Construction quality underpins the success of all infrastructure projects, ensuring end products provide sustained service and utility. This is true in international development projects just as it is in the private sector. Construction Quality Management (CQM) provides the processes and oversight mechanisms that guarantee accountability and adherence to plans, specifications, timelines, and budgets. CQM requires the combined efforts of contractors (or grantees) and quality assurance personnel to achieve optimal construction outcomes.

Within the water and sanitation sector, construction quality is a leading determinant of user safety, infrastructure sustainability, and water quality. While CQM has a gold standard to which engineers are trained to meet or exceed, in reality, many factors impact the ability to meet construction quality expectations, especially in resource poor environments – like those where DT Global implements programs, including USAID’s Lowland Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Activity in Ethiopia.

USAID’s Lowland WASH Activity

USAID’s Lowland WASH Activity, its flagship water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) activity, delivers technical assistance, develops small-scale infrastructure, and builds capacity of national and regional governments and stakeholders in the Somali, Afar and Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) regions of Ethiopia. From 2016-2020, the project has delivered nearly 135 small and medium scale infrastructure projects (4 irrigation schemes and 130 small-scale drinking water supply systems) in the most remote corners of the country.

Under the Activity, USAID Ethiopia has deployed two measures to ensure construction quality: 1. At the outset, the Activity developed a Construction Quality Control Plan (CQCP) which outlined processes and procedures to ensure that construction projects comply with quality requirements (updates to this plan are incorporated annually) and 2. USAID launched a second contract (Engineering Support and Construction Oversight - ESCO) that provides construction quality oversight and assures that quality parameters established in the plans and specifications are achieved. This ESCO scope includes design reviews, site visits, and a tracker where notations on construction quality parameters are made.

The challenge to delivering high quality construction in remote locations

Supporting infrastructure development in remote areas of a country is difficult. Challenges include:

  • Construction quality has been under-prioritized. In Ethiopia, the government’s Construction Quality Management activities focus on big projects (e.g. road construction) while paying little attention paid to small scale construction projects (e.g. community water points) that often serve remote areas.
  • Standardization is difficult. Under projects with remote geographies, construction activities at each site are unique by nature, with varied geographic challenges (e.g. flood plains, drought areas, etc.) requiring different solutions.
  • Skilled labor is difficult to access. A dearth of qualified local construction companies and/or artisans prevails in remote areas of a country, like the three regions where USAID’s Lowland WASH Activity operates. In some cases, highly qualified construction companies or artisans only avail from a central location (at a higher cost); in others, politics favor local partners irrespective of quality.
  • Regular oversight is challenging. Due to large distances between towns and systems (over 1,000 km), security concerns, seasonal rains that make roads impassable, and poor or unreliable communication systems, inspection schedules can be irregular.
  • Government offices are often understaffed and ill-equipped. Remote bureaus are frequently asked to cover large regions but lack vehicles, resources, and qualified staff for adequate construction quality control/assurance.
  • Supply chains are weak. Large distances entail higher transport costs while weak demand affects the market dynamics for construction material supplies.
  • Locally available supplies do not meet quality standards. When local supplies are of poor quality, projects must pay higher prices for goods due to transportation costs. 

Challenges with Construction Quality Management

While USAID’s infrastructure development programs strive for high quality, a second goal underlies all of international development: building local capacity. These twin goals often compete with one another. A host of other challenges also present:

  • Oversight process and communication. An oversight mechanism must clearly articulate its processes (e.g. dispute resolution, approvals, etc.), must be communicated to and agreed on by all parties, and must be consistent with the requirements of each entity’s award mechanism (e.g. contract or grant). When construction quality guidelines and processes are unclear or undefined, the oversight process can falter.
  • Potential conflicts of interest. In cases where an oversight partner competes with the implementing partner on other business opportunities, a potential conflict of interest may arise.
  • Timelines of awards. When oversight mechanisms turn over, established processes may not align with the new mechanism’s expectations or vice versa, resulting in longer learning curves, duplicate efforts, and unforeseen delays.
  • Staff turnover. Successful oversight requires strong collaboration and trust between implementing partner and oversight partner. When staff turnover occurs, the trust building starts over.

Solutions and Lessons Learned

Delivering high quality infrastructure in remote development environments, in collaboration with an independent oversight mechanism, underscores the need for flexibility, patience, perseverance, and adaptability. Based on DT Global’s USAID Lowland WASH Activity experience, the following lessons have been learned and can be applied to future infrastructure development projects:

  • Design clear systems for design reviews, approvals, and sign offs. Identifying and noting construction quality flaws is a simple task. The challenging part is making decisions about which flaws are essential, which fall within scopes of work, and ultimately, which are required to deliver the necessary balance of high quality, capacitated national actors, and immediate service delivery needs of target populations.
  • Develop an integrated and coordinated Construction Quality Control/Assurance document. At the outset, projects need to clearly define quality requirements and processes for work tasks, including: definition of scope, quality requirements (including acceptance criteria), quality inspection processes and tests, work instructions, submittal reviews and approvals, recording requirements, detailed processes for marking and closing non-conformance issues, etc.
  • Improve coordination and communication. Implementing partners and oversight partners must coordinate and complement one another. The implementer must receive consistent guidance from the client and oversight partner on all requirements and expectations in order to respond in effectively. With a variety of actors and geographic barriers, clear communication can improve relationships, set expectations, and deliver quality. Each party commit to one goal: delivering quality products and services, with an understanding of local context and capacity.
  • Strengthen systems for accountability, within projects. While oversight mechanisms provide quality control for the donor, within projects like the USAID Lowland WASH Activity, establishing strong quality control mechanisms between sub-contractors is critical to delivering quality results. Each partner needs to have clearly defined requirements and must be held accountable to those requirements.
  • Capacitate key actors to deliver high quality. Sub-contractors, government officials, and construction companies in remote areas may not know what high quality construction looks like. Projects and activities can actively address this gap by conducting trainings to convey what high quality standards are, why they are important, and how companies can achieve them.

Conclusion

In remote, development contexts, poor construction quality has a price: repairs become more expensive, difficult access means some repairs are never completed, and uptime is compromised. The poor and vulnerable are often the most affected. USAID’s investment in construction quality and oversight are necessary efforts to improve results. While a variety of lessons can and should be teased from activities such as USAID’s Lowland WASH Activity, the underlying developmental question will always come back to what we want to achieve, a gold standard or increased capacity of local partners. Fortunately, we do not have to settle for an either/or answer. As the USAID Lowland Activity has illustrated, with flexibility, patience, communication, and adaptability, USAID and its partners can forge better, higher quality infrastructure, even in the most remote environments.