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The need for speed

ANALYSIS

The pace with which the UK Government has established the Kosovo Regeneration Taskforce is both surprising and welcome (see news). That a satisfyingly heavyweight group of construction executives will arrive in Kosovo just a week behind the Serb withdrawal (and only four days after NCE) will put UK industry in a strong position to play its part in the reconstruction effort.

Although early reports suggest there is relatively little significant damage to civil engineering infrastructure, these are likely to be misleading. With the exception of the burning oil wells, a similar perception was formed by the visitors to Kuwait after the Iraqi pull-out.

However, before too long, it became obvious that the damage - though light - was all pervasive but often unseen. Very little worked, and the neglect of maintenance regimes had created an ever-growing legacy of knock- on problems.

Kosovo - unlike Kuwait - also had a relatively underdeveloped civils infrastructure. The purpose of the reconstruction must be to raise living conditions rather than simply return them to a pre-war state. The refugees deserve that at least.

But vital though the work in Kosovo will be in bringing a semblance of order to the region, it is only the beginning of a much greater regeneration process for the Balkans as a whole.

UK firms have long complained that foreign competitors have had an 'unfair' advantage in winning reconstruction work. They argue that overseas governments are less squeamish about linking aid to trade or waiting for bodies such as the European Commission or United Nations to decide how any work may be shared out.

UK firms know better - in the wake of the Pergau dam affair - to argue from that perspective. Instead, they have shifted their lobbying onto the need for firms to gain the initiative by involving themselves as rapidly as possible in feasibility and enabling work. They argue that the Government could help firms to secure this work - largely by funding it directly - without compromising any of their principles. It is a suggestion which, with the proper safeguards, should be adopted.

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