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Lending agencies recommend cookie-cutter "solution":

RDA threatened with dismemberment

Statement issued by the President and Executive Committee, Road Development Authority Engineers Association.

The Road Development Authority (RDA), Sri Lanka's principal state agency responsible for overall planning, design, implementation and construction, supervision and maintenance of the nation's major road network is in imminent danger of being virtually robbed of its technical capacity and reduced to a toothless "supervisory" agency.

This would happen if a proposal made by a team of foreign consultants to "Re-Engineering" the RDA was allowed to be implemented. The Road Development Authority Engineers Association (RDAEA), represents 311 engineers of all ranks employed by the RDA. The majority of them are strongly opposed to this proposed scheme of Re-Engineering.

The RDA was established in 1986 as the successor to the Department of Highways in the belief that a semi-autonomous state agency would be able to provide a better service than a Government Department. The proposal to Re-Engineering the RDA was made two years ago by a team of three foreign consultants. The funding for the experts came from the Asian Development Bank. A local consultancy company served as counterparts.

The consultants have proposed that a major proportion of the current work, especially technical work, undertaken by the RDA should be outsourced. In more familiar and fashionable language, RDA work must be privatised to outside consultancy and contracting companies. For reasons that are explained below, the RDA engineers sincerely believe that this proposal would be very detrimental to our country's effort to develop a sustainable network of roads.

Admittedly, the present Government and its Minister of Highways have been in office for only a short period of time. They can reasonably expect to have more time to respond to the concerns that we have expressed in regard to the Re-Engineering proposal. However, the RDA engineers feel that it is their duty to make the public aware of the possible adverse consequences of this proposal for the nation's road network development program.

The RDA engineers readily concede that there are serious shortcomings in the RDA. No organization is perfect and we are no exception. In fact the RDA Engineers Association has regularly lobbied the Government - the present administration as well as past ones - to get these shortcomings rectified. In general, the response has not been very encouraging, although the present Minister has indicated that he would be more sympathetic to our concerns.

We also recognize that new challenges require new solutions. But we do not agree with the underlying rationale for the proposed Re-Engineering programme and are perturbed by the probable adverse consequences that such a programme would entail. The consultants in their report cite "inefficiency" of the RDA as the main reason for privatization of a substantial proportion of the current functions of the RDA. But they totally fail to ask why the RDA is "inefficient." They also fail to seriously consider whether the proposed privatization that would result in the hiring of more foreign and local consultants which would ensure greater efficiency.

The leadership of the present government is committed to greater transparency in public discourse. The RDA Engineers Association appreciates that policy and would boldly and openly state that the principal reason why the RDA is not more efficient is because of political interference. In that regard the situation is no different to many other government departments and agencies that suffer from the same malady. In the case of the RDA, inefficiency stems primarily from the fact that its funds and resources have been reallocated (misallocated) from planned and genuinely necessary work to politically directed less important and unplanned work. This has happened under governments of all colours. The RDA engineers will bear witness to this.

The RDA engineers fully understand that overall political direction is necessary to formulate RDA policy to achieve national goals, RDA engineers, as public servants, will gladly carryout the policy of the government elected by the people. What we oppose is narrow and self-serving political interference in the day-to-day working of the RDA that undermines the morale of the engineers and the efficiency of the organization.

We are aware that multilateral lending agencies such as the Asian Development Bank recommend privatization as the cookie-cutter "solution" to eliminate political interference and improve efficiency. It is our conviction that in this case the remedy is worse than the disease.

Today the RDA is the premier national agency responsible for Sri Lanka's principal network of roads that total over 11,500 km. The RDA has developed a formidable and highly integrated engineering, scientific and technical capacity to perform its task. The RDAEA firmly and sincerely believes that the proposed Re-engineering scheme will virtually eliminate our organization, this valuable national resource and would jeopardize the long-term development, maintenance and sustainability of our road network.

