Danida has been supporting the transport sector in Nicaragua since the 1980’s. At first, support was focused on providing project assistance to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of rural transport infrastructure in the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions (RAAN and RAAS). In 1995, institutional development activities were added to infrastructure support.
In 1999 support to rural transport infrastructure was extended to cover Las Segovias in addition to RAAN and RAAS and was re-organized under the Transport Sector Support Program (PAST from its Spanish name Programa de Apoya al Sector Transporte). Phase One of PAST (1999-2004) also included institutional support to the Planning Directorate of the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure (MTI) as well as support to reconstruction of the primary road connecting Managua to Rama (and of two primary road bridges destroyed by hurricane Mitch).
The overall objective of PAST has been to contribute to poverty reduction through a general improvement of the socio-economic conditions in isolated rural communities by reducing transport costs and improving access to social services and economic and administrative centres. The design and administrative structure of the program went through important developments during Phase One. Specifically:
The first phase of PAST was subsequently replaced by Phase Two, which covered the period from 2005 to 2009. In the transition to Phase Two, institutional support at national level was continued under Component One which provided support to MTI and the national Road Maintenance Fund (FOMAV). Direct support to tertiary transport infrastructure in Las Segovias, RAAN and RAAS was continued under Component Two, while Component Three provided support to spot improvements in secondary infrastructure.
Component Two, which is the primary focus of the evaluation, had four immediate objectives:
In terms of total budgets and expenditures, the elements of Phase One which correspond to Component Two of Phase Two accounted for 164.4 million Danish Kroner (DKK) in expenditures. (PAST Phase One, Final Completion Report of May 2006, p. i.). Final data is not yet available for Phase Two of PAST, but the budgeted amount for Component Two is 185 million DKK as indicated in the Final Programme Document for Component Two. Thus when the program is completed, expenditures for investments in tertiary transport infrastructure in RAAN, RAAS and Las Segovias should total 349 million DKK (all figures are current and not adjusted for inflation).
In 2006, the program completion report for Phase One of PAST found that its outcome objectives had been achieved, and that it had been successful in improving the socio-economic conditions of the targeted communities. However, it also pointed to a continuing need to capture the impact in a formal way and recommended an impact evaluation of the support. The resulting impact evaluation was carried out from January 2009 to April 2010.
The purpose of the impact evaluation was to contribute to the justification, design and implementation of future rural transport infrastructure programs in Nicaragua.
The objective was to assess the impact on the beneficiaries’ socio-economic situation and physical well being, of the rural transport infrastructure interventions supported by Danida under PAST’s Component Two. The evaluation covered interventions from 1999-2004 and completed interventions under the current phase. Where relevant, interventions initiated prior to 1999 have been included. Impacts have been addressed at household and at community level.
A further objective was to assess whether capacity development and institutional change, as well as other prerequisites for sustainability, have been attained as part of the broader impact of the interventions. This was addressed at community, municipal and regional level, with the main focus on aspects directly related to transport infrastructure.
More specifically, the evaluation was intended to include, but not necessarily be limited to:
The evaluation relied on three main methodologies: econometric analysis of impacts at household and community level; qualitative evaluation of impacts at community level; and, key informant interviews with stakeholders at community, municipal and regional level.
Econometric Impact Analysis at Household and Community Level
In order to quantify the economic and social impacts of Danida supported investments in rural transport infrastructure, the evaluation relied on econometric analysis of the difference in changes occurring in communities benefiting from Danida supported investments in rural transport infrastructure (program communities) and a carefully selected set of comparison communities. This matched double difference approach to measuring program impacts is recommended in current evaluation literature as the most appropriate method for measuring community program impacts when the required data is available.
Applying this approach required the evaluation to identify a reliable set of baseline data for households in both program and comparison communities and then to compare that data to the situation in the same households using data gathered through a re-survey in 2009. Fortunately, it was possible to identify baseline data gathered during the National Household Living Standards Survey in 2001 and 2005 and the National Census of 2005, covering nearly 800 households divided between program and comparison communities. For technical reasons relating to sample size, the re-survey and double difference analysis could only be carried out, with reasonable confidence, in the Las Segovias region. This meant that qualitative evaluation methods were the main source of evaluation information on program impacts in RAAN and RAAS.
Participatory Qualitative Evaluation of Impacts at Community Level
The qualitative assessments of PAST impacts at community level relied on community members themselves to identify, discuss, map and illustrate the impacts and effects of the program and the infrastructure it supported using a set of participatory evaluation methodologies. In both program and comparison communities community members mapped out economic and social developments including: access to transport and traffic volumes; economic development, production and employment; access to health and education services; basic services such as electricity and water; and environmental changes. The qualitative evaluation of community impacts was carried out in 39 communities covering all three regions and including 26 program communities and 13 comparison communities.
