U.S. Ambassador Teddy Taylor presided over the closing celebration ceremony for the Efate Ring and Santo East Coast roads in Vanuatu on April 12, 2011. Prime Minister Sato Kilman, Deputy Prime Minister Ham Lini, Minister of Finance Moana Carcasses, New Zealand High Commissioner Bill Dobbie, Australian High Commissioner Jeff Roach, and Frances Reid and Chris Cookson from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) attended. The five-year, US$65.69 million project included US$9 million in funding from New Zealand.
Looking back over the history of the project, which started under my predecessor Kim Strollo, I was amazed that, despite two years of extreme weather and earthquakes, Vanuatu had not only met but also exceeded the ambitious timelines set under the MCC Compact.
I also had the great privilege of working closely with Chris Cookson. Our small embassy (10 Americans total) in Port Moresby also covers Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, and we have no direct presence in Vanuatu. Therefore, political, economic and public diplomacy officers, such as myself, often rely upon the good will of people like Chris to provide us with the necessary contacts and information that we need to do our job. Suffice it to say, Chris has been tireless in her efforts to provide any and all assistance. I love you Chris!
I was ecstatic that this project went so smoothly. Credit for that has to go to Chris and her team. In the Pacific, no one should underestimate the logistical and communication challenges. Phones and Internet lines can be down for weeks, not days. Imagine the consternation that would take place in D.C. if someone could not get access to the Internet, or their Blackberry was down for even 30 seconds.
Then there were the challenges of rehabilitating and sealing of 149.7 kilometers of roads on Santo and Efate. Yet, this was completed five months ahead of schedule and on budget! Construction also involved 30 percent more work to extend and widen sealed sections and enhance road safety and sustainability. The wonderful people of Vanuatu have certainly proven that they can make good use of MCC-funded investments.
At the beginning, few could imagine how many ni-Vanuatu would contribute to the planning, building, and maintenance of these roads. One important aspect of MCC Compacts is that the strategies ensure open consultations and maximize opportunities for local employment and income-sharing for men and women, youth, and vulnerable groups. Gender and equity requirements were integrated into all major contracts. The MCC provided training and guidance.
Perhaps, best of all, the Compact provided women with non-traditional and leadership roles at village and national levels. Women and youth groups also played a critical role in the new community road maintenance contracts. Given the prominence that Secretary Clinton has placed on empowering women, and the fact that doing so is Embassy Port Moresby's number one mission strategic resource plan (MSRP) goal, this was another major plus.
The two roads are key to the economic growth of the whole nation as well as improving access to services for rural villages. I have always been amazed, even awed, by the fortitude of the women in the region as they carry their heavy loads of vegetables and fruit to markets, sometimes in the blazing heat and humidity, other times during lashing downpours.
The MCC projects that, over the next 20 years, the Efate Ring Road will directly benefit an estimated 16,564 people within a five-kilometer catchment area. In September 2010, traffic counts showed that the Efate Ring Road had exceeded the targeted increase in daily traffic by 117 percent.
In addition, community road maintenance contracts represent a potential average annual increase in household income of US$280 for the 5,931 beneficiary households (2,506 in Efate and 3,425 in Santo) within the MCC-funded road-catchment areas.
Preliminary economic analyses of the both the Efate Ring Road and the Santo East Coast Road estimate that sealed road improvements will generate an estimated US$5.6 million savings in vehicle operating costs during the first year. This, said U.S. Ambassador Teddy Taylor during the closing ceremony, constitutes "very significant savings.""The roads give women access to markets and that means economic empowerment," said Ambassador Taylor. "The roads give women access to schools and that means educational and employment empowerment. The road gives women access to health facilities and that means healthier women and babies."