What major challenges have you observed with completing construction projects in Afghanistan?
There are several problems that are commonly faced during construction projects in Afghanistan. These problems can be generally categorized as follows: 1) logistics, 2) security, and 3) capacity.
Logistics and security are closely related as companies attempt to transport construction equipment, material, and personnel through difficult and dangerous terrain. It is not uncommon for materials to be delayed for weeks at the border or for convoys to be attacked en route to a project site. Airlifting materials is sometimes less expensive when the border delays and security issues are factored into the ground transport cost equation.
Depending on the location of the project, security can be a major expense, usually in the range of 5 to 15 percent of the total project cost. Attacks on a project not only are caused by the Taliban or insurgent elements but also can be triggered by disgruntled employees or terminated subcontractors. A contractor’s relationship with the local community is sometimes a more important part of security planning than the number of armed guards employed. If local residents are hired to work on a project, they tend to help protect it.
The local construction industry suffers from a lack of capacity, resulting in project quality issues and delays. Local contractors benefit from an international donor emphasis to hire Afghans, but in many cases, they are not able to deliver on contracts because of their inability to find skilled workers and managers. Weaknesses in design and construction management have been major problems for local contractors, resulting in changes in the project delivery methods utilized by donors. Mentoring and skills development training by the international community are being implemented to help address these issues, but there is still a long way to go.
Dealing with government bureaucracies is a common but frustrating experience for engineers working internationally, according to what I have read and heard. What has been your experience and what advice can you give to engineers who expect to interface with these entities in their future project work?
Interacting with a government bureaucracy, either as a reviewing or permitting group or as a client for public-sector projects, is a very common task facing an engineer working internationally. Correctly managing these interactions can be the difference between project success and failure.
While there are similarities in dealing with bureaucracies in North America as compared with those in developing countries, there are often profound differences. In general, the latter will be significantly less efficient, creating, at a minimum, lengthier review and approval or decision timeframes. The bureaucratic staff is likely to be less qualified and as a result may be more reluctant to make decisions. The engineer will need to be prepared to provide a more detailed design or proposal and factor in time to educate the staff, not only on the design or proposal itself, but in many cases, on the bureaucracy’s own regulations or that of its international counterparts.
Face-to-face meetings will be required in most cases to navigate the bureaucracy’s approval path successfully. Long distance communication should only be used as a supplement to these meetings. A local representative can also be invaluable in monitoring or facilitating the process.
David M. Roebuck, P.E., CCM, LEED AP, has been involved in projects in Africa, Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and Central Asia. He is currently working in Afghanistan, providing oversight support for infrastructure projects funded by the U.S. government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get answers to your questions about design firm and project management, finances, marketing, international engineering, and related topics by sending them to email@example.com; reference “Business Q&A.” Include your name and telephone number in all correspondence. Your name will not be used in connection with published questions.