Tetra Tech's Jessica Oakes Discusses International Infrastructure Program Management

Fostering economic growth through sustainable infrastructure and inclusive programming
Aug 3, 2020 8:00 AM ET

Jessica Oakes is a civil engineer with 14 years of experience. In her second year out of college, she took an assignment for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Afghanistan—a decision that would change her life forever. She served there as an expatriate engineer for nearly four years on two consecutive USAID projects, which focused on improving water, sanitation, energy, transportation, and vertical structures throughout the war-torn country. While in Afghanistan, she initiated a women’s internship program for engineering students enrolled in local universities. In 2012, she began supporting the program from the home office in Massachusetts and today serves as the home office manager for Tetra Tech’s largest USAID infrastructure project, the $125 million Afghanistan Engineering Support Program. Since 2008, she has developed a deep understanding of how to overcome development challenges and seen first-hand how infrastructure improves stability and enhances economic growth in a conflict country.

Throughout your time working to improve infrastructure in Afghanistan, how have you assisted the country to advance their journey towards self-reliance?

Tetra Tech has worked in Afghanistan since 2003 to reconstruct infrastructure destroyed by war. Under the Engineering Support Program, we provide USAID with technical engineering assistance and quality assurance across their entire portfolio. Our primary functions have been designing, reviewing, and overseeing the construction of USAID-funded infrastructure activities. From roads and bridges to transmission lines and substations, we help USAID deliver sustainable infrastructure projects wherever they need it.

Safe and sustainable infrastructure is the foundation for future development and is critical to support communities and institutions as they reemerge from instability. Our job is to guarantee the full effectiveness of USAID assistance, whether in the transportation, agriculture, or energy sectors. We oversee transportation infrastructure to improve the safe and efficient movement of people, products, and materials. We have provided oversight for agricultural irrigation systems to help strengthen agriculture production and increase farmers’ yields and incomes. We have supported the installation of new and extended existing power transmission lines to a larger portion of the country, including rural areas and allowing for basic electricity needs to be met. In some cases, this may only mean a single light in a residence for a few hours each day, but that single light could provide a student with the opportunity to complete schoolwork that otherwise would have to wait for daylight. Safe, sustainable, and sturdy infrastructure lays the foundation for future development, reduces the risk for private sector investment, and ultimately boosts economic growth.

How do the infrastructure activities you work on foster economic growth?

Economic growth is a key objective of USAID’s assistance, and thereby, is incorporated into many of our activities. Clear connections can be drawn between new facilities and increased job openings, extended transmission lines and lengthened business hours, or stabilized access roads and strengthened supply chains. However, more implicitly, we have found that working with government partners and institutions to build and strengthen their capacity to operate and maintain facilities can be just as monumental to the economy.

One example is the work we did to develop a physical infrastructure plan for an export processing zone and air cargo terminal for Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. We performed a market study and environmental scoping and reviewed the economic and financial viability of the institutional framework. We provided the necessary airport infrastructure concept planning, which is step one in revolutionizing the way Afghanistan conducts business by enabling cross-border commerce. This is one of many programs that are critical for Afghanistan to allow an export-led economy to grow.

How do you support women and social inclusion in a country where vulnerable populations have suffered from oppression?

We support the professional growth of newly educated women engineers to promote broad-based, inclusive economic growth. Getting this field experience through an international architecture-engineering firm, such as Tetra Tech, can empower women to serve and lead in the engineering sector. Most importantly, gender integration in developing countries provides opportunities where previously there were limitations. Furthermore, women on our teams have proven to have excellent communication and organizational skills, which improves our relationships with stakeholders and strengthens project documentation.

We mentor local contractors and project staff, building their capacity to meet the international engineering standards needed for construction oversight. We introduce them to innovative techniques, like electronic reporting, and expose them to lessons learned that are difficult for young engineers to find in developing countries. This experience improves their productivity, supports professional advancement, and provides the tools needed to deliver a highly sustainable project and become more competitive.

What role do infrastructure projects play in promoting stability?

Infrastructure provides the foundation for stability. With reliable access to water, electricity, and transportation, we help create conditions for peace and advance long-term development objectives. For example, through our engineering and construction oversight support of the installation of an additional turbine at the Kajaki Dam, we increased energy production to support the households and businesses of more than 800,000 residents. Reliable electricity provides basic opportunities for communities to thrive, improves their quality of life, empowers community-led development, and ultimately results in lower levels of dissatisfaction—a common driver of instability, especially in conflict-prone countries like Afghanistan.

To sustain those standards, we supported Afghanistan’s national electric utility, Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat. To take this further, much of our work is done to instill expert management techniques across both the public and private sectors, which enables future projects to take root and helps guide Afghanistan towards a more inclusive, economically viable, and self-reliant state.

What can implementers like Tetra Tech do to ensure infrastructure projects meet their technical goals, but also support overarching development priorities like women’s empowerment and economic growth?

We prioritize capacity building in every activity. Personally, I am a huge advocate for internship programs as a mechanism to both engage youth and to introduce more local talent to our activities. Of course, it takes effort to ensure you create a valuable program that is mutually beneficial for the project and for the interns. A good internship program requires a work plan, curriculum, and dedicated project staff that can mentor the interns. Starting in Afghanistan, we created an adaptable framework that we are now applying on projects across our portfolio. And once that framework is in place, internships that welcome females are one of the simplest ways to make a direct and significant impact on women’s empowerment.

It changes the narrative around the value of women in the professional workforce, and it gives them an opportunity to not only learn but to prove their talents. Internships like these are a proven method to include women and youth in infrastructure projects, and to build local talent to support long-term sustainability of critical infrastructure improvements in developing countries.