The reader may feel that all the above arguments are advanced by the RDAEA to protect the interests of the engineers. We wish to assure the Government of Sri Lanka and the public, that more than the careers of a few hundred engineers is at stake. Neither is our concern mere theoretical speculation. Let me briefly cite from an independent report - Ken Michael, Richard Simons and Bill Neilsen, Review of Main Roads Western Australia's Term Contracts (; for a summary, see Athol Yates, "Bringing engineers back into public service". Civil Engineers Australia, May 2002, pp. 58-59 - that reviewed a very similar Re-engineering effort in the Department of Main Roads, Western Australia. This report has reached the disturbing conclusion that the outsourcing and privatizing initiative at Western Australia's Main Roads Department undertaken from 1995, has resulted in the following serious negative consequences:

1. A huge loss in technical capacity of the Department.

2. The Department has become "An Uninformed Purchaser of road engineering services and works,"

3. Fewer opportunities for career advancement in technical areas resulting in low job satisfaction,

4. Lack of technical capacities in the Department to respond to urgent work at short notice, and

5. The Department losing its capacity to function as an on-the-job training resource for young engineers to build a human resource base for road engineering.

At present the RDA performs most of the functions mentioned in the Australian report. We have substantial technical capacity, respond to urgent national needs in road development and maintenance, and train our young engineers. The Sri Lankan Re-Engineering proposal is so similar to the Western Australian initiative that we at the RDAEA fear that Sri Lanka is almost certain to suffer the same consequences as Western Australia, unless we immediately review the entire proposal. In fact we would go further and assert that our fate would be worse for two reasons:

First, Australia has a large private sector with considerable technical capacity. In Sri Lanka the proposed privatization would simply mean more dependence on foreign consultants and contractors completely undermining our struggle to build the national technical capacity to be self-reliant. Reengineering is a neat way to keep us dependent indefinitely on foreigners.

Second, the current experience of our engineers in regard to foreign consultants is far from being positive. These consultants are hired for projects funded with foreign aid that also have substantial matching budgets from our Treasury. The consultants are supposed to work for the RDA and are paid for by the RDA, usually at international pay rates, to look after Sri Lanka's interests. In reality our experience has been that many of them, though not all, neglect the interest of the client, meaning RDA and in effect Sri Lanka, and side with foreign contractors.

Our members are able to cite numerous instances where foreign consultants have recommended millions of dollars in extra payments to foreign contractors without adequate justification. These payments are made from public funds. More often than not they are loans from donors that our taxpayers have to pay back with interest. The proposed reengineering scheme will bring more consultants and proportionately reduce the role of our own engineers and make matters even worse. The standard definition of "efficiency" is producing a given good or a service at the cheapest possible price. The outcome of the proposed Re-Engineering scheme would be to make road construction in Sri Lanka more expensive, perhaps prohibitively expensive, and less efficient.

Finally the reader may wonder why, if the proposed Re-Engineering is so detrimental to the RDA and to our country, why any Sri Lankan would want to support it. We have noticed that many senior officials who are about to retire or have retired are tempted by offers of high pay and perks - high by Sri Lankan standards and not necessarily by western standards and tend to support proposals that would create opportunities for lucrative consultancies. The proposed scheme of Re-Engineering of the RDA would be a veritable haven for foreign consultants, their local counterparts, and foreign contractors. This is a sad commentary on our patriotism or rather the lack of it. But that is the truth as we see it.

The RDA Engineers (RDAEA) appeal to the government not to be a party to this misconceived scheme of Re-Engineering and preside over an exercise that would ultimately result in our nation losing its technical capacity to develop and maintain a good road network. By all means reform the RDA. The engineers will fully support any serious bid on the part of the government to eliminate waste, corruption and undue political interference in the work of the RDA. But we strongly oppose a scheme that would destroy our country's engineering, technical and scientific capacity to develop and maintain a modern road network.


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