 2007, which was critical for development in the region. It also was the military’s highest construction priority as a strategic corridor to eastern Afghanistan. The military had a significant presence in the area and a motivation to see the project completed. The situation was especially ripe for coordination since Louis Berger’s program manager and senior project manager had recently retired as an Army Engineer, and knew many of the senior leaders who wanted the road built. Initially, the USAID Contracting Officer’s representative had restricted coordination between the military and the company, but later allowed certain military assistance, including the use of Army Sappers to conduct blasting operations.
Whereas both the military and USAID tend to have relatively short turnover periods for their staff, contractors can help provide continuity amid continuous change of personnel. Contractors tend to spend a longer time in the field—they are able to build relationships and cultivate a deep understanding of the local environment.
Solutions to complex problems are often expensive and take time to develop, yet winning the local hearts and minds is critical to success. Engaging community stakeholders and promoting interagency cooperation are two relatively simple ways to ensure infrastructure projects are delivered in a way that meets both strategic and development goals. These two strategies can be applied in other situations and regions, reducing project costs and time to completion and fostering goodwill between U.S. agencies and local stakeholders.
Winning the nation’s wars, especially insurgencies, requires more than military action. Better leveraging contractors’ unique strengths can very well be the difference in winning, saving more of the country’s blood and treasure.
Col. Daniel Grey, P.E., M.SAME, USA (Ret.), is Vice President Global Operations, The Louis Berger Group Inc.; 202-303-2786, or dgrey@ louisberger.com.