Canadian Consulting Engineer

Needs and Good Deeds

March 1, 2006
By Bronwen Parsons

The Canadian International Development Agency has been shying away from funding hard infrastructure projects in developing countries. It is also loosening the ties that connect Canadian engineering...

The Canadian International Development Agency has been shying away from funding hard infrastructure projects in developing countries. It is also loosening the ties that connect Canadian engineering firms with Canadian aid programs. Is CIDA taking the right approach?

Last August, Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese, a Canadian physician who bagan the “Save the Mothers” movement, spoke on the CTS television network’s program 100 Huntley Street. Her organization has one mission: to save the lives of the millions of women in the developing world who die from complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Between your morning’s coffee and the same time tomorrow, 1,600 expectant women will have died.

As Dr. Froese explained, the double tragedy is that unlike victims of AIDS, one-quarter of these women die from preventable causes. They bleed to death. Many of them are still in their teens, and they could have been saved by a medication that costs only 33 cents.

Most of the victims live in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. What stops them reaching help is the difficulty of traveling to the health centres. Sometimes they’re not permitted to take the journey by their husbands or families, or there is no vehicle to take them. But often, Dr. Froese said, there are no roads, or the roads are almost impassable, so the women arrive at the clinic doors too late.

The picture Dr. Froese presented is a snapshot of the tangle of issues facing international aid agencies today. Mothers are the backbone of society in developing countries, Dr. Froese reminded viewers. The death of a mother often leaves a family of orphans, who are then left alone and vulnerable to hunger and sickness. Organizations like the United Nations are therefore determined to raise the status of women, but they must tread carefully to respect different societies’ cultural traditions. And while health education is obviously important, there’s no point in training doctors if there are no roads to take people to them. There’s no point in building schools either, if the children can’t even find a cup of clean water to drink.

How, then, are we best able to help?

For at least a decade, the Canadian International Development Agency, or CIDA, Canada’s lead agency for channeling federal aid to developing countries, has been steering away from funding hard infrastructure projects like roads and water treatment plants. Instead of “projects” they have veered towards supporting “programs.” The two words look and sound similar, but they carry a world of different meaning for consulting engineering firms.

In the early 1990s a consulting engineering firm hired by CIDA might be designing projects such as a dam in India, a water treatment plant in Belize and even a coal and firewood kiln in Niger (all past Canadian Consulting Engineering Award-winners). More recently, however, CIDA’s contracts with engineering firms have been for studies and long-term programs with a heavy social and educational component. Often the contracts don’t result in a physical structure at the end. Gathered under the policy of “capacity building,” the programs are intended to build up the developing country’s local expertise and institutional frameworks. In this issue, for example, Quebec consulting engineers Genivar describe their work for CIDA to help Rwanda re-establish its court system after the 2001 genocide. While this commission did involve some building reconstruction, a large part of Genivar’s role involved computerizing the court systems and training the employees. Such CIDA commissions draw on consultants’ management and organizational skills and don’t have much to do with bricks and bolts engineering.

The Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada (ACEC) wants the federal government to rethink the way it funds overseas aid programs. Partly ACEC wants CIDA to put a larger proportion of its dollars into hard infrastructure. Also, ACEC does not like the way CIDA is funneling up to 70 per cent of its aid dollars through international financial institutions like the World Bank. Canadian consulting engineers are afraid they are being shut out of the international aid pool. They are also concerned about losing opportunities with CIDA, opportunities that once gave young companies a first pass into the international field.

The case for hard infrastructure

In a paper presented to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade in January 2005, ACEC argued that Canada should devote more of its aid to physical infrastructure and pointed out the sharp contrast with other donor countries. “[O]ver the past 30 years, Canada has donated only 11% of its aid to infrastructure — the lowest of the eight OECD donors assessed. Japan’s comparable ratio was 52%. It is time for CIDA to re-establish balance between the physical infrastructure and social programs it supports.

“Infrastructure is the backbone of any thriving economy,” ACEC continues. “Without safe drinking water, dependable sanitation, reliable power and effective transport systems, it is impossible for a country to succeed. African leaders know that they require a strong physical base upon which to build better-educated, more equitable societies.”

Stephen Wallace, vice president of the policy branch of CIDA, agrees in principle: “Infrastructure is a critical part of the development equation.” He calls it the “underpinning to social and economic development.” However, he explains that CIDA has realized that hard infrastructure projects are highly complex, very expensive and long-term endeavours. They need regular and sophisticated support from institutions with deep pockets. As a result, CIDA now tends to rely on international organizations like the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the Asia Development Bank to oversee the big infrastructure works.

