Milton Funes

Interview with Milton Funes: Honduras Meets Georgia

Georgia’s transition to a free-market democracy has accelerated since the Rose Revolution of November 2003, but many rural communities have yet to experience the benefits of change. Soviet-era infrastructure is poorly constructed and not functioning at full capacity. In addition, the recent conflict with Russia has threatened to destabilize parts of the country.

As part of CHF’s USAID-funded Georgia Employment and Infrastructure Initiative (GEII), a program focused on improving employment and entrepreneurship, CHF was asked to look into schools rehabilitation in Gori and Kareli, areas that had been at the center of the 2008 conflict, along the borders of the break away regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Many schools had been damaged in the conflict and with cold winter looming, improving these schools had become a priority for the people living in those Georgian communities.

The program CHF is running in Georgia, until now, did not have a construction aspect. So Milton Funes, CHF’s Country Director for Honduras, packed his bags and set off to Georgia for the first time, for a two-week engagement.

“I am a civil engineer by profession and have supported infrastructure programs in many CHF countries,” says Milton. “I have always been interested in a network of colleagues at CHF sharing expertise with each other, so in my capacity as a civil engineer, I went over to Georgia to help out the CHF team with a construction project.”

Milton runs a broad portfolio of programs in Honduras, covering human trafficking, agricultural development, vocational training and also as the principal implementers of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis. But he has also worked in Colombia, El Salvador, Haiti, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, often supporting infrastructure projects and emergency response. Milton’s flexibility, professionalism and good nature made him an ideal person for the job, even in a region that was new to him.

What he found in Georgia was disturbing: “The schools buildings were in a state of disrepair. There were classrooms with bullet holes that were covered up by maps on the wall. The children had to use external bathrooms – even through the freezing winter.”

The biggest challenge, though, was the time constraints. “I had two weeks in which to get to know a new team, get them on board and get their buy-in to what we were doing. And, of course, there are big cultural differences between Georgians and Latins. But despite this constraint and these differences, we managed to get everyone on-board to the same vision. It was a brand new technical team, so we had to introduce them to CHF’s culture  and the way we work with communities, as well as plan the specific project. We brought together CHF’s existing community mobilizers from the GEII project with the new architects and engineers and they worked together well. Often in the developing world, the title ‘manager’ carries with it great importance – but two minds are better than one. We made sure that we listened to everyone’s input.” 

Milton and the team visited the schools, interviewed the communities around them, examined the issues facing the schools then presented a number of options for rehabilitation. “Through working closely with USAID we were able to meet together and come up with a series of planned repairs that would make the schools far more viable,” says Funes.

CHF is now undertaking the program to upgrade 20 schools in time for winter. Indoor lavatories and more efficient, safer heating systems are just two of the benefits that thousands of students will experience.

“Cross-collaboration and appropriate application of expertise only enhances the quality of the programs CHF implements around the world. I am happy to have been able to be part of the great work being done to help the people of Georgia.”

Through GEII, CHF will upgrade at least 20 schools in the former conflict zones of Gori and Kareli, so that children can learn in a safe and energy-efficient environment. Specifically, the program will:

  • Ensure that at least 20 schools are brought to a level of meeting “minimum standards,” such as new roofing, insulation, energy-efficient windows and doors, replastering/repainting, heating, and indoor toilets with water tanks.
  • Once minimum standards are met, communities can prioritize how they would like additional funds spend for priority repairs and upgrades, including solar panels, electrical systems, flooring, exterior doors, etc.
  • All school renovation projects will focus on using energy efficient materials, and removing toxic building materials in all school structures, including lead paint and asbestos.