Key Informant Interviews
The evaluation undertook key informant interviews with the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure and other agencies of the Government of Nicaragua, with program staff in the national and regional PAST offices, with CRTs in all three regions and with Regional Government staff in RAAN and RAAS. The evaluation conducted structured interviews at the municipal headquarters offices of 16 different municipalities in order to assess the institutional and capacity development impacts of the program at the municipal level. In each of the three regions, municipalities were chosen to represent different geographic zones, different degrees of program engagement, and different levels of municipal capacity and development.
An important feature of the evaluation was a phased approach involving completion of the survey and preliminary econometric data analysis prior to qualitative impact assessments at community, municipal and regional levels. This allowed the evaluation to use qualitative methods to test and inform the preliminary findings of the econometric impact analysis.
The evaluation has identified positive impacts resulting from Danida supported investments in rural transport infrastructure at the community, municipal and regional levels. At the level of participating communities the evaluation found positive economic and social impacts which are supported by both quantitative and qualitative evaluation evidence.
More specifically, the econometric analysis of survey data using a double difference methodology comparing the same variables across participating and comparison communities found notable, statistically significant impacts attributable to program supported infrastructure investments in the areas of:
The qualitative evaluation of community impacts reported specific confirmation of these types of economic impacts in project communities, positive economic changes which were generally not reported by comparison communities.
In combination, quantitative and qualitative evaluation evidence supports the conclusion that PAST interventions have resulted in other positive economic impacts including the direct effects of increased access to markets and inputs to production. For example, quantitative and qualitative findings on agricultural production point to increases in employment within agriculture and increases in the value of land for agriculture as well as changes in what is produced and how it is marketed.
In the area of social impacts, qualitative evaluation methods indicate that communities that have participated in PAST have improved their access to services in health and education services and have more frequent and reliable contact with both than comparable communities that have not participated in the program. One very important result has been an improved and more secure access to emergency transport services by community members. In terms of women empowerment, it was found that women’s economic and social participation has improved due to PAST interventions, at least in the Las Segovias region.
At the organizational and institutional level, the evaluation found that communities and municipalities have gained in their capacity to organize around issues of community development and to identify, develop, design, implement and maintain development investment projects and the resulting infrastructure. The program has also contributed to an improvement in the engagement between the municipal and community levels, with communities showing an increased ability to interact with municipal government officials who are, in turn, better able to respond to community needs for technical and administrative support in developing and maintaining rural transport infrastructure.
New regional institutional structures for the coordination and prioritization of transport infrastructure have also been established and strengthened with support from PAST.
An important question is whether the observed impacts of the PAST interventions are predominantly a result of improvements in access resulting from the infrastructures themselves (improved roads, bridges, wharves, etc.) or do they result from other aspects of the program such as institutional capacity development, the training of community members, experience gained through project employment, and the short-term economic impacts of project wages and the use of labour-intensive methods. In other words: is it the what (infrastructure investments) or the how (other program characteristics) of PAST program activities which contributes most to economic impacts?
The quantitative and qualitative evaluation data point to a combination of these factors contributing to impacts. It seems most likely that the improvement in access which accompanies PAST projects is the single most significant contributor to economic impacts since it is difficult to see how the noted economic gains could be sustained over time without the direct improvements in year-round access. Community members point to the decreases in travel times and costs and the improvements in year-round access as key factors in achieving and sustaining impacts.
At the same time, however, they point to other program characteristics as factors which contribute to their ability to realize and sustain economic benefits. For example, experience gained by community members during construction and maintenance of PAST projects is cited as an element which allows them to have access to paid construction employment in municipal centres. Similarly, the PAST program’s strong focus on the maintenance of transport infrastructure can be seen as an element in sustaining improved access and its benefits. The same observation can be made regarding capacity development at the community and municipal levels since both were necessary to strengthening maintenance practices and sustaining the benefits of improved access.
It appears that the improvements in access resulting from PAST supported infrastructure are essential to securing economic impacts but the other characteristics of the program including community participation and the use of labour intensive methods are contributing to those impacts.
In more specific detail, the conclusions of the evaluation are as follows.
Impacts which have been demonstrated as statistically significant using the double difference method include:
PAST projects have reduced the travel time required for community members to travel to social services, measured in terms of time required to travel to the nearest health post.
This central finding of reduced travel time as a result of PAST projects was confirmed by the econometric analysis and by all forms of the qualitative evaluation research undertaken. In some ways it is both the least surprising and the most important evaluation finding. Many other results can be expected to flow from improved year round access as measured in reduced travel times for community members. The reduction in travel times found in the survey results is further supported by project monitoring data on the increase in traffic volumes and intensity experienced by program communities.
