The Road Development Agency’s investment decisions in road projects are altered at the Ministry of Housing and Infrastructure Development after submission to cater for political priorities, according to an independent study.

And the study has revealed that the so-called 20 per cent local sub-contracting policy has failed to work because the Road Development Agency (RDA) nominates political cadres with no qualifications and knowledge in construction.

According to a report dubbed: “Pro-Growth Road Infrastructure Development in Zambia: Challenges, Opportunities and Policy Options,” conducted by Professor OIiver Saasa and Chiwama Musonda; which closely looks at resource allocative patterns within the road infrastructure sector, the RDA continues to face significant political pressure from its parent ministry, the Ministry of Housing and Infrastructure Development (MHID), regarding which road project is prioritised.

Officials at the MHID, cited in the study, admitted that political priorities often take centre stage in the final decisions as to which road projects are worked on.

“As one analyst concluded, “decision-making is largely driven by politics, hence, there is no… competitive public procurement; and no hierarchy of needs since there is no Road Development Plan that is prepared by technocrats and devoid of political interference,” the report read.

“This was echoed by a senior official in the Ministry of Housing and Infrastructure Development who reported that; “there is no definitive independent determination of priority road infrastructure development by the RDA, but mostly work under the national road programme framework i.e. the Link Zambia 8,000 project, L400 project and C400 project…The RDA normally produces a list of priority road projects, but once submitted to MHID for approval, the political priorities often take centre stage and the list will be altered. The social consideration in determining priority roads largely stems from public concerns and lobbying.”

It noted that there is constantly a “political hand” at play in Zambia’s road infrastructure development.

“There are indications that there is a ‘political hand’ in Zambia’s style of investment decisions in the road infrastructure development. Over the years, for example, it has not been easy to establish congruence between government pronouncements on roads development (particularly during election time) and development plans, annual national budgets and the actual road business strategies as reflected in the implementing agencies’ Annual work plans and strategic plans,” it stated.

“The current preference for road construction seems to reflect political preferences for their increased “visibility” as opposed to a reflection of prudential management of resources. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that a substantial portion of resources utilized in road construction in the country is derived from commercial loans (such as Eurobonds), which the future generations will be obliged to pay back. The end result of these operational choices of road construction over road maintenance and rehabilitation has been the creation of a mammoth backlog of maintenance now under tight fiscal conditions. In many cases, a whole road has to be completely reconstructed at astronomical cost and yet periodic maintenance would have saved substantial resources.”

The study also revealed why Zambian roads had noticeably deteriorated despite huge resources pumped into some road projects.

“This assessment has revealed that, in spite of the policy, legislative and regulatory initiatives that have focused on government effort to upscale roads infrastructure development, the condition of most of the Zambian roads has continued to deteriorate. One noteworthy aspect with respect to the efficiency gains of the current initiatives is that the exorbitant road construction costs have generally posed additional challenges to the country’s stressed fiscal regime, thereby, constraining both the quantity and quality of road infrastructure that could be constructed and maintained at any given time,” it read.

“Although road maintenance has been recognised at the policy level as an important issue in road infrastructure development, it currently is still not a number one priority when it comes to resource allotment. According to the RDA 2012 Maintenance Needs Report on the CRN [Core Road Network], US$721 million was required annually over the 2012 to 2016 period to cover maintenance activities if the state of the Zambian roads were to be brought to maintainable condition.’ However, in 2014, only 21.5 per cent of the required yearly amount was allocated.”

And the report revealed that the so-called 20 per cent local sub-contracting policy failed to work due to cadre infiltration.

“It is noteworthy, however, that there presently is lack of clear criteria for awarding the 20 per cent local sub-contracting policy. For example, there are no indications that the selection of local firms that are invited to partner with foreign contractors is transparent or merit-based. The 20 per cent policy itself is not guided by any piece of legislation and, consequently, politically-influenced choices of local partners has been reported,” it stated.

“More interestingly, the choice of local subcontractors is not made by the main foreign contractor to whom the local firm is to be embedded, an aspect that has brought in opportunities for nepotism and corrupt practices in the awarding of contracts. This point came out more clearly during the workshop that discussed the draft report of this assessment.”

The view from the National Association for Medium and Small-Scale Contractors (NAMSSC) was cited in the report and exposed a sombre revelation:

“The 20 per cent sub-contracting initiative is neither policy nor law. NAMSSC has been pushing the government to work on a legislation, which would lead to increased compliance. The initiative has not been working as earlier envisioned… The transfer of technology or skills development is not working because RDA nominates political cadres with no qualifications and knowledge in construction but may produce NCC [National Council for Construction] registration certificate. These politically-inclined beneficiaries normally trade-off the 20 per cent with Chinese contractors. Those that manage to participate face delayed payments of up to two years.”

The assessment released, Monday, which was conducted by Prof Saasa, with assistance from Chiwama Musonda, looked closely at resource allocative patterns within the road infrastructure sector; reviewed the institutional, regulatory and legislative environment within which road investment decisions are made and implemented, among others, offers insightful policy advice on how to better utilise public resources in road infrastructure development.