Supporting the development of cities, Ed debunks the notion that forestry contradicts urban planning and that procurement and contract management are simply clerical.
How procurement is caring for the poor
The reason is simple. All his life, professional and personal, Ed – as he is usually called – has been people-oriented. He is motivated by a philosophy of ‘giving back’. In college he participated in volunteer work. And from graduation forward, he has been gearing towards a career in development, starting with engaging local communities under Plan International, followed by five years in a quasi-government entity, the Skyway Corporation of the Philippine National Construction Corporation (now called the Skyway Operations and Maintenance Corporation), which opened him up to the public sector, specifically in the areas of procurement and project management. This exposure then led him to development and funding institution Japan International Cooperation Agency or JICA, where he gained more experience on procurement and contract management, as well as dealing with government agencies.
Hence, when he joined ADB in 2008, he reached full circle. Not only did he have a better understanding of the different types of stakeholders involved, but also the work he was doing had scaled up. If previously he was assisting in the implementation of latrine, housing, and water supply system projects in a small town in Occidental Mindoro, an island province in the Philippines, in ADB he was involved with landmark projects catering to thousands, if not millions, of people in need, such as the Melamchi Water Supply Project in Kathmandu, Nepal; the 24x7 water supply system projects of the North Karnataka Urban Sector Investment Program in India; and the proposed desalination plant of the Jaffna and Kilinochchi Water Supply and Project in Sri Lanka.
For Ed, project procurement and contract management are vital in helping people have a better way of life. In the course of the interview, he detailed at length about the challenges and yearning of the people, and how the success of a project is determined by the ways contracts are procured and managed. In the end, he says: “If in the future things don’t improve, I’d still like to focus on the urban and water sectors. Water is a basic commodity, but it’s so, so precious. And it’s still so, so hard for us to provide.”
“Non-dreamers might think this is an insurmountable task. If you want immediate gratification from your projects so you can tick your boxes and move on or an eager project evaluator insisting on transformative development impacts in one project span, then this is not your cup of tea.”
Tell us about the two milestone projects you’ve been involved in. What makes them unique?
Ed: The Melamchi Water Supply Project is the oldest project in the bank. It started in 2000, with an aim to alleviate the shortage of potable water supply in the Kathmandu Valley by diverting water from the Melamchi River. But its early years was plagued with several setbacks, including wanting to institute a certain policy reform and political volatility. In addition, in 2012, the first Melamchi tunnel contract had to be terminated due to the contractor’s unsatisfactory performance. Fast and carefully executed rebidding had to be done and the contract was awarded the following year.
If you go to Melamchi and mention that you’re working for the Melamchi project, they know what it is. They’ve been longing for this. The people of Kathmandu are only receiving water supply once every four days, very scarce. Now, just three kilometers of the 27.5 kilometers of the tunnel need to be constructed. By middle of 2018, we hope to have water available.
Another is Ilkal, part of the North Karnataka Urban Sector Investment Program. This is a multitranche financing facility with four tranches and the Ilkal project is part of the second tranche. This is the first town in India to achieve 100% coverage with a 24x7 water supply system. In addition, the innovative thing about this project is how it uses performance-based contracts, where risks are balanced through performance incentives and penalties. Usually the bidding documents we have are for basic civil works and for design-build projects. But this is a design-build-operate project, incorporating a public-private partnership or PPP aspect. This has become a benchmark for succeeding tranches that are also planning 24x7 water supply systems.
In a past interview, you were noted as having a strong public service background. How did this start?
Ed: I grew up in the countryside in Laguna. You know how it is in the province, especially during vacations or even weekends, grownups would be talking about issues in the country and whatnot, and so I learned about their socio-political views, and the disparities between the rich and the poor. In college, this was reinforced with my involvement in various organizations and interaction with depressed communities in the Philippines. I was profoundly exposed to social inequality.
In UP [University of the Philippines], since students are encouraged to do socio-civic activities, I was part of a volunteer group that provided assistance after the Mt. Pinatubo eruption. We introduced bio-intensive gardening and sloping agricultural land technology, which helped locals and Aetas [an indigenous community]. I was also part of the student government council so I had the opportunity to go around different places in the country. I saw inequality everywhere, where the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer.
And because we’re called iskolar ng bayan [the nation’s scholars] in UP, there’s an unwritten rule that we owe it to our country to give back. I remember during graduation a group of UP students would go up on top of the auditorium and they would unfurl a red banner saying, “Serve the People”.
Is this why your first job was with Plan International?
Ed: I really wanted to work with communities. That’s my way of giving back. I could say my work with Plan is one of the most fulfilling. I love its participatory community development approach and the difference it makes to the lives of the people. In a way this is like a microcosm of what I’m doing with ADB now.
To backtrack a bit, why did you study forestry? Isn’t urban development a contradiction?
Ed: Not really. But I was one of those who hadn’t decided on a course to study yet. I wanted architecture or fine arts but those were only available in Diliman [the Quezon City or Metro Manila campus of UP]. I’m from Laguna, so studying in UP Los Baños would work best for me – location, expenses, and being close to nature were my criteria back then. Our campus is near the majestic Mt. Makiling. So with forestry, I’d love to think I was destined for that course. It opened me up to the concept of sustainable development. One of the big problems with the world right now is the current state of our environment. The traditional thinking has been we as human beings are not one with the environment. However, the reality is we are the most powerful part of the environment. What we have done in the past, what we are doing now, and what will do tomorrow are crucial for the well being of the present and future generations. We have to change things for the better. So I told myself I would love to work for an institution helping in sustainable development.
Your career has largely been on contracts and procurement. What do you like about this line of work?
Ed: I think this is crucial in delivering our projects. Project processing needs careful planning, and the loan is maximized when you award contracts, and the success of these contracts will determine how you will achieve the design and monitoring framework, and the targets in it. So I see procurement and contract management as one of the essential parts of project implementation and that plays a big role in development.
Is there anyone you look up to?
Ed: There’s no particular person. I look up to all the volunteers I’ve worked with, ADB colleagues, and development partners. I’m motivated by dedicated people working together as a team toward the successful execution of a project. I am also inspired when I see less fortunate people who previously had nothing and now have something… it’s a form of self-validation for them. In the North Karnataka project, for example, one resident felt embarrassed because they didn’t have a toilet. After, they were so proud and dignified when they finally had their own. And this is similar with what we did with Plan. One of my volunteers even told me that after the toilet was constructed, his child slept in the toilet. You could just imagine how poor they are and see how the things we consider as ordinary are so vital for them.