Armenia: an Open Beneficiary Partnership with the Asian Development Bank
I was in Armenia last week with my colleague Edward Irby to lay the groundwork for our first Open Beneficiary Partnership with the Asian Development Bank and the Government of Armenia, with support from the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction at the ADB.
This is our first Open Beneficiary Partnership with a Development Finance Institution for an exciting and important project to build and refurbish earthquake-proof schools in Armenia.
What is an Open Beneficiary Partnership?
An Open Beneficiary Partnership is where we implement an Open Beneficiary Feedback system for a project or programme that enables the ultimate users and beneficiaries
To access all key documents related to the project;
To monitor and feed back on the extent to which the contract is being complied with;
To assess how responsive the project implementer and contractors are to problems identified by the beneficiaries (i.e., the Fix-Rate);
To feed back their satisfaction; and
Where all this information is relayed openly online and in real-time for anyone to see
An Open Beneficiary Partnership retains the three qualities of (a) Autonomy, (b) Transparency, and (c) Positive Feedback Loops that are the core characteristics of Open Beneficiary Feedback which I described in in more detail here. It is located in what I have called the "sweet spot" of the Feedback Triangle.
Although implemented through a contract and agreement with the key parties - the Asian Development Bank and the Government of Armenia - it remains Autonomous in the sense that the direct contractor or implementing agency, in this case an entity called the Armenian Territorial Development Fund does not control the feedback mechanism. This means that the feedback process is not automatically switched off at the end of the project; and that the community can use the tools and skills they have acquired to continue to monitor and report on other projects.
The Transparency qualities of the approach are that all the information is publicly available, both in English and Armenian. We will also be supporting local efforts to disseminate findings through social media, for example. I will be writing separately on the Positive Feedback Loops to describe that phenomenon in more detail.
We are delighted with this development because Open Beneficiary Partnerships have the potential to create a scalable revenue model for Open Beneficiary Feedback that could be transformative for this sector and our own work.
Monitoring school construction and refurbishment
I was in Armenia two years ago and I had the opportunity on that occasion to meet senior members of the government, including the Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister. I introduced these senior officials to our tools and approach. After the first meeting they invited me to come back a couple of days later for a follow-up. Having given it consideration they identified this project, financed by a loan from the Asian Development Bank as an opportunity to deploy Open Beneficiary Feedback in Armenia. The project aimed to rebuild and refurbish some 40 schools in various parts of the country to make them earthquake resistant.
Armenia was hit by a terrible earthquake in 1988, almost 30 years ago. It is known as the Spitak earthquake, named for the town that was near the epicentre. Between 25,000 and 50,000 people died. Because it occurred mid-day, and numerous schools collapsed, the earthquake included many children as victims. The Spitak earthquake was among the 10 most deadly earthquakes of the 20th century. At a 6.8 magnitude it was serious, but there have been more than 50 earthquakes in dozens of other countries since 1900 that were of greater magnitude. The devastating impact of the earthquake is therefore generally ascribed to poor construction materials and to possible fraud in the cement, among other things.
Some schools which were hastily built, rebuilt or repossessed after 1988 have not undergone any
serious work since then - 29 years ago. For example, Edward and I visited a school in Vanadzur, 20km from Spitak, where the school was completely destroyed in 1988. The town took over an abandoned chemical factory and installed a new school at this site. This was initially meant to be temporary but that is where they have been located ever since.
The school in Stepanavan, about 30km from Spitak, was completely rebuilt after the earthquake. The first impression of this school was positive. The entrance hall was well maintained, clean and beautifully decorated:
But a side door from the hall to the other half of the building opened up a scene of utter neglect, in room after room:
This half of the building was completely destroyed from mould, water damage and structural faults. It was not just a case of lacking maintenance. The constructor of the school had cut corners, used substandard building materials and the school authorities lacked the means to repair the damage.
The school principal explained to me that the ventilation system of the school is full of mould. In the winters the temperatures regularly go down to minus 30 C, even minus 40 C. When they turn on the heating system in the winter, the mould blasts through the vents and everyone gets sick. But there is nothing they can do about it.
In Vanadzur the foundations of the new school were already being laid. This is the first school being fully rebuilt under this Asian Development Bank loan:
We convened a meeting of the parents from the Vanadzur school (the one held in the former chemicals factory) to introduce the monitoring project to them. We held such meetings in both Vanadzur and Stepanavan. The meetings were very well attended, almost exclusively by mothers:
I asked whether they might be prepared to volunteer some time on a regular basis to ensure the school was built properly. The mothers said "Of course! We will monitor and we have already started."
The Armenian Territorial Development Fund has its own system of regular checks and controls to ensure that structures are built according to national seismic standards. They also have mechanisms for citizens to voice their complaints, for example through a phone number, a complaints box, by email, as well as in public meetings.
We are not suggesting that the engineers are corrupt or in any way incompetent. Nor do we suggest that common citizens can acquire the skills and technical knowledge required to inspect every aspect of a construction site. It takes an engineer many years to acquire these skills. But we know that no one has a greater stake in the schools being well built than the parents, the children's grandparents - and the children themselves. Engaging them actively in the process of monitoring the work can only benefit the project and make it more successful.
Moreover, our experience in the countries we work is that is that the fraud perpetrated by constructors is often egregious, encompassing as much as 20-40% of the value of a project. When that happens and walls are thinner than intended, substandard bricks are used, fewer iron rods are used than intended, and substandard cement is poured into the foundations. These are the kinds of phenomena that even a trained amateur can spot if they are present on the building site on a regular basis.
As this project progresses, my colleagues and I will be providing updates and further posts.
Questions we are asking
Can community monitoring be deployed for very large infrastructure projects and how would the methodology need to be adapted for that purpose?