DFID's Role in Building Infrastructure in Developing Countries - International Development Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 83-120)

Q83 Chair: Welcome to the Committee. I wonder, slightly formally, if you could just introduce yourself for the record. Then we can proceed.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: My name is Claire Curtis-Thomas, and I am Chief Executive of the Institution of Gas Engineers and Managers, a former Member of the House of Commons, and Chairman of the Construction and Development Partnership, which is doing extensive work in West Africa.

Q84 Chair: You and I had a conversation. You came to see me because of some frustrations you had in the last Parliament. Hugh was also aware of this. It was obviously on the basis of that conversation that we thought it would be helpful to have your views, given that you are a former Member of Parliament but also an engineer with real interest, activity and engagement in development activities. We are genuinely interested to hear your views. You have made a number of forthright comments in your evidence and elsewhere. Perhaps as a starting point, what can be done to improve the engineering capacity and quality in low­income countries—in other words to enable them to deliver their own infrastructure? In that context, what do you think donors and the private sector should do, both separately and perhaps together?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: The development of infrastructure within any nation depends on two factors, particularly in fragile, post­fragile or conflict states. I will limit my remarks to countries of that kind, because that is where my experience lies. Infrastructure development in those countries is at the behest of the donor nations who are supporting those countries, because infrastructure projects are well beyond the means of very poor countries that are focusing on the Millennium Development Goals rather than infrastructure projects. They know that the infrastructure projects are crucial to the long­term development of the country, but they lack the money to provide them, and also the skill necessary to deliver them. They look to external donors to provide that infrastructure capacity. The external donors will typically include the World Bank, the EU and other nations. The UK is a particular lead nation in a number of developing countries, and therefore the bulk of funding, and also the articulation for further funding, will possibly come from the United Kingdom.

Once that fund is realised, the control and implementation of that funding is directed by the donor nation. As far as I am able to ascertain and determine, there is not much discussion between the donor nation, the organisation charged with delivery of the infrastructure project, and also the recipient nation. There is just not a connection there, and that connection is not there for a number of reasons. I have covered the donors. Let's talk about the private—

Q85 Chair: But you said there is not the capacity.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: No, there is not.

Q86 Chair: The point is, should donors be helping to develop capacity, or is that a distraction?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: No, it is not. It most certainly is not, Chairman. If we look at the overarching agenda for most donor nations in fragile or conflict states, it is about achieving peace and stability. The natural focus for DFID in those areas is to focus on army, court, police, anything really to do with the legislative infrastructure as well as finance. Sorting out the finances and the treasury infrastructure in the nation is crucial, because frequently, of course, major donors like the World Bank and the EU will not donate where there is no financial transparency or credibility. DFID will be involved and will put a lot of money and expertise into this area. They will look for sources of good practice from the UK and other parts of the world. They will passport that into the nation. Sometimes it will be a forced offering, where they do not attempt to partner with the Government, they merely wish to impose standards into Government, which are then accepted as a mean. They do incredibly well in that area.

When it comes to looking at development of infrastructure, however, they are not similarly minded to provide any technical advice or, in fact, embed support directly into Governments. Whilst they appreciate the need to do that for sustainability reasons around legislation and treasury­based activities, they do not come to the table when it comes to infrastructure development. The primary reason for that is that they do not speak the language. They just do not speak the language. If you speak to diplomats—I have visited many, in lots of African countries—they speak the language of Parliament. They understand about money, because the Millennium Development Goals have made them focus on that, and also our budgetary requirements—making sure that our funds are spent well in any country and we are accountable for those. They understand that. They understand security. They understand police and army, but they do not understand engineering. They do not understand what you need to do in order to develop a nation. That requires the involvement of engineers. There are no engineers within DFID. They do not exist as a breed of people.

