Richard Gnagey, CE’70

 Rich Gnagey thumbnailRichard Gnagey, CE’70, joined the Peace Corps in 1970 and went to Thailand soon after graduating from Cooper Union.  He worked as a rural engineer in the Community Development Department in a remote province for three years, and then worked for two years as a Peace Corps trainer. While in the Peace Corp, Richard Gnagey helped dozens of villages, in Sakolnakorn Province, design and build infrastructure projects such as small dams and spillways. He found the work immensely satisfying. His local team had more than a hundred community development workers. The team worked with villagers, showing them how to mix cement, shape and place reinforcing rods, build formwork, and pour concrete.  They worked together, ate together, and slept together in their remote villages.

In 1979, Richard Gnagey joined an Indonesian program (PKGB—New Style Labor-Intensive) in the Ministry of Manpower, where they had created a program for the unemployed. Our small team was able to convince the government to build decent rural infrastructure throughout the country, not just to provide part-time employment. Richard Gnagey began in West Java, and later joined the national team. The West Java team had produced many products that were copied in other provinces—procedures, training programs, forms, and new assignments. Richard Gnagey designed and delivered technical training for nontechnical field staff, most of whom had previously been volunteers in villages. Rich and his team trained hundreds of government officials in how to check technical drawings, how to measure quality, and how to think creatively. Rich was in the Indonesian program for five years. That program has continued successfully for more than 20 years because the local workers were well trained.

Rich Gnagey next worked as part of a seven year Upland Agriculture and Conservation Project in Central and East Java provinces. He worked as the MIS consultant and later became the road engineering specialist. He produced a manual on using vegetative erosion and landslide control, with input from forestry and conservation experts and local Public Works engineers. In each village, the team worked with village leaders and farmers’ groups.

Rich Gnagey joined the World Bank-funded Village Infrastructure Project, as a Team Leader at the start of this project in 1995. The World Bank funded the Infrastructure Project for six years from 1995 to 2000 and the infrastructure project was rated as its most highly successful project. Unlike any previous projects, this one hired a large numbers of engineers (83 at first and later up to 700).

Each engineer was assigned to a cluster of villages given significant grants to build whatever roads, bridges, water supplies, sanitary facilities, and piers that they saw a need for. For the first time, the villagers were the decision makers who managing all the funding, construction, procurement, administration, and maintenance. Richard Gnagey was the only consultant working at the national level.  There were a few senior local engineers at provincial or district levels. Rich created manuals as quickly as possible, trained all the engineers who would be assigned to the field, and determined the best procedures to use. Many of these field engineers would work with Rich for the next 20 years. They absolutely loved doing this work independently, working with villagers from planning through construction and completion.  Seeing much needed projects completed is extraordinarily satisfying. Rich designed and performed most of the training, trying to retain the local engineers as enthusiastic learners.

Rich Gnagey New village bridge and roadRich Gnagey meeting villagers in Madura Island with World BankerRich Gnagey Barefoot Engineers Training class in Papua

A similar World Bank program had begun as a pilot in 1997 and continued through 2006. It copied many of the procedures and manuals from our Village Infrastructure Project. This Kecamatan (sub district) Development Program eventually grew much larger, extending throughout Indonesia. In 2000, Rich joined this program as an advisor and modified its rules and procedures to make it more efficient and effective, especially about village infrastructure. In 2007, the President of Indonesia upgraded this program to be renamed as the National Community Empowerment Program in rural areas (PNPM Mandiri Perdesaan). It soon expanded, servicing almost all rural villages in Indonesia (about 60,000), funded with about a billion dollars per year of which about 70% was spent on village-selected infrastructure.

Rich Gnagey family three years ago

Rich Gnagey family (taken in 2013)

Rich Gnagey Meeting Chairman of Civil in 1995

Rich Gnagey with Dr. Jameel Ahmad, Chair of Civil Engineering at The Cooper Union in 1995

In 2015, a new national Village Law program was inaugurated. The intent of this program is to continue infrastructure funding every year. Soon the budget for this will be many times larger than any previous budgets, which already had been the largest community-driven development project in the world.

There are now more than 5000 civil engineers working full time in Indonesia, and there are millions of local people involved every year. Rich Gnagey’s latest assignment is to write new simple infrastructure books for Indonesian villagers for the Village Ministry. This work is funded by the Australian government.

Here is a list of Richard Gnagey’s extraordinarily accomplishments:

  • Designed many of the various kinds of technical training over the years, designing technical methodologies and forms, making training modules and materials, training trainers, and helping select the best candidates for higher level positions.
  • Visited sites throughout Indonesia, inspecting infrastructure quality, ensuring the capability of technical facilitators, giving feedback to both facilitators and villagers, observing the degree of transparency and accountability, and seeing how maintenance was performed.
  • Taught huge number of trainers to train tens of thousands of villagers on how to make decent simple designs, how to verify feasibility, how to do simple surveys, how to calculate volumes and strengths, how to ensure quality, how to procure materials correctly, how to teach all villagers about construction, and how to keep communities transparent.
  • After the December 2004 tsunami in Aceh province, he spent at least a week every month in tsunami-inflicted areas, where about 200,000 people were killed. Much infrastructure was totally destroyed, so I designed training so that villagers could report on how much of their infrastructure was damaged or destroyed, which they eventually could repair or replace. This work lasted for eighteen months, including the training of hundreds of engineers.
  • Because it had been so hard to recruit civil engineers to work on the huge island of Papua, he suggested that a training program be developed to train Barefoot Engineers. This program trained high school graduates to work as technical facilitators. In 2003, twelve engineers provided training for six months for 228 participants, who were then placed throughout the province of Papua. This was repeated again twice in Papua, for a total of 624 Barefoot Engineers, a third of which were women. During each of these training programs, Rich got to train all the participants for a week in a variety of interesting topics: lateral thinking; brainstorming; supervising; cross-cultural thinking; running meetings; selecting and inspecting infrastructure; training; presenting; making arguments; ensuring high quality infrastructure; facilitating; solving problems rationally; and taking good photographs Rich did similar training in Timor Leste in 2013, for 187 participants.
  • Authored numerous papers over the years in relationship to technical issues: supervision, coaching, maintenance, construction, procurement, safeguards, technical assistance, technical training, village technical cadres, and supervisory inspections. I had also made numerous presentations for use by all our facilitators, consultants, and government officials.

Richard Gnagey received the CUAA Peter Cooper Public Service Award and joined The Cooper Union Hall of Fame in 2016.