Wallace points out that Canadian engineering firms are doing well in the international market even without CIDA sponsoring hard infrastructure. And he says there are several other agencies that help small and medium sized firms get a foothold in the international scene. (Export Development Corporation is the obvious one.)

It is true that consulting engineers in Canada do already earn 30% of their revenue from international work. They also rank third in the world in revenues from exporting services according to Engineering News Record. This is success in any measure. Why, then, the dissatisfaction with CIDA?

Aside from its genuine belief that physical infrastructure plays an essential role in improving the day to day life of poor people in developing countries and therefore CIDA should be giving it more active support, ACEC is considering the interests of young firms.

Chris Newcomb, P.Eng., chair of the international committee of ACEC and president of McElhanney Consulting Services of Vancouver, wrote a letter to Canada’s Minister for International Cooperation last August warning: “Canada’s expertise in international consulting engineering work is withering away because Canadian firms no longer have CIDA projects to help them get started.”

A discussion paper published last February by the Aid Effectiveness Discussion Forum of which ACEC was a part, made the same point. Entitled “The Impact of deCanadianizing Canadian Aid,” the paper was signed by a slew of diverse professional, industry and non-governmental organizations concerned about CIDA’s approach.1 They wrote: “Fledgling firms, many of whom have traditionally gained international exposure through Canadian development contracts administered by CIDA — a first step into the global marketplace — will no longer gain the track record and contacts necessary to compete successfully for development contracts at the international level.”

The large firms like SNC-Lavalin and AMEC already have the resources to pursue international work. It’s the smaller firms who aspire to follow in their footsteps who no longer have opportunities with CIDA. As Newcomb puts it: “The bottom two rungs of the lad
der have been taken away.”

It’s not difficult to see why CIDA has shied away from funding large infrastructure projects. Besides their cost and complexity, the engineering mega-projects of the past throughout the world have had a checkered history. There have been great successes, but too often projects have left a trail of environmental damage. Others have deprived rather than benefited the poorest people. There have been problems with corruption and murky procurement practices. There have been many large white elephants.

Newcomb himself recalls an international project he worked on in the 1970s to build a water supply system in Dar es Salaam in East Africa. “The treatment plant was ready first,” he says, “and by the time we put the pipeline into operation the plant was already in a state of disrepair and the Tanzanian government couldn’t afford the imported chemical supplies needed to operate it.”

But Newcomb does not see that CIDA’s present concentration on programs for institutional strengthening and “capacity building” is necessarily producing better results or tangible benefits in the long run. Furthermore, he and ACEC believe that CIDA should be funding at least the engineering component of the infrastructure projects being done under the auspices of the World Bank.

In ACEC’s position paper of January 2005, the association writes: “If CIDA, as it claims, does not have the necessary funding to support sustainable infrastructure development on its own, it should at least make effective use of Canada’s proven engineering resources by co-financing projects with international financial institutions like the World Bank. Under such co-financing arrangements, Canada would support the engineering components of projects that include needs assessments, feasibility studies, strategic planning, technical design, project management and maintenance.”

Tied or untied aid

With an eye on the mistakes of the past, CIDA and most other international aid organizations have carefully tailored their goals to be “pro-poor,” to nurture local economies, engage local businesses and encourage women to be involved.

For CIDA to consider a program sustainable it must include: “the ability to survive because funding is available to continue the initiative beyond the period of CIDA funding.”2 It is no longer enough to build a facility, install sophisticated equipment and then have the engineers from the donor countries walk away. Aid agencies want to ensure there will be money and local people able to run the plant for years to come.

No-one questions that CIDA’s goals make sense. In its paper on deCanadiazing Canadian aid, the Aid Effectiveness Discussion Forum writes: “We support the principles of aid effectiveness — local ownership, improved donor coordination, stronger partnerships, pursuit of a results-based approach …”

But the forum adds a caveat. “However, we do not believe that there is a basic incompatibility between attainment of these principles and a rigorous CIDA-managed bilateral aid program.”

What concerns ACEC and the Aid Effectiveness Forum is that the funds being distributed through international organizations are “untied.” It means that Canadian aid dollars are going offshore with no guarantees that some of the money will find its way back through contracts awarded to Canadian firms. The international financial institutions like the World Bank award contracts through competitions open to engineering and construction companies from around the world.