The significance of this impact is further compounded by the fact that community members often pointed to the increased safety and security of travel which could now be undertaken in all seasons, more rapidly and (in the case of transporting agricultural goods) with less damage.
Specifically, the infrastructure supported by PAST is:
PAST projects have contributed to considerable increases in the portion of heads of household in program communities who are in paid employment.
Program communities increased the percentage of heads of households in paid employment a full 17% more than did comparison communities. In the baseline periods, before completion of the transport infrastructure projects, program communities reported levels of employment which were lower than comparison communities but this situation was dramatically reversed by 2009.
It should be noted that the definition of construction employment used in the surveys did not include rural road construction and maintenance so the observed increase in employment should not be linked to direct employment on PAST projects.
Overall, the majority of new jobs have been created in within the agriculture sector but the construction sector has also increased its share of employment of heads of households. This observation was further confirmed by qualitative data collection methods which confirmed that community members with experience in the methods of construction used on PAST supported infrastructure projects were finding paid employment in the local municipal centre.
PAST projects have contributed to making community members able to increase the size of their homes.
The econometric analysis of survey data confirms that average house size has increased significantly more for program communities than for comparison communities. The evaluation considers housing size to be a very durable indicator of the quality of housing when compared to others such as the quality of roofing material because it is much less subject to contamination effects resulting from, for example, housing programs targeted to poorer communities.
This impact was also confirmed by qualitative evaluation research at community level with community members pointing to the reduced cost of transporting housing materials resulting from the new and rehabilitated roads, bridges, wharves and canals supported by PAST. Of course, it may also be a result of increases in the financial resources among households in treatment communities related to gains in employment.
There are also proxy indicators of positive improvements in household wealth which, while not statistically significant in double difference terms, are indicative of an overall positive impact by PAST supported projects on the economic well being of households and are supported by the qualitative findings. More specifically:
The inflow of development projects from other programs and organizations has increased for PAST program communities but decreased for the comparison communities over the period 2005 to 2009.
The improved year-round access which accompanies PAST supported transport infrastructure projects may be associated with higher levels of engagement by both government and non-governmental agencies engaging in provision of basic services such as electricity and in introducing new development investments in project form. It may also be associated with an increase in the capacity of community organizations to organize in support of increased engagement by external agencies.
The percentage of households in program communities with access to publicly provided access to electricity has increased substantially in the period from 2005 to 2009 compared to households in the comparison communities.
As with the inward flow of development projects, it is not totally clear whether the improved access associated with PAST infrastructure investments is the predominant factor in inducing changes in community electrification or if it derives from organizational or political factors. Nonetheless, PAST communities have gained new connections to the public supply at a greater rate than comparison communities.
In all three Regions of the program there are identifiable economic impacts of PAST projects although they are more clearly indicated in Las Segovias and in the central zones of RAAN and RAAS, where there are better links to larger markets in the Pacific area of the country. In particular, members of PAST supported communities pointed to more frequent, more timely and less expensive contacts with markets and buyers for community agricultural products. They also pointed to improved prices for their products resulting from lessened damage and/or the ability to transport higher value products such as fresh milk. The economic gains reported by PAST project communities were not reported by members of comparison communities.
Improved access to health services is one of the impact areas given the highest priority by community members and was often discussed with real enthusiasm during community consultations. In this area, and directly connected to the PAST program infrastructure, the most frequently and vehemently mentioned impact was the improvement in access to emergency care through safer and faster transport for pregnant women with complications in delivery and for the very ill.
After access to emergency care, improved health infrastructure (health centres and health posts) and more frequent attention from health personnel are among the main impacts in health identified by community members. These positive changes were not reported by community members in the comparison communities.
In education, PAST project community members identify impacts arising from improvements in education services provided to the communities by the Ministry of Education in the form of increased supervision, more regular teacher attendance, more materials, and new or rehabilitated schools. They also point to easier and safer access to schools outside the community, especially secondary schools.
One clear and important impact in basic services is an increase in the availability of regularly scheduled, year round communal transport which is very important and very frequently cited during consultations with community members. Comparison community members often pointed to the lack of regularly scheduled communal transport as a key factor in their isolation.
For the most part, PAST supported transport infrastructure appears to be neutral in its impact on the local environment. There are indications from the participatory community evaluation work in all three Regions, however, that rehabilitation of roads has contributed, in selected cases, to deforestation and increased logging of community forest resources by those outside the community. This is perhaps a consequence of improving access to a forested area by medium sized trucks. It is most notable in Las Segovias and in the central zones of RAAN and RAAS.