Q87 Chair: I will finish this and bring colleagues in. Does that mean that DFID should be employing engineers and/or, alternatively, that private sector engineering companies should be doing that, possibly in conjunction with DFID? Indeed, if you take your experience in Sierra Leone, is any of that happening?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: There are a number of routes here. I would say that DFID needs to employ engineers. Where, and what do they do? If we stick to the current regime of infrastructure projects, the DFID funding for infrastructure projects is never hitting the country budget, but going directly to our partner organisations for them to spend on our behalf. That is where the bulk of the money is going currently, Chairman.

Q88 Chair: You mean the World Bank or the African Bank?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: Yes. It goes straight off there. It goes straight to them. I have spent many years trying to track the funds coming out of DFID and into those budgets. Where does that money end up? Who is left within the United Kingdom, within DFID, to ensure that that money is being spent on that particular project, and it is being spent well? From what I can determine, in that context, "spent well" is the same as "spent". We are happy if the money is spent and we can see something on the ground. If you had an engineer working within the DFID office or somebody with whom you could directly relate, you could say, "Has the money been spent well?" That is my issue at the moment, because we have third-party agencies that effectively take this funding from DFID and spend it on our behalf. Their interpretation of money well spent is a long, long, long, long way away from my definition of money well spent.

I have not been able to speak to an engineer who actually scrutinises the quality of the work that is delivered on our behalf. I have scrutinised the work that we have had done on our behalf, and it fails engineering standards. I am a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a Fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. I am also a Fellow of the City & Guilds of London Institute. Those Fellowships confer to me an expertise in these matters. I am more than capable of making judgments about the technical suitability of infrastructure projects and their compliance with international regulations. They fall well short. We have a requirement for engineering capacity within DFID when they seek to put infrastructure projects into the third-party sector for delivery. We lack that. We have assumed that that is embedded within the contract: "We give you the money, and you do the job." That is an abdication of responsibility, because where I have inspected the job, it has failed in terms of its engineering compliance.

Q89 Hugh Bayley: Can you perhaps give us an example of an infrastructure project you have looked at that you feel has been badly constructed, and explain to us why?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: I have seen quite a number. I want to talk to you about infrastructure in terms of two examples. Let's look at housing, which is critical for the country's objectives, and then let's look at roads. I will use examples in Sierra Leone. After the war was finished in Sierra Leone, DFID gave in­country DFID funding for the development of accommodation for army members. That was absolutely crucial, because as you know, within that civil war defections from the army were felt to contribute to the rebels' cause. Providing housing, a significant number of housing, and also new police headquarters up and down the country, was felt to be critical, and it is critical. It is extremely important.

I visited those particular developments when they were literally blocks off the ground. The main slabs had been constructed for major police headquarters, and they were maybe a couple of feet off the ground. The site was swarming with individuals, all paid, I have to say, with no training element associated with that development at all. For me, that is a seriously wasted opportunity. What you have done is let the contract to an in­country contractor. That in­country contractor has not been obliged to train anybody as a consequence of our investment. We have a serious lost opportunity. Moreover, the contractor that has been nominated has not been technically audited. They are on a list that the High Commissioner has, and he has been told that these are very good construction companies. At no point, however, have any of those companies been audited for technical competence.

I go on site knowing all of that. The site is being constructed by one of the two leading construction companies in the country. I have audited them all, and I know that. The first thing I do is to touch a concrete block. I know concrete blocks intimately, and I can tell you everything there is to know about a concrete block just by touching it. I will just share that with you now, so that you will know, when you ever come to touch a concrete block, whether or not it is fit for purpose. A concrete block is supposed to be extremely tough. It is made from cement, sand, and water. Those are the basic requirements: cement, sand and water. If it is made well, it is as hard as nails. You can put a building up on it and it will stand for at least a century—a good platform, a concrete block, and away you go. It does not look pretty, but it is very cheap and it can be made in situ. It is excellent.

