Infrastructure projects in these South-East European countries often got stuck even before they had really started. Even when local beneficiaries gained access to vital grant money from the EU, they lacked the experience to implement such projects. The big change came when the European Investment Bank put its technical assistance experts on the ground.
“There is no substitute for local presence,” says Steve Richards, head of the Bank’s Project Advisory Support team. “This is the first time that EIB implementation experts have worked on the ground.”
That helps regions and municipalities to navigate bureaucracies and local business customs, clearing roadblocks, speeding up processes, and moving projects forward. With eight experts in the EIB’s Sofia and Bucharest offices, Steve’s team meets each week with their counterparts in the Romanian and Bulgarian governments.
The result: “A massive increase,” says Catalin Gheran, who heads Romania’s large infrastructure operational program for 2014 to 2020. “From around 30% implementation rate in 2013, up to almost 90% in 2016. The benefits that these projects bring to the Romanian people are a great boost for us.”
Gheran always had lots of good projects that “would deliver greater real benefits if they were properly managed and supplemented with good technical advice on the ground,” he says. “But we had problems in the implementation. We got quality advice from the EIB, which has made a difference.”
Project advisory support
Project implementation isn’t always smooth. That’s particularly true in countries like Romania and Bulgaria, which lag behind the rest of the EU in their take-up of development funds.
“The challenge was huge and required going beyond the technical assistance we used to provide,” explains Steve. The answer the Bank developed was project implementation advisory support, a framework under which the Bank provides technical assistance to state administrations responsible for key infrastructure projects. This accelerates project execution and speeds up the absorption of EU Structural Funds.
“Projects start faster and finish sooner,” says Gheran. “The support from the EIB is flexible, which is also why it’s so effective.”
The Bank has provided technical assistance to Romanian authorities at various levels, signing project advisory support service agreements worth EUR 19 million with the National Public Procurement Agency and the Ministry for European Funds. In Bulgaria, the Bank has backed the preparation and implementation of projects supported by EU funds.
The advice is usually for large infrastructure, including water, solid waste and waste water.
Brasov county in Romania got project advisory support to prepare its plan for a waste-water treatment plant in Feldioara, and then got EUR 12 million from the EU to build it.
EIB experts and consultants engaged by the Bank help implementing authorities “build knowledge which they can use to approach other investors or lending partners,” says Simona Bovha, who heads the procurement and contract management of external consultants at the EIB. “They also help them to better understand the investment environment.”
This framework benefits from a decade of lessons learned on project preparation in Bulgaria and Romania by JASPERS (Joint Assistance to Support Projects in European Regions). It represents an extension—and an evolution— of JASPERS work.
“What we value most is the great quality advice on the ground,” says Gheran.