Iraq Reconstruction Hits Roadblocks

Stephen DeAngelis

August 02, 2007

Both print and television news sources have picked up the story of snags in reconstruction efforts in Iraq. One of those stories was written for the New York Times by James Glanz [“As U.S. Rebuilds, Iraq Won’t Act on Finished Work,” 28 July 2007]. The roadblocks are not generated by a single cause, but include both political infighting and lack of maintenance training.

“Iraq’s national government is refusing to take possession of thousands of American-financed reconstruction projects, forcing the United States either to hand them over to local Iraqis, who often lack the proper training and resources to keep the projects running, or commit new money to an effort that has already consumed billions of taxpayer dollars. The conclusions, detailed in a report released [27 July] by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, a federal oversight agency, include the finding that of 2,797 completed projects costing $5.8 billion, Iraq’s national government had, by the spring of this year, accepted only 435 projects valued at $501 million. Few transfers to Iraqi national government control have taken place since the current Iraqi government, which is frequently criticized for inaction on matters relating to the American intervention, took office in 2006. … The report was released too late in the day to contact Mr. [Bayan] Jabr, [the Iraqi finance minister,] who is part of a Shiite alliance in charge of the government. In his previous position as interior minister, he was accused of running Shiite death squads out of the ministry. In his current position he has developed a reputation as being slow to release budget money to Iraqi government entities, which would have to run the new projects at substantial expense. He is sometimes suspected of seeking to use his position to undermine the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who is also a Shiite but answers to a different faction within the alliance. In interviews, Mr. Jabr has rejected those accusations and says he strongly supports the government.”

The highlighted problems underscore how important an integrated approach to post-conflict reconstruction really is. Such integration is at the heart of our Development-in-a-Box™ approach, because if all parties aren’t working together development cannot be sustained. Once all necessary stakeholders sign on to the development process, the four-part flexible framework used in Development-in-a-Box can be pursued. The first step is data gathering, i.e., examining the unique situations that need to be improved and then ensuring that all recognized international standards, best practices, and lessons learned that could address those challenges are included in the package. The second step is analysis and preparation. The potential solutions identified in step one are modified to meet specific needs for each situation. The third step is implementing those unique solutions. The final step, and the one that seems to have been missing in many Iraqi projects, is training.

“In one of the most recent cases, a $90 million project to overhaul two giant turbines at the Dora power plant in Baghdad failed after completion because employees at the plant did not know how to operate the turbines properly and the wrong fuel was used. The additional power is critically needed in Baghdad, where residents often have only a few hours of electricity a day. Because the Iraqi government will not formally accept projects like the refurbished turbines, the United States is ‘finding someone at the local level to handle the project, handing them the keys and saying, “Operate and maintain it,”‘ another official in the inspector general’s office said.”

Analysts who follow Iraqi reconstruction note that government indifference to projects often reflects the fact that they were not involved in its early planning stages.

“American researchers who have followed the reconstruction said Mr. Bowen’s report raised serious new doubts about the program. Rick Barton, co-director of the postconflict reconstruction project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research institute in Washington, said the lack of interest on the part of the Iraqis was the latest demonstration that they were not involved enough in its planning stages. ‘It sort of confirms that you really need pre-agreement on the projects you are attempting,’ Mr. Barton said, ‘or you end up with these kinds of problems at the tail end, where people don’t know much about the program and they haven’t bought into it.’ Mr. Barton said that the episode was probably inevitable given that the elected Iraqi government operated mainly within the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad and had little capability of managing thousands of new projects around the country. He said that this was the most likely explanation — rather than any ill will on Mr. Jabr’s part. But Mr. Barton said the findings indicated that the United States should put some of the remaining money in the program into ‘sustainment,’ the term for running the projects, rather than continuing to build when there might be no one to run the projects.”

There have been a lot of unexpected twists and turns in the Iraqi occupation. The massive scale of reconstruction, the intransigence of the insurgency, the ineffectiveness of the government, and the continued mistrust of various political factions have all slowed progress. Iraq, however, is not homogenous, so progress has been uneven. Some areas are further along than others and they should be rewarded for their progress with further investment. The Kurdistan region is one such area and I have written a number of posts about work going on there. Learning where not to throw good money after bad is part of the process, but it is a difficult part because no one likes to see real need and feel helpless to address it. That is why reconstruction, like security, requires an Iraqi solution. Only when the local population gets involved can projects be sustainable.