This concrete block was easily eroded by me just rubbing the surface. It is friable. It is friable because contaminated water has been used in the production of the block. It was salty water, actually. You can know that, because the next thing you do is to lick it. You can taste the salt yourself. It is very cheap, and very simple, but if you can taste salt, that block is made from salty water. Once you put salty water into a block, imagine what happens when it rains. The salt, of course, dissolves in the rain, and with that the whole infrastructure that supports that block just collapses. You will see blocks being eroded with each rainy season. There are tremendous rains in most of the countries that I deal with in Africa. They cannot cope with a friable block. When you speak to the site manager and say to him, "Look, the quality of your block falls well below standard," he says, "DFID has said we have to make it to this mixture. We have made it to this mixture. We have made it five parts sand, one part cement, and water to mix." They did not put that the water should not be salty, and the man in charge of the job did not know that salty water condemns his block to being virtually useless over a period of time.

Q90 Hugh Bayley: That is a very good example.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: It is very simple, isn't it?

Q91 Hugh Bayley: What was the road example, Claire?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: The road example was an EU­funded project that linked Sierra Leone with Guinea. It was an absolutely fantastic project. It was imposed on the country, let to an Italian company in the first instance that failed. If you look at that particular specification, they were going to have a block. Everybody was really delighted. The President was delighted. "We will have a lovely road to take us to Guinea. It is absolutely super. Really, really super." There is no highways engineer in the country. You can build it. That is absolutely great. Who will be responsible for the maintenance of that road in the longer term? Who is responsible for integrating that highway into secondary roads that will flow off that highway? Who understands how to repair that road when it is built? Was there any attempt to go to the Government and say: "We are introducing this infrastructure into your country. It is a fantastic investment in terms of hardware alone, but in terms of intellectual activity and the opportunity to train people in your country with very little experience of public-sector investment, this is a first­class opportunity."

Think of a road. It will not be magicked up like this. It flows through communities. Therefore there has been an absolute failure to say: "This is not only an investment in delivering some of the country's objectives around development. We should also see it as a major platform for the development of people." Ultimately we have to develop the capacity in those countries to manage and specify these jobs for themselves. They are rendered impotent by the current arrangements. They are just people who benefit from and are not engaged in. I cannot countenance such a waste of investment. It is so short­sighted, and what it tells me is that the people specifying the contract are not aware of the greater objectives and the purposes of that development in the country. If they were, they would take people into it.

Q92 Hugh Bayley: I would like to come back in a moment to DFID, but if I take you back to the Commission for Africa Report, one of the key recommendations and new things that it said was that donors, in general, have lost the plot on infrastructure.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: Yes.

Q93 Hugh Bayley: Since 2005—I think it was 2005—has there been a step change in the amount of development funding for infrastructure? I do not mean through DFID, but through the multilateral agencies.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: Yes.

Q94 Hugh Bayley: There has been. DFID has argued in the past that we should not do everything: you cannot be top­quality in everything. We should in effect delegate or give the job of infrastructure, roads, ports and so on to the EU or to the World Bank. That does not mean to say that they do not need any engineering expertise. Let's come back to the expertise that they need in a minute. But does it make sense for DFID to say, "Let's empower with money those who are experts in infrastructure"?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: I have no problem with that at all. But what they have done is sequestered that activity to a third party and said, "Thank you ever so much."

Q95 Hugh Bayley: Do they need this in DFID headquarters or in the field?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: They need it in both areas.

Q96 Hugh Bayley: In both areas. What sort of people? They need engineers, you have made that clear. Do they need other professionals who are—

Dr Curtis-Thomas: Yes, they do.

Q97 Hugh Bayley: Who? What professions?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: If we say yes to the third-party involvement and delivery, then you need at home in DFID an engineering capacity capable of scrutinising the execution of the contract.

Q98 Hugh Bayley: By the EU, for example?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: By the EU. We need to have somebody who is watching them so that we can feel comfortable with the fact that they are delivering the project that is fundamental to this nation. In the nation we need two types of capacity within the DFID office. First of all we need engineering capacity that is primarily there to keep a watching eye on the developments within that particular country. Does it satisfy European standards, which also embrace British standards, and in fact US standards as well? That is extremely important, simply because that primary infrastructure may be subsequently built upon. You want to make sure that it complies with those standards so that it is capable of being built upon. That is very important.

