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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Dec. 24) – A Manila-based Asian Development Bank official praised community-government partnerships in the Marshall Islands, while criticizing serious delays in this central Pacific government’s implementation of an $8 million loan for rural outer islanders.

Stephen Pollard, the Asian Development Bank’s Marshall Islands country officer, says that he is impressed with the progress and development of non-government organizations (NGOs) in the Marshall Islands and developing partnerships with the national government.

"NGOs aren’t new (in the Marshall Islands)," he said. "But there has been notable growth in their capacity."

He said the recently completed pilot study about high levels of student truancy from schools that was conducted by the Marshall Islands Council of NGOs in cooperation with the Ministry of Education showed there is a growing local capacity to do research.

"The ADB is encouraging the government to use NGOs more," he said.

But slow progress in starting an ADB-funded loan project for the isolated outer islanders who survive on less than one dollar per day is not impressing Pollard.

Pollard said that it’s taken two years since the loan was approved to get the project moving. "It’s embarrassing to have to go back to the contracts to see what people are supposed to be doing," he said.

The ADB-supported project is to inject about $8 million into developing infrastructure on the outer islands, including docks, copra warehouses and improvements to selected runways to make these islands more accessible for trade vessels and services. A recent ADB study on poverty in the Marshall Islands reported that most outer islanders – who make up one third of the country’s 58,000 people – live on less than $1 per day.

The "accumulated delay is very embarrassing," and "doesn’t help me to pitch for (funding for) the Marshall Islands at the ADB," Pollard said.

The outer islands project is being managed by the government’s Ministry of Transportation and Communications. Transportation official Betwel Lekka, who is the ADB project officer for the loan, acknowledged that there have been delays, but said that an Australian company is now in the process of being contracted to support the design and engineering work for the project.

The company, SMEC of Townsville, Australia, is expected to have staff in Majuro by January 15 to begin work on the project, Lekka said. "It’s moving," he said.

"Flags go up (at ADB headquarters) after so many months delay and no drawdowns of approved funding," Pollard said. "There might be a good reason for the lengthy delay" - but it doesn’t help the Marshall Islands to gain technical assistance and loans for needed future work, he said.

He added that he believes that the delays with the Transportation project are a symptom "of a much greater malaise in the public service in the Marshall Islands.

"There are a lot of committed people in government and leadership," he said. "But a lot more attention is needed to sort out administration and personnel management. The country won’t get anywhere without better public sector performance."

The ADB last week approved a new technical assistance grant for improvements in the public service. Creating consumer awareness and demand for government services is a critical missing element in the Marshall Islands that is to be a focus of the new technical assistance project.

The plan is to "give people a chance to have a big say on the design of government priorities and strategies," said Pollard.

"We will focus on education – developing consumer demand and awareness," he said.

Money and technical issues related to fixing problems in the public service are less of a problem than the need for demand and ownership by Marshall Islanders, he said. "If you want to sort out the public service, you need to have people engaged," Pollard said.

The ADB has approved a technical assistance project and will inject about $150,000 for the work.

December 24, 2004

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