Saturday, November 21, 2009

Iraq Reconstruction

The New York Times has an excellent article today on reconstruction in Iraq. The article says that US officials fear that Iraqis will not maintain what we've built for them over the past six years with $53B. It goes on to cite several projects, including a $270M water treatment plant in Nasariyah, several hospitals including the Basrah Children's Hospital, and the Fallujah waste water treatment plant, among others. I highly recommend the article - well-written and pretty accurate. A friend of mine sent me a note about it today. I sent him a bit of a long response and decided that I'd post it here as well.

John -
I saw this article this morning. It is pretty accurate. I'm familiar with the Nasariyah water treatment plant. It was the single most expensive project we've done here. Within months of turning it over to them, it was running at 35% capacity. The reason is that the local government down there is run like a bunch of Tony Sopranos - they give the jobs to family and tribal members, not to engineers who know what they're doing. We (the US) went back in and spent a lotta money to fix it back up again. Haven't heard anything since we finished, but what do you want to bet that it's falling apart again?

Yes, we built a lot of Public Health Centers that were immediately shuttered because they didn't have the staff to run them. Most were connected to the power grid, water lines, and sewer lines, but there was an early agreement with the Ministry of Health that we'd only go so far outside the PHC to do the connections, and after that it was the Ministry's responsibility. To my knowledge, they never made any of those connections. Some PHC's have been repaired and opened (all of those with good results so far), some were never opened, some have probably been stripped, and some are probably being used for other purposes. Or various combinations of the above.

Because of the issues with project turnover, we started requiring Letters of Sustainment to be signed by the ministries or local officials before we'd start work. Basically, it says that they want the project and will take care of it once it's done. Probably not worth the paper it's printed on, but at least it makes them address how they're going to support the project.

The Basrah Children's Hospital is still a major issue. We turned over ownership back in February (I'm the one who put together the signing ceremony for the Ambassador and the Minister ... wrote about it in my blog). To my knowledge, the Ministry still has not budgeted a dime for support. At a lot of government agencies, the people working there are not getting paid, so Dr. Ahmed at the Basrah Children's Hospital (have been in several meetings with him) may very well have not been paid for months, if ever.

The NYT article is incorrect about the Fallujah project. It is not yet completed. My command is in charge of that project and right before I went on R&R, I was working on the way forward with it. This is something that should never have been built. It's Boeing 747 technology in a place that can't support a Piper Cub. But there it is. Two friends of mine were killed on a visit to this project on Memorial Day. I can't tell you if it will be completed by us - there are some serious issues that a lot of people are working their way through on the other side of this cubicle right now, but I can tell you that we are doing everything we possibly can to finish it and leave an operating system in that town.

Iraq is still facing a serious shortage of educated and trained people. That's why I'm so excited about the projects I'm working on. They're all designed to help the Iraqis take steps forward themselves: some are training programs to do things like run the PHC's and hospitals and schools. One is to bring a university's engineering curriculum up to western accreditation standards. Two are to develop master plans in places that badly need them - and to train the Iraqis in how to do planning, and how to implement the plans once they're done.

Will it answer all their problems? No, but it will answer some, and provide them with some tools to take the next steps themselves. They're so much to be done that, as this article indirectly noted, you can do $53 BILLION dollars' worth of work and people still think you didn't do anything. But we did - for example, just go visit Sadr City (umm, on second thought, don't) and you'll find several hundred thousand people who now have reasonably clean running water. Or towns where they now have a solidly built school instead of (literally) a mud hut.

Yeah, there was a lot of waste, but the great majority of projects were done and are being used. Just remember that journalists tend to overstate the negative and sensational because they wouldn't have a job otherwise.

Glad you saw this article.

All the best,


Julyan said...

Thanks Skip.

Shea said...

Babylon Reborn