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Review: Innovation for the sake of innovation is not good design

April  2019

Two somewhat sleepy towns in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) will pilot the first decentralized wastewater system in the country—and lessons already abound.  

Part of a larger bid to energize the Lao PDR section of the North-South Economic Corridor in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), the pilot includes constructing eight small-scale wastewater treatment plants and 27 kilometers (km) of new sewerage networks, two controlled landfills with a combined capacity of 520,000 cubic meters (and purchase of solid waste collection vehicles), and 32 km of drainage networks and 6,070 meters of riverbank embankments for flood protection in Paksan and Thakhek. The Fourth Greater Mekong Subregion Corridor Towns Development Project aims to improve the urban environmental services of the two towns and raise their economic potential.

The project also includes rehabilitating the old town center of Thakhek to encourage regional tourism and developing city master plans to promote economic connectivity in the GMS.

Furthermore, this $48 million grant investment links to other ADB-funded projects in the country and the region – such as the GMS Tourism Infrastructure for Inclusive Growth Project – for a comprehensive, value-ridden development.

Given these huge plans and what it could mean for Lao PDR, the After-Action Review (AAR) report conducted by the Southeast Asia Department (SERD) after the project’s approval in September 2018 carries greater merit. Seven lessons and recommendations were derived from analyzing the processing of the loan, which could improve the design and implementation of this project and others down the line. These are as follows:

1. Communicating new priorities to the client

According to the AAR report, the government initially expected that the project would center on urban roads, similar to previous GMS Corridor Towns projects. “However, the priorities of the Southeast Asia Urban Development and Water Division (SEUW) shifted to a stronger focus on urban environmental improvements,” it added. “As a result, investments in urban roads were reduced and investments in wastewater and solid waste management increased during the processing of the project. The division director visited the country to explain this new strategic approach to the government.”

Overall, the lesson from this experience is for ADB to be more “open and transparent in communicating changes” with governments. “Management should consider outlining any change in strategic direction when the project concept is initially discussed with the government so that there is a common understanding, and expectations can be managed from the outset.”

2. Focus on essential services before innovation

Within the institution, and perhaps in the development sector, there has been a big push for innovation to leapfrog tired ways and create a more effective impact. However, the project team realized that “pursuing innovation for the sake of innovation is not conducive to good project design”.

“Low-income countries like Lao PDR need support in providing basic urban services such as landfills and wastewater treatment facilities. ADB-financed projects should initially focus on these essential needs through previous good practices and tested solutions.”

Paksan and Thakhek, in particular, are the least developed towns along the North-South Economic Corridor. In Paksan, only 12% of households have properly constructed and managed septic tanks and less than a half of the households receive municipal solid waste services. The little waste collected is disposed in open dumpsites or elsewhere, often blocking drainage canals.

In Thakhek, similarly, only 20% of the households have septic tanks for sanitation, and less than 60% are served by a functioning solid waste collection system. These towns need improved wastewater collection and treatment systems to control surface water and groundwater pollution in order to help manage the growing urban areas, said the project team.  

3. Using project lessons to support design

If there were anything “innovative”, then it would be the project’s use of a decentralized approach for the wastewater system since this would be the first of its kind in the country.

The team used a report from the Independent Evaluation Department (IED) that supports such an approach after receiving pushback on the idea in the beginning. “IED knowledge products that capture lessons learned across sectors are useful resources for designing projects,” they noted.

In addition, decentralized wastewater systems are more cost-effective in smaller towns compared to large centralized facilities. If successful, this could be replicated in other parts of the country.

4. Peer review earlier in the process

“Peer reviewers have more opportunities to improve the project design and implementation arrangements when they are involved earlier in the loan processing cycle. [Usually, project] documentation is only peer-reviewed after the project team has done extensive preparation.”

For this project, the team had a supportive peer reviewer who provided actionable feedback and worked with the team to strengthen the design.

5. Flexibility in selection criteria for consultants

According to the review, “The selection criteria for consultants place more emphasis on previous experience and longevity than on capacity to carry out the necessary work.”

Based on the team’s experience, they recommend that the selection process for positions that require extensive travel should be more flexible and consider physical health as well as previous experience since “the job was too physically demanding” for their lead consultant, who had to manage the international team and two national teams, and visit project sites in remote areas.

6. Importance of holistic perspective in designing subprojects

“Project teams should design activities and subprojects that consider key stakeholders and existing linkages within a sector. Narrowly focusing on the ADB-financed components may likely result in suboptimal results. A holistic and national perspective ensures the project will have a consistent approach and avoids reinventing solutions introduced by other projects, provinces, or towns.”

For example, the project team recommended that the national government look into how the management of the solid waste collection could be integrated with the landfills to be funded by the project to ensure the investment attains the desired impacts and targets, given that the current management is run by private companies with long-term contracts with the towns. There is currently no national policy or framework to regulate the firms’ performance and tariff guidelines.  

7. Need for more resources for septic tank management

Lastly, the team noted in the AAR report that many households in Paksan and Thakhek are not connected to the water system and instead they use septic tanks. “The project design could have integrated improved management of septic tank systems,” they added.  

The Fourth GMS Corridor Towns Development Project is expected to be completed by the end of 2023.

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Antonio Ressano Garcia
Principal Urban Development Specialist
Southeast Asia Urban Development and Water Division

In Paksan, only 12% of households have properly constructed and managed septic tanks and less than a half of the households receive municipal solid waste services.

*For more details on the AAR report or the project, please email the contact noted above (right-hand side).

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