By Dena O'Dell
USACE - Alaska District
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Alaska District is helping to ‘pave the way’ in Bangladesh by assisting with the construction of roads, market places and irrigation projects.
The Alaska District’s Asia Office, located near Anchorage, is collaborating with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Local Government Engineering Department of Bangladesh, or LGED, to complete the projects in the first government-to-government agreement in the country.
Since the program’s inception three years ago, eight roads have been built in Jessore, Bangladesh, and the construction of six more roads in rural areas will begin in December, said Rob Leach, project manager with the Alaska District’s Asia Office. Additionally, construction of market places and irrigation projects is ongoing.
The partnership, which was established under USAID’s Bangladesh Agriculture Infrastructure Development Program, is a new and unique way of accomplishing work overseas, said Stan Wharry, chief of the Alaska District’s Asia Office.
“The standard way of doing business is that the U.S. government uses its own implementing contractor or agency to do the work,” Wharry said. “The government-to-government effort is so innovative because instead of the U.S. executing the work, it is now taking it and putting it in the hands of the host nation.”
During the rainy, monsoon season in Bangladesh – typically from June to October – dirt roads in rural areas of the country are almost impassable, making it difficult for farmers to get their crops to the market and increasing the chance for post-harvest losses, said Mitchell Nelson, agriculture development officer with USAID Bangladesh.
With a population of more than 156 million and an average annual income of $2,713 per person, one in three people in Bangladesh is living in poverty, according to USAID’s website at https://results.usaid.gov/bangladesh.
The Bangladesh Agriculture Infrastructure Development Program, which is a subset of the U.S. Feed the Future initiative, works to improve rural farmers’ access to market places and the quality of life in the country.
The organization connects small farms to regional markets, helping the poorest populations become more active in growing and selling products, according to USAID’s website. The ultimate goal is to help Bangladesh achieve sustainable agricultural development.
The new roads have improved market access for rural farmers, increasing their incomes, Nelson said, and it has improved the quality of life in the area by helping children get to school easier and facilitating families’ access to medical clinics.
“Now people can actually go out and ride their bicycles down the road,” Leach said. “We also see farmers moving their products down the road. In terms of supporting the Feed the Future program, these roads are critical because they’re the final component to developing agriculture in the area and moving products.”
ASSISTING THE HOST NATION
The Corps’ role in the process is to assist LGED – the lead agency hired by the Government of Bangladesh – with developing, reviewing and accepting the design standards and cost estimates for the projects, as well as to oversee LGED’s quality assurance program, and inspect and accept the completed work.
The collaboration with LGED officials is really a partnership-mentorship, where effective communication is the key, said Maj. Mel Arledge, project manager for the Alaska District’s Asia Office.
“When we show up as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, they are looking at us as one of the premier engineering agencies in the world,” Arledge said. “That’s huge to me. I feel like there’s a huge responsibility (to meet those expectations).”
At any given time, he said, one or two officials from the Corps or USAID are sitting down in a conference room with LGED staff, sharing ideas, goals and collaborating on best practices.
“We spend a lot of time with them,” Arledge said. “It’s really about perseverance and patience, and realizing what the goal is. If you talk to one person, the goal is to develop LGED’s procurement capacity and transparency. If you talk to another person, it’s all about having a road to last 20 years. Then you talk to another person, and it’s all about instituting a training program with LGED about ethics and business capabilities.”
“And, when you talk to another person, it’s all about increasing food, security and the Feed the Future program,” Wharry said.
So far, the program has exceeded expectations, Nelson said.
“It has allowed us to take this project to a higher level beyond just a (government-to-government) agreement,” he said. “It has allowed for a synergistic effect with LGED being so impressed with learning from (the Corps) that it wants to expand these concepts to other projects.”
CHALLENGING AND REWARDING ENDEAVOR
The projects have been challenging, nonetheless, but very rewarding, Wharry said.
Some of the obstacles encountered include language barriers, cultural differences, and establishing building and environmental standards.
Cheryl Peyton, environmental engineer for the Alaska District, has been instrumental in developing an environmental mitigation plan for the projects, which includes erosion control, waste management procedures, and potable water and sanitation standards.
“It’s been an educational experience for us to really think about what is the best way – what will they accept and how can we move in a direction that’s better,” she said.
Part of the process is learning to build with materials available in the country, Peyton said.
“In the U.S., materials are cheap and labor is expensive,” she said. “It’s exactly the opposite here. Labor is very cheap, and materials are very expensive, so I’ve had to shift my thinking in helping to guide, manage and educate.”
Peyton said she has enjoyed developing innovative solutions for the projects.
“For me, I’ve enjoyed the challenges because it’s not cookie-cutter engineering,” she said.
“You really do have to evaluate the science of it – what is needed, and what materials and abilities are available to accomplish that. And then, you come up with an engineering solution.”
The key to accomplishing a successful mission is working with committed individuals, Leach said, who described all of his counterparts in Bangladesh as conscientious, capable, innovative and committed.
“We work with some of the best people in Bangladesh,” he said. “LGED has really shown commitment to continue and be innovative in terms of how it meets standards.”
Additionally, Leach said he would like to see the government-to-government concept expand in the future for the delivery of other forms of aid.
“We’re in the business of delivering humanitarian assistance,” he said. “That’s the whole mission of the (Alaska District’s) Asia Office. This is a different model, but nonetheless, it’s a legitimate way to deliver. This is a very good model because it helps develop the capacity of the host nation to deliver for itself.”
The concept is a best practice for two reasons: capacity building and cost-effectiveness, Wharry said. And, by teaching rather than doing, it creates a self-sustaining country.
“In the end, (that country) is more capable,” he said. “It is about teaching someone to fish, rather than giving them a fish. It is such a valuable way to do business. It’s hard and it’s risky, but nothing valuable ever gets done that’s easy.”
HUMANITARIAN ASSISTANCE PROGRAM
Since 2009, the Alaska District has orchestrated the design and construction of projects, including schools and medical clinics for the U.S. Pacific Command, which is responsible for providing humanitarian assistance to 36 countries across the Asian-Pacific region.
Pacific Ocean Division, which oversees the Alaska District, executes more than 60 Humanitarian Assistance construction projects and conducts more than 70 partner capacity-building activities in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Some tangible symbols of its commitment of humanitarian assistance include schools, shelters, clinics and bridges throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
“POD is working closely with U.S. Pacific Command, U.S. Army Pacific and our interagency partners, including the Department of State and USAID, in more than 18 countries to deliver innovative, holistic and sustainable solutions that achieve global and theater objectives, and end states,” said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Milhorn. “We are building relationships with regional allies and developing partnered nation capacity.”
The HA program was established by the U.S. government in 1986 to assure support to selected friendly nations and allies, and provide basic humanitarian aid and services to populations in need.
The goals of the Department of Defense and combatant commanders, like the Pacific Command, are to help avoid political and humanitarian crises, promote democratic development and regional stability, and enable countries to begin to recover from past conflicts. In non-crisis peacetime settings, the program supports combatant commanders by providing access to and fostering goodwill for the U.S. military.
FEED THE FUTURE PROGRAM
Led by USAID, the Feed the Future program is the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative in which agencies work together with partner countries to develop their agriculture sectors and try to break the cycle of poverty and hunger.
From fiscal years 2011 through 2014, a total of $154 million was spent on USAID’s Economic Development program, which aims to increase agricultural productivity and growth, build necessary economic infrastructure and promote private sector competiveness, according to its website.