The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)
Leaving behind more than just a building
A lack of local skills can ultimately doom a development project before it even starts. Here's how we can address it.
In developing countries or countries recovering from conflict, infrastructure can encourage desperately needed economic growth.
But what about the long-term maintenance of infrastructure after the project ends? Too often, infrastructure completed as part of a development project is in disrepair just a few years later. Why? In part because the skills needed to maintain the infrastructure in the long term simply aren’t available locally. But we can change this by leaving behind more than just infrastructure when we complete a project.
A school, a clinic, a police station or any other piece of infrastructure will only ever be a dead object if the skills of the people who built it aren’t developed.
Of course, the idea of leaving skills behind when it comes to development is not a new concept – but it is when it comes to infrastructure.
A school, a clinic, a police station or any other piece of infrastructure will only ever be a dead object if the skills of the people who built it aren’t developed. These are often the same people who will work in it, manage it and maintain it – and the same people who will use those skills, leaving a legacy far beyond any single project.
Encouraging sustainable development through training
A quality project that meets our partners’ expectations isn’t enough. It’s equally important to consider how a project is delivered – and the people’s lives we touch and change for the better. Projects can be a force for far greater change by developing the skills of our own local personnel, local suppliers and contractors, and local counterparts.
Incorporating local training and development opportunities early on in projects, and encouraging local suppliers and contractors by establishing procurement criteria that they can meet to work with UNOPS, are necessary.
In Kosovo*, we worked with a local contractor on a new high-security prison. The three-year project taught the contractor to plan, to coordinate and to manage activities in a more professional manner. We also trained our own local team and the contractor in quality, safety and environmental management techniques. The training not only ensured that our project was done well; the contractor used these skills and experience to win a large contract for the construction of the United States Embassy in Pristina. These long-term skills and increased economic opportunities are the legacies our projects can leave behind.
Legacies and a sense of pride
The sustainability of infrastructure is not just about innovative solutions, but also about basic ownership and engagement of the people who will be the ultimate users. In order for a project to succeed in the long term, those who will own the infrastructure must care about it at least as much as us, and both want to and know how to take care of it.
When we constructed a new police training college in the State of Palestine from 2009 to 2012, the commander of the college was fully involved throughout the project – so much so that he selected the finishes and colours for every one of the 16 new buildings.
The commander and his team were trained during the college’s construction on the operational aspects of the facility. Three years later, when I returned to visit the project, it was still in impeccable condition. The commander and his team took pride in the project. They told me that the police training college was like their child – developed and nurtured by them – and that they would always look after it, to see it achieve its role of improving the rule of law in Palestinian society.
- *Referred to throughout in the context of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999).
Brendan Keirnan is Head of Office for UNOPS in Pristina. He is a chartered civil engineer with 28 years of experience managing projects and programmes across several continents in the private and public sectors. He has extensive experience of the UN system in humanitarian and post conflict/disaster environments.