Road under construction

The Institute for Management Development (IMD), one of the world’s renowned rating institutes of the competitiveness of countries, sets the level of the development and the quality of public infrastructure of a country as a critical index when evaluating the competitiveness of countries and a telling index of the level of economic development of a country. Further, there is a cyclic relationship between infrastructural investment in the form of public construction projects and economic growth in a country.  Building works and construction of other items of infrastructure are inputs for economic and social activity which stimulate activities in other sectors of the economy from which the industry obtains its inputs (such as manufacturing) which in turn contributes to increased incomes, economic growth and national development.  But construction provides employment opportunities which make its workers effective consumers in the economy, thus further stimulating activities in other sectors and growing the economy, expanding related sectors, and creating higher employment, individually and together which in turn lead to increased demand for construction.  Actually many development practitioners see any serious construction or rehabilitation of highways, as a necessary minimum condition for any country to register any meaningful measure of economic growth (considering that highways act as arteries of national development).

In our case the rate at which we initiate large scale-public construction projects has been too inconsequential to benefit us in any meaningful way but also the strategic planning and management and utilization of resources for such works has been too shambolic to bear the country expected benefits.  It is doubtful if we have ever attempted to comprehensively assess (qualitatively and quantitatively) the success of any of the projects we have undertaken, meaning assessing the success of entire process or the life cycle of the entire project covering budget allocation, planning and design, tendering, construction, inspection and acceptance and maintenance!  We occasionally peek at efficiency performance measures (adherence to schedule budget, cost budget and basic performance expectation—which means getting the project out on time, on budget and meeting a quality threshold) but hardly look at the effectiveness performance measures (the achievement of objectives, users’ satisfaction and the use of the project). The failure to carry out comprehensive performance evaluations on public projects robs government of opportunities to effect measures for improvements at appropriate stages of the life cycle of the construction project or make appropriate interventions to enhance project performance and ensure successful project outcome or predict project outcomes.

In our Malawi, a large-scale public construction project is a much-coveted chance of high thieving value and presents a high thieving opportunity for many unsavoury characters who dare not miss it.  It seems that is all that counts.  The budgets (schedule and cost) for its work are a combustive mixture of outright fraud, bestial greed and ineptitude.  The work execution too is an explosive mixture of outright thievery, cruel greed and compromised competence

It took our poor country a generation to source funding for the rehabilitation of the Mzuzu-Nkhata Bay road.  You would think we would do everything to get ‘value for the money’.   People close to the works have, however, been bitterly disheartened to observe that the works currently underway do not seem reflect this concern —It has been observed that current works are using inferior sub-base material that will certainly cut short the life-span and compromise the performance of the completed road.  The contractor (a foreign firm) is using material that in road construction parlance is called rock flour (or rotten rock) and fine-grained silty-clayey soils, neither of which qualifies for the required ‘gravel material with stable mechanical properties’ or ‘materials consisting of a natural or artificial mixture of hard durable particles and soil binder free from soft material and excess clay’.  The subgrade itself appears to be of poor quality and probably needs in-situ lime treatment (of some sort) for in-situ subgrade improvement.  We have a Malawian consultant on this work, would it be asking too much of this Malawian consultant to sacrifice a tad of his seriousness, a tinge of his professionalism, a smidgen of his patriotism and a soupcon of his indebtedness for work duly earned (we assume)—but all-the same borne of Malawian tax sweat—to apply every patriotic effort and sinew to make this massive public investment to last generations!   I have heard from some quarters that the contractor has been allowed to use inferior material because the suitable gravel with the required stable mechanical properties is found too far away but my argument is that it is better to spend that extra money and get good ‘value for the money’ than save the money and get a road with compromised life and performance.  An expensive alternative (but one ensuring a product of enhanced value) would be to use a reduced sub-base layer of materials specified for the base for the sub-base. If we want this important road to serve us for a generation or longer then the responsible authorities must enforce corrective action(s) to put an end to what is currently going on.

The sectional upgrading works of the Churchill road (from Illovo roundabout to Midima court roundabout) in Limbe that involve the widening of the existing road to dual carriageway are being executed by a local contractor and had a contractual duration of 90 days (three months) is now in its ninth-month (after removing the embarrassing project sign details and the completion date having been extended to the just ended month of November—a 167% contractual duration overrun, with works projected to finish way into next year!  It should not be too surprising though because our contractors do not base their guestimates of works duration on their productivity because they never keep productivity records in the first place!  The question is can one reasonably guestimate works duration without productivity information and without productivity information, can one accurately cost ones works?   If the works duration is currently 167% plus off the mark, how much off the mark is the cost of the work (cost overrun)?    How ‘fair’ was the assessment of the tenders for this work if it was believed this tenderer was the most responsive with a works-duration of three months and competing tenders offering six months-or eight months-durations or indeed shorter or longer durations considered unresponsive?  It raises troubling questions about the capabilities of the employer (Roads Authority) and engaged consultants to competently evaluate tenders!  Granted, cost and duration overruns for any highway construction project are not uncommon (attributed to unquantifiable but foreseeable events) but we expect these to be appropriately factored in the final guesstimates of the works budgets.  More worryingly, these duration and cost overruns will be over and above the fraudulent project works budgets.

The primary purpose of public procurement (as an important component of public administration) is to achieve  maximized  cost  effectiveness and  efficiency  for  the  expenditure  of  public  money, also  known  as  the principle  of “value  for  money”— meaning  to  achieve  the  best  possible  ratio  between  the amount paid and the value received. The selection of the most responsive bidder within the public procurement procedure assists in our achievement of the aforementioned purpose but it assumes the tender evaluation itself is competently done and other components of the life cycle of a public construction project necessitating the public procurement are competently executed.

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