You should then also look to employ an educationalist within that DFID office—somebody who is fundamentally interested in training and helping the nation access good training opportunities. This should be somebody who is working with the education ministry, and saying to the education ministry, "We know that you need assistance in the technical training and development of a whole cadre of young people coming out of school, or in school. How do we utilise our investment in your country to help you deliver on those objectives?" These countries are making significant investment in education, but when I speak to the Education Ministers, they say: "Despite our investment, our young people are coming out of school and they are not industry­ready." They are not industry­ready simply because the industrial opportunities that exist in the country are not connected to the education providers.

Q99 Hugh Bayley: Could I ask one last question? Let's suppose that you were hired by DFID as Chief Engineer, or asked to advise. What size team of people, and what professional specialties, would you want an Engineering Advisory Team or Engineering Project Management Team at DFID headquarters to consist of?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: They have a massive infrastructure budget. In terms of setting the priorities, and the architecture through which you could report on those priorities, you would need quite a small team. We would probably be looking at a team of about six people. In addition to that I would build an Expert Advisory Panel. You touched on it earlier on, Chairman, and I did not answer your question directly about the involvement of British companies that are actually also developing or seeking development opportunities in a whole myriad of very poor states. I would set up an Expert Panel, which would be populated by engineers drawn from those companies. That is absolutely crucial.

Within my own team, you would have to look at a civil engineer with specific expertise in terms of highways development, and a structural engineer really to look at the development of large­scale projects such as hospitals, airports and emergency facilities. Emergency facilities could be police or fire authorities. You would need structural expertise. A town and country planner would be absolutely essential. Sierra Leone does not possess even one. An infrastructure project is foisted on the country, but there is no plan that the country can argue for support for. The head of planning within the ministry in Sierra Leone is an extraordinary, fantastic Sierra Leonean. He got the maps for his country from Google. He does the planning from Google. That is the level: the same maps as us. That was the first time he saw his country. It is really at that sort of level.

I would have town and country planning, a civil and structural engineer, and you would have to look at a mechanical engineer, water treatment and power. Roads are not just highways for cars to run on, but they also hide the distributive infrastructure for power, water, and sewage disposal. You would have to have a team. You would say to them, "We are going to deliver a road. What added value can we deliver to that infrastructure project to make it community ready? It is just sitting there waiting for that community either to be brought on stream in terms of power or water." Frequently that is bolted on afterwards, doubling the cost. If it was built into the system in the first place, you have a training potential associated with that, you involve more people from the country, because it is their areas of specialism, and you deliver something that is far more than it appears to be for that community.

Hugh Bayley: Your point is very well made.

Q100 Mr Gyimah: You have touched on what support DFID could give. It would be quite interesting to understand what recommendations you would make for multilateral organisations and their involvement as far as infrastructure development in developing countries is concerned.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: For me, bearing in mind what I said earlier, I had tremendous difficulty finding out who, within the various multilateral donors, was executing projects. It was very difficult. I raised significant numbers of Parliamentary questions to find out who I needed to speak to in order to determine how that particular contract or investment was being handled. Judging by the quality of the product on the ground, and having met, for instance, World Bank and EU representatives in some of these countries, they were not engineers. They were ambassadors for their organisation, and again the project that was being delivered in the country was something that was being done to them, rather than involving them.

I argued for engineering capacity within DFID, to provide oversight to the multilaterals. I would argue then for engineering input into the multilaterals to have rooted country experience. That is not flying over one day a week, one day a year, or one day a month. It is not that. It is about somebody being there, and going to the site and understanding enough about that particular project to be able to scrutinise the construction capacity. You are letting this contract to a contractor who has put in the bid. The assumption is that they understand and can deliver a quality project. It is the wrong assumption to make.

Q101 Mr Gyimah: You are arguing for engineering capacity in the multilateral organisations as well?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: Yes, I am.

