Eng. Saeed Abdu Ahmed: “Pupils in rural areas have to travel 8-10 km to get to the nearest school.” [Archives:1998/12/Interview]

March 23 1998

Eng. Saeed Abdu Ahmed is the General Director of the Urban Development Directorate at the Ministry of Construction, Housing and Urban Planning, and is also now the Director of the Public Works Project. Eng. Ahmed, 42, graduated from the Civil Engineering Department in the College of Engineering, Basra University, Iraq, in 1979. He worked in the former Ministry of Housing, and joined this project two years ago.
Dr. Salah Haddash, Yemen Times Managing Editor, met Eng. Saeed Abdu Ahmed and filed the following interview.
Q: When was the Public Works Project started?
A: The project’s administration was established in June, 1996. It is one of the elements constituting the social safety network, which is implemented by the government in cooperation with the World Bank. It is a remedy for some of the negative effects of implementing the reform package. These negative effects include the rise in unemployment and increase in poverty. The project’s first goal is finding job opportunities for people with limited income in order to lessen, as much as possible, the impact of poverty.
The Public Works Project is worth $28 million, $25 million of which is provided by the World Bank and $3 million by the Yemeni government. Instead of executing two or three large projects which need a lot of funds and equipment, the idea is to employ as many people as possible in several small projects spread in both rural and urban parts of the country.
Q: In what sectors do you mainly work?
A: We work in construction, education, health and road building in ancient towns by using hand-honed stones, water cistern construction, laying water pipes, sewage disposal, etc. The citizens buy the necessary building materials and we do the work.
Q: What criteria do you follow in your work?
A: First, work has to be systematized. The main agreementbetween the government and the World Bank stipulates the main guidelines. We have to choose the projects, implementation conditions, geographical distribution, and other basic points.
The charter of procedures regulates the process of receiving project applications, seeing how compatible they are with the conditions specified by the loan agreement, and specifying the steps to be taken from receiving the project application up to its completion.
We also drew a general strategy to distribute the loan’s money on the national level. About 10% of the total sum is used to cover consultative and administrative expenses. The remaining 90% is used to finance civil works.
In August of 1996, a memoranda explaining the goals of the projects was sent to all governors in Yemen, asking them to submit their individual governorate’s needs and demands. Applications started to pour in from the governors themselves, from NGOs, community leaders, MPs, etc. These applications are then vetted and classified by a special committee in accordance with the project’s conditions.
Q: How many projects have been endorsed up to now?
A: There are around 500 projects distributed over various parts of the country.
Q: How are these tenders carried out?
A: These public tenders are executed in accordance with the World Bank agreement. When submitted tenders are opened and fully studied, agreements are signed with the winning contractors when the cost of the project is not over $200,000. If the cost of an individual project is above that figure, we have to refer back to a steering committee, which reviews the proposals and authorizes us to sign the contract.
Q: What are the biggest and smallest projects you have endorsed?
A: The biggest project has taken more than a year to finish, while, the smallest one took only three months. The costs also vary from $7,000 to $260,000.
Q: How many people are employed in these projects?
A: The number of people employed in each project is about 30% of the actual value, in dollars, of the project. Some projects employ workers at a ratio of 40 or even 50% of their cost. About 20,000 workers a month are currently employed by about a third of the allocated sum. This number is expected to rise to 60,000 workers a month
Q: Could you give more details on how the loan money was distributed?
A: Half of the money was distributed according to the population. One-third of the remaining half was given according to the poverty ratio to areas such as Mahweet and Dhamar. The remaining two-thirds of the second half were distributed according to the remoteness of each governorate. Saada, as a remote and deprived mountainous region, received a large share of the money. Hadhramaut, Mareb, Al-Jawf, Al-Mahara, and the islands such as Socotra and Kamaran also received a good proportion of the money.
Q: Are some projects given priority above others?
A: This is subject to the people’s needs. Governors, NGOs and local councils come up with their applications which really indicate their own priorities.
Q: What are the most common projects you are implementing?
A: Most of the projects are in the education sector and most of applications we receive are in this field. This is contrary to the initial expectations. The people who started this project expected that only 10% of the proposed projects would be in the education sector.
The country in general does not have the capacity to build schools. The few schools that exist are overcrowded. Pupils in rural areas have to travel 8-10 km to get to the nearest school.
Q: What projects come after schools?
A: The second most common projects are in the health-care sector such as health centers, clinics, etc. This is followed by road building and water and sewage projects.
Q: How large are the schools you build?
A: We built three large schools consisting of 12 classrooms, each. Most of the other schools, however, consist of between 3 and 6 classrooms. Most of these schools are in rural areas.
Some people apply for a school to be built for girls, others may apply for a boy’s school, each according to their needs.
Q: What about water cisterns?
A: Many of the water cisterns are built with stones because of their availablity, otherwise, the cistern is built with concrete. These water cisterns vary in size from 50 cubic m. to 5,000 cubic m. for collecting flood water.
We have not yet been involved in building dams, except maybe for two small projects. Dam building needs a lot of engineering, economic, environmental, geological, hydrological, and other complicated studies. Also, such projects tend to be quite costly. The average project cost we are willing to implement is around $50,000. There are only four projects costing more than $200,000 each.
Q: When will the Public Works Project be over?
A: It was scheduled to end by 2001, when the loan money is used up. But this project will be completed sooner than that, at least one year earlier than scheduled. Civil works will be completed during the first quarter of next year.
Due to this success, the World Bank offered to extend the project by providing another loan. The Ministry of Planning and Development submitted an application for a new loan. There is already a provisional agreement, and the loan will probably be ratified by April. We are expecting to start using the new loan by the end of this year.
Q: What kind of problems do you face in your work?
A: We try as much as possible to coordinate our efforts with the bodies concerned. However, we face some difficulties in getting money out of the $3 million provided by the government. The main difficulty emanates from the long-winded bureaucracy. We start by submitting an application to the Ministry of Planning, which refers it to the Ministry of Finance. The latter refers the application back to the former, which finally cashes the check. Last year, the government and the World Bank agreed that the application for funds will no longer be referred to the Ministry of Finance. It now goes directly from the Ministry of Planning to the Central Bank.
A completed project needs a lot of following-up. It simply cannot be abandoned. So we still have to deal with more than 300 projects, some of which are completed but others are not. Procedures really have to be considerably simplified.
We opened a credit at the Central Bank, and applications for funds are submitted in one go. We withdraw the money we need from our account. But change of senior ministerial staff towards the end of last year put an end to this simple procedure. Now we cannot easily withdraw money from local funds. We will face many problems if this continues, and contractors will start to lose heart.
Q: How many permanent staff do you have?
A: We now have about 29 permanent employees; including engineers, administrators, accountants, etc. We divided the country into two main regions and six sub-regions. The first region includes Aden, Lahaj, Abyan, Hadhramaut, Al-Mahara, Mareb, Shabwa, and Al-Jawf. The second region includes the rest of the governorates. We have offices in Aden, Hadhramaut, Mareb, Sanaa, Hajja, and Ibb.