ACEC and the forum believe that as well as using this arm’s length multilateral arrangement, Canada should be engaging directly with countries it wants to help on a one-to-one basis, or “bilaterally.” This approach would help see Canadian aid dollars are spent on sending Canadian engineers, equipment and other products directly to the country in need. The Aid Effectiveness Forum forum recommends that CIDA increase its bilateral portfolio from 30% to at least 50% of its budget.

It remains to be seen whether things will change under the new federal government and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Perhaps the Conservatives will favour the idea that more Canadian aid dollars should be tied to Canadian business. But in February, Stephen Wallace of CIDA still argued that untied aid bears the best fruit for developing countries. He suggested that, conversely, tying national aid to national contracts has not had a happy past. “There has been a sort of global consensus over the last 10 years,” he says. “A lot of the international analysis on aid effectiveness and the efficiency of aid operations has suggested that tying aid actually comes at a price.”

Chris Newcomb and ACEC, however, argue that the problem with untied aid is that the playing field is not level. The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, for example, “the poster child for untied aid,” has found ways to ensure that most of its aid funds return in aid contracts with U.K. firms. The Canadians would like to see CIDA emulate the U.K. model or similar ones emerging in countries like Denmark, France, the U.S. and Japan.

To match these competing programs, ACEC argues that CIDA should be helping consulting firms build up their connections and skills in the countries receiving aid. It would be a circle of reward: CIDA funds more projects bilaterally with specific countries and hires Canadian firms to become partners and mentors to local firms. Then through those portfolios Canadian firms acquire the kind of local knowledge and business networks that help them compete more successfully for infrastructure contracts on the international stage.

Finally, according to ACEC and the Aid Effectiveness Forum, if Canada adopts more bilateral, one-to-one engagements with recipient developing countries, then it will be easier to monitor how the money is being spent. “Transparency” and “accountability” are much on the lips of people in the international aid business these days.

Any approach that ensures the billions of international aid dollars pouring into developing countries do not disappear in reports gathering dust on a bureaucrat’s shelf, or in the crumbling concrete of another white elephant, has to be worth pursuing. Any policy that ensures the woman in labour gets to the clinic in time instead of becoming bogged down in a rutted cart track has to be worth more than its weight in gold.

1 The Aid Effectiveness Discussion Forum released its document: “The Impact of deCanadianizing Canadian Aid,” in February 2005. Signatories were: CARE Canada, Association of Canadian Community Colleges, Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada (ACEC), Canadian and African Business Women’s Alliance, Canadian Association of International Development Consultants, Canadian Association of Management Consultants, Canadian Bar Association, Canadian Council on Africa, Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, Geomatics Industry Association.

2 CIDA’s “Expanding Opportunities through Private Sector Development, July 2003, Appendix, page 16.


Support for Rwanda Courts and Tribunals

Consultants: GENIVAR/University of Ottawa

Genivar’s Strategic Management and Training group in Quebec City has just completed an unusual five-year project in Rwanda, central Africa, one of the most troubled countries in the world. The project was to help the country rebuild and organize its battered justice system, notably to support the court administration.

The judicial system in Rwanda after the genocide was in a sorry state. The 1994 bloodbath had seen 1 million people killed in three months. Now there were few judges or trained legal personnel, legal documents were virtually non-existent and the buildings were in disrepair. Yet there were 100,000 people imprisoned who were accused of taking part in the massacres. It was essential that they receive fair treatment if the country was to get back on its feet.

In conjunction with the University of Ottawa, Genivar group directed the
project, which was carried out between 2000 and January 2006 with a budget of $5 million. The multi-disciplinary team, which included legal, management, sociology and computer experts besides engineers, began by diagnosing the problem and produced a 370-page report. Following this the project involved constructing a new courthouse in Kibuye, and rehabilitating and equipping two courts of appeal and six tribunals.

The Genivar/University of Ottawa team also led (with cooperation of the European Economic Union) a program to computerize Rwanda’s Supreme Court, which oversees the other courts and tribunals. This work included training magistrates and court clerks in 17 jurisdictions and developing computerized information systems for managing judicial files and judicial statistics. Previously, paper files would simply be stacked up on the courtroom floors. The Genivar team also helped develop computerized information systems for managing human and material resources and it trained employees how to operate them. There was a strategy to foster gender equality in all aspects of the justice system.

Genivar is now involved in a similar project to help reorganize and make improvements to the judicial system of Bosnia Herze-govina in the Balkans.

Client: CIDA. Owner: Supreme Court of Rwanda. Prime consultants: GENIVAR, Montreal (Pierre Robert, Andre Samson, Yvan Robitaille, ing.) and University of Ottawa, International Bureau and Law Faculty.


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