Q102 Mr Gyimah: Right. How do you think DFID can use its influence with multilateral development banks to improve infrastructure outputs in general?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: They can ask for it. At the moment I am not aware, in any contract, of a need for the multilateral donors to demonstrate that there is compliance with international standards in structure and infrastructure projects. That is not being asked for, because when the contracts are set, I do not think you have informed engineering capacity participating in the description of that contract. What you have is the multilaterals saying, "There is an agreement that we will develop infrastructure projects in the following nations. Your contribution to that, Mr UK, is as follows. We give you the money and that is it. You get on with it."

Q103 Mr Gyimah: The question is: how specifically can DFID use its influence to make sure that outputs are improved?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: You can specify it. You could say, "Coupled with this donation, you need to satisfy us that this infrastructure programme is being developed with specific reference to international building standards. You must be able to demonstrate to us that you can deliver on those standards." This investment is so expensive. We have to make sure it lasts. One of the things that I am absolutely appalled by is that I visit all sorts of countries, and I meet the project engineer on site, who says, "I do not know why you are worrying about those standards. This is good enough for here." It is not good enough. It is second­rate. I do not think there should be any difference between the value we get for money in the UK in terms of investment, and the value we get elsewhere. In Africa and the countries that I have been to, it is absolutely imperative that we meet the very best international standards.

The other thing that we should be specifying is that we make the investment and we have to look for a training premium. For every £1 invested on our behalf, we have to say: "What is the training premium associated with that? How many engineers do we have from that country participating in this scheme, so that we share this valuable knowledge?" I am not happy with the knowledge being vested in a contractor in that country. The contractor keeps the knowledge to himself and does not share with the broader community. Therefore the opportunity for the broader community to eventually assume responsibility for that project is lost. It is not acceptable. The situation as it stands is a waste of our money.

Q104 Mr Gyimah: One final question. What about the issue of corruption? How effective do you think multilateral organisations are at dealing with the issue of corruption in the construction sector? That is surely an issue as well.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: Oh, it is. It is not my area of expertise. I can tell you—my point earlier on about the British investment—DFID has been responsible for the development of anti­corruption commissions around British investment in the countries that have been identified by the World Bank as having a significant predisposition to corruption. These have normally been imposed upon the nation, much to the relief, I think, of most of the Presidents, because they are completely independent of Parliament. They have their own mandate, and what they have done, and are demonstrating at this moment in time, is that they are prepared to take action against corrupt officials, whether they are officials within the Civil Service or Ministers themselves. One can only hope that that statutory body delivers on its objectives.

I have done a lot of work in these countries. I have worked with very good British companies who are very keen not to be involved in any corrupt practices at all, and explicitly state that as part of their involvement. Because you are overt in your position on corruption, corruption does not exist in the organisations that I work for, simply because it would not be tolerated. I realise that it goes on, but it is not part of my personal experience.

Q105 Jeremy Lefroy: Picking up on one or two of the points that you have been discussing on the basis of Sam's questions, how do you see the current emphasis on value for money and results as having an impact on the assessment of infrastructure? From my experience of living in Tanzania for many years, when I first went the roads that were used a lot and were still in reasonable condition had been built in the 1950s. They had obviously been built to a very high standard.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: By the British.

Q106 Jeremy Lefroy: By the British or the Italians, interestingly enough.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: Yes.

Q107 Jeremy Lefroy: The replacement road lasted five years before it started to deteriorate.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: To fail.

Q108 Jeremy Lefroy: Again, built by a successor Italian company, I think to the first one. There are two points. One is: how do we learn from the mistakes, and learn from good experience? Infrastructure projects, by their nature, are decades rather than years.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: Yes, they are.

Q109 Jeremy Lefroy: Is that experience being fed into current decisions? Secondly, for instance, the Government is talking about educating 11,000,000 children, which is absolutely fine. I 100% agree with that. If you were to set a target of, say, for infrastructure: "We will build 10,000km of roads," it does not have a quality measure in that. It does not have a training measure in that.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: No, it does not.