PAST has contributed to an important set of institutional capacity development results at the community, municipal and regional level, but there are continuing concerns regarding the financial sustainability of Regional Transport Councils (CRT) and continuing support of the CRTs by the municipal governments. Further, the evaluation evidence suggests there is a continuing need for some source of programmatic technical and administrative support to both the municipalities and regional structures such as the CRTs.
Community Level Organizational Capacity
Municipal interviews and qualitative consultations indicate that PAST communities have demonstrated an ability to organize and to continue to support ongoing operation and maintenance of the transport infrastructure built or rehabilitated with program support.
PAST trained project and committee members remain active in many communities and some continue to play a leadership role long after project completion. PAST project and maintenance committee members also play an important role in liaising with municipal officials and others from outside the community who can support development over time.
The experience of developing, implementing and maintaining PAST projects has also deepened the relationship between communities and municipal government offices. Municipal officials are more engaged in dialogue with PAST communities and the communities themselves are more articulate regarding their needs and responsibilities and more demanding of municipal support. Further, the municipal officers now have more technical and administrative capacity to respond to these demands.
Strengthening Technical and Administrative Capacities of Municipalities
Training and material support (including equipment) to municipal technical officers, social promoters, administrators and planners at municipal level has been both comprehensive and effective. Municipal officials have upgraded their skills and capacities through involvement with PAST and have used these skills in project preparation and management both inside and outside the area of rural transport infrastructure. The higher quality of project support submissions by municipalities experienced in the PAST program process was noted by Road Maintenance Fund (FOMAV) staff dealing with proposals from municipalities across Nicaragua.
For the most part, technical and administrative staff trained with PAST support remain in their assigned functions, and there has been relatively little turnover of PAST trained staff at municipal level. Training of community leaders in PAST methodologies as an element in community participation in the program has also created a cadre of technically competent individuals who can be recruited into municipal positions.
On the other hand there is a continuing need in many municipalities for technical support, especially in the area of engineering and logistics.
Transport Infrastructure Planning, Maintenance, Budgeting and Implementation by Municipal Governments
Depending on the amount of time municipalities have been engaged with the PAST program, they show very different levels of professional and financial capacity to plan and budget infrastructure interventions.
PAST has also had an important impact on municipal practices for managing and financing infrastructure maintenance, especially in Las Segovias where more than half the municipalities visited for the evaluation have adopted MOI as their primary method for maintaining transport infrastructure, including infrastructure not support by PAST funds. This pattern is much less predominant in RAAN and RAAS where municipal staff indicated that the very short construction (dry) season may mitigate against use of MOI for construction.
Regional Capacity and Regional Transport Councils
PAST Phase Two has seen the Regional Transport Councils (CRTs) rise to a higher operational level and take on a leading role in coordinating PAST infrastructure investments among municipalities in each region. They can potentially play a broader role in coordinating rural transport infrastructure for projects funded outside of PAST. At the same time, there is a need to ensure continuing financial and technical support to the operation of the CRTs if they are to continue to play the roles they have achieved under Phase Two.
Design, Maintenance and Sustainability of Project Works
PAST supported infrastructure is clearly well designed and well suited to the use of MOI methods in both construction and maintenance phases. Further, PAST supported and improved infrastructure has been demonstrated to be quite durable and to remain in reasonably good condition. Further, qualitative evaluation data gathered at the community level indicates that most communities which have implemented PAST projects in the past continue to have functioning maintenance committees in place which are able to raise local funds for routine maintenance.
The recommendations which follow are not specifically directed to Danida or to the Government of Nicaragua. Rather, they focus on the general subject of financial and technical investments in rural transport infrastructure in Nicaragua. They are intended to answer the question: should investments of the type supported by Denmark through PAST and its predecessor programs continue? Further, if these types of investments do continue, how can they be made as effective as possible?
Notwithstanding the above, the findings and conclusions of the evaluation do strongly suggest that there is merit in Danida undertaking initiatives to share its experience in support of PAST (particularly with the community participation elements of PAST such as MOI) as a potential model for supporting investments in rural transport infrastructure. A wider audience within Danida and among other agencies supporting investments in rural transport infrastructure could benefit from exposure to the lessons learned by PAST.
Having demonstrated positive impacts at community, municipal and regional level of Danida support to tertiary transport infrastructure in Nicaragua, the evaluation submits the following recommendations aimed at continuing and, perhaps, broadening these impacts.
 MOI is one of the defining features of the program since it influences how the supported infrastructure is designed, constructed, financed and maintained and it requires significant capacity development work at community level along with considerable community member participation at all stages of the supported projects.
 Operationally, gender as a theme was incorporated in PAST during the period under review by requirements for women’s participation in committees and in employment for infrastructure development as well as through training. Environmental concerns have been addressed through training and by requiring infrastructure projects to be reviewed for environmental impacts based on Government of Nicaragua requirements.