Q110 Jeremy Lefroy: If you are looking at value for money, training and quality may be the things that go out of the door, because the 10,000km is the most important measure. How do we overcome that?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: You made a very valid point, which is that the second road that was built has failed. You have to do a stress analysis. When you look at the funding and expenditure, you carry out a stress analysis associated with that funding. Where are the stress points for that investment? The stress point for that investment was not during its construction, or immediately after its construction. It was five years down the line. You say, "This infrastructure project, this structure, should have a life expectancy with reasonable maintenance of 30 years before we have to completely overhaul it, if we are looking at normal travel arrangements." Those are the criteria that you would have to put into the contract, and then you would have to inspect post­completion, to see whether you have compliance with that.

I have asked, and recently a colleague of mine has placed a number of questions before Parliament about scrutinising contracts, which I was very grateful for, looking at the reports on infrastructure projects. Clearly there is a need to look at those reports on those infrastructure projects to determine whether or not there has been any quality assessment of the work, and to see, if that has been done, what the remedial actions placed on the contractor were. I have not been able to find those reports yet. Maybe, because there is this third party control over the funds they get on with the job, and we say, "Thank you ever so much for getting on with the job. Just show us the road." That is exactly what we get. We are only shown the road. In terms of your argument, on training and quality, to go back to the concrete block that I mentioned earlier on, the amount of time and effort that you have to put into constructing a concrete block that fails is exactly the same amount that you have to put into a concrete block that succeeds. The failure was a technical understanding about what constitutes good material investment in a concrete block. It was as simple as that.

Q111 Mr Gyimah: Or just shoddy work.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: It does not cost any more to produce good quality. I would argue in the long term, and sometimes I can demonstrate in the short term, it costs less over the lifetime of a project. We are not building for today. We are building for generations. I am associated with infrastructure projects, and I say to people, "This will stand 100 years from now, and it will not look any different. If things go well, it will stand for 1,000 years." That is all that I am interested in doing: will it stand the test of time?

In terms of the training benefit, you could say that any construction company worth its while needs to have a training capacity within that organisation. That is absolutely primarily a good basic requirement of a company that wants to do well. If they do not have that training capacity then it will cost you more, but ultimately it will cost you less, because we have several budgets going into these nations. We have a budget for infrastructure and we also have a budget for education. One of the big problems facing fragile­state countries is youth unemployment. They recognise that failure to engage huge numbers of youths—looking at Sierra Leone, youth unemployment is running at 90%—it is massive. The only opportunity is to work in the public sector. Youth unemployment is a big, big problem. We put money into infrastructure and money into education, but we do not think very cleverly about using this to support that. If we reaped more as a consequence of infrastructure development as a benefit to education, we would have a better outcome for education in the short, medium and long term. It is absolutely crucial.

All of the work that I am involved in and our charity is involved in now is to say: "We want to build this, but there is an absolute prerequisite placed on any community that they provide 20 young people in that community, whom they can select themselves, who will come and work on that project." They will not be working just at digging ditches and laying concrete slabs, but they will be working alongside the project engineer. We take every cadre of young person: those who want to work with their hands, fantastically vocational people, those who are deemed to have intellectual capacity, and those who might go on to be team leaders. We take every one, and say to every person that we put on the site who is qualified: "You will partner with somebody local."

I still reel from the fact that when I used to go into DFID offices around the world, they did not have one trainee in those offices. Why did they not have any trainees sitting right next door to the DFID people? DFID is there to try to support the Government. They sit there and make fantastic plans. They have really clever people, but they have not said to the Government, "For every important person that we have in this office, we would like to second either a graduate, postgraduate, member of your ministry, or Member of Parliament. We would like to offer these opportunities." It is a significant investment that we are making, but we do not reap the training value of that investment. It is absolutely crucial. Every one of those people that I see I think: "You could be doing more to allow us to deliver our objectives, instead of pulling in all these consultants, who come and go and have no real love of the country that they are working in. They are just an opportunity to make money." The marvellous people that we have working in DFID and the FCO in these countries are really committed, by and large, to the people and their welfare. We should be taking all that good heart and positive value and saying, "How do we maximise it? How do we make sure that the skills you have developed as a consequence of an expensive education system and a well­furnished Government are shared with the people in this country to enable them to do better?" For me that is not a difficult concept to understand. It is easy.

Q112 Jeremy Lefroy: It is not. There are organisations in the UK that are doing that and specifying that in their construction contracts. I know one or two in my own area in Staffordshire that do it. I very much agree with that. I just want to talk a little bit about Sierra Leone, a country in which I too have a little bit of an interest. What in your view is the impact of Chinese investment on infrastructure there?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: Gosh, it is fantastic. It is fantastic all over Africa. It is absolutely fantastic. Let me share with you a geeky concern. Bear with me while I go through this. I talked in my evidence, Mr Chairman, about standards. Embedding your own standard in a developing nation is absolutely essential. If we look at roads, are they complying with metric requirements or British requirements? If they are metric, who is supplying the parts? I talked earlier on about adding value to infrastructure. If we look then at distributed power and water, who is supplying the pipework, and to what standard? If we follow this through, the pipework, invariably, will connect to equipment. If you have pipework that is Chinese and not a European standard, then when you start arguing for coupling that pipework to delivery mechanisms, whether power or water, what you are essentially saying is: "It has to be Chinese. It has to be Chinese, because it is already Chinese. We do not want to add value and add cost into this project by now having two systems running together." It is the main reason the Europeans have never cracked the US market, because the US market has a US manufacturing standard. It dictates the description of the screw. It dictates the seals. It dictates the blades within a turbine. It influences everything. Once you have laid your marker in the sand for that sort of equipment, you are more or less bound to it forever.

The investment is fantastic. The Chinese offer countries quick opportunities for infrastructure. It is not infrastructure for infrastructure's sake. There are normally significant benefits attached to it. It may be extraction benefits. It may be developing closer relationships with the developing Governments so that, when there are opportunities to invest, the Chinese are there, sitting at that table and able to take advantage of that knowledge. The Chinese are making huge investments in terms of roads, mining capacity and hotel development, but it is all done at pretty mean prices, and I have not seen any Chinese project that involves indigenous populations in its execution. Let me qualify that: I think there may be one that I have just heard about, but I have not seen it for myself, so I do not know whether that is reality. I do not know whether local people are being used just for labour, or in fact being involved in the intellectual activity of the execution of that project. What matters to me is that they are involved in the intellectual activity of the project, with a view to assuming the development and direction of those projects in the longer term in those countries. The Chinese are really very good investors, doing it for strategically political reasons in the longer term. But also from a manufacturing point of view and as an opportunity to export manufacturing goods into those countries in the longer term, it is absolutely fantastic.

Q113 Jeremy Lefroy: How do you think we can encourage the Chinese to involve themselves more in training local capacity?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: They are not of our nation. I am very fortunate to know the Education Ministers in a number of African countries, and I am encouraging them to articulate the need for training opportunities as a direct result of infrastructure. I have said, "You have to ask for it. It will not put these people off. You just have to ask for it, and if they say no, you have to try to realise that in a different way, but please ask for this." Now I am dealing with educationalists who are also not engineers. You must ask for this. They say, "It will put people off, Claire." "Do not worry about that. Just ask in the first place." When I speak to Presidents, I say: "When they come along, and the prospect is so tempting that you cannot say no, because your need is so great, say to them: 'While you are about it, I would like you to train members of my offices, members of my Government, and members of my ministries, and the undergraduates and postgraduates coming out of our universities. They will add value. It will not cost you anything. If the very least you do is give them the opportunity to stand next to a trained person, that is it. You might not have to do anything else, but just give them that exposure.' Just ask."

Q114 Chair: Claire, thank you very much. You obviously have very strong and very helpful views in terms of the specifics of engineering. Maybe as a final point, do you think DFID has the capacity to work with the private sector to deliver these things?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: No, not at all. It is a disaster. It is an absolute disaster. It really is. It is so regrettable, but it is. I regret to say that it is the Clare Short approach: "No aid and trade. Do not mix the two. This is aid, and we are not interested in trade." That absolute paradigm of function has wiped working with the private sector totally out of the DNA of DFID. It is such a lost opportunity. I can tell you now that, if DFID wanted to pull together a panel of expert engineering advisors for every country in the world, they could do so by going to the private sector in the UK.

Watch this as an opportunity. If you were to go to the Chief Executive of any British company—I work in the energy sector, and you could go to any of my colleagues in the energy sector—and say, "We would like you to consider seconding a member of your staff to DFID in this particular country for six months." Think of the value of that as a work­based opportunity for individuals who may well go on to lead British companies. It is fantastic. It is absolutely fantastic. It is beyond a value that we could place on that. You could do that in every sector. You could go to oil, gas, coal, power, finance: there is not a sector that would not respond to that request. "We would like you, in these 30 countries, to field a member of your staff on a rolling basis for the next five years." They would bite your hand off. When I have been to speak to DFID officials, I am persona non grata. I have been summarily dismissed by DFID officials: firstly because I was a Member of Parliament, I suppose, and sometimes an intrusion, and secondly because engineering, the development of work, the acquisition of money, making money, is an anathema to DFID officials currently. But there is huge scope.

Q115 Chair: As you will know, the present Government has said it wants to expand private-sector engagement and promote private-sector development in a whole variety of areas, of which India is one we are concerned with. What you have just said is on the record, and may be something that we can discuss with DFID.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: The opportunity is there. It is there, and people are just waiting to be invited to the party.

Q116 Chair: Yes. That, of course, gets around the headcount constraints that the Department is under at the moment.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: It most certainly does. It is about being creative and looking for added value for these people. What you offer them is to say: "You get an opportunity to work in this country," but of course what they are doing is acquiring country intelligence. They will come back and say: "This country has this sort of rating, but when it comes to the practicalities, here are the investment opportunities. Here are the weaknesses within the country. Can we address these in the short, medium or long term?" I know, because I have taken British companies to very poor countries, and they can smell the opportunity before they get down the steps of the plane. But there is no platform for engagement.

Q117 Jeremy Lefroy: Just really a point: I think the need is also to engage particularly with young engineers, engineering students. I speak as a father of one who at the moment is going out on a project in Cameroon with Engineers Without Borders.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: Brilliant. Yes. Brilliant.

Q118 Jeremy Lefroy: I do not know, and I should ask you: would you like to see this kind of thing as part of the syllabuses of our major engineering teaching institutions?

Dr Curtis-Thomas: I would like to see them offer the opportunities to young people. My daughter is doing engineering at Imperial in London. She is also a member of Engineers Without Borders, and went out last year to Tanzania to build a well, and absolutely loved it. Engineers, by and large, want to be involved in projects that serve society and improve society as a whole. Giving young people the opportunity to be involved in infrastructure projects is great if we can do it. We have not mentioned the role of the British Council here, but I think there is a role for the British Council in arguing for funding to make these opportunities available. Currently, they partner schools, but I have been talking to them about partnering technology colleges, because if they partner those, they could call down pupils in both directions. That would support Engineers Without Borders, and support that investment between young people and institutions that are charged with the development of a nation.

Q119 Chair: Claire, can I thank you very much? I am very glad that we have had the opportunity to take evidence from you. Clearly you have both a huge enthusiasm for the subject, and great expertise. You have given us some very simple examples of things that could be done at no great expense to improve the quality of our infrastructure engagement. I want to say thank you very much indeed for coming in.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: Chairman, can I just say that I was so thrilled to see that this Committee was looking at this particular area. It is about as interesting as a gone­off biscuit for most people, but it is so vital.

Q120 Chair: I am afraid that the benches behind you demonstrate that. The quality is there, but not the numbers.

Dr Curtis-Thomas: That is a fact, but it is such a huge amount of opportunity, and such a great vehicle to deliver such good results for those countries that we are investing in. I would commend you to the task at hand. I do wish you well in terms of influencing opinion. If you could get it to move just 1%, 1% would reap such rewards. I would be delighted, and so would my engineering colleagues. Thank you ever so much.

Chair: Thank you very much indeed.

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 7 October 2011