Friday, March 28, 2008

More Money, More Problems

March 28, 2008

A Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), made up of soldiers and State Department representatives, would appear to have one of the more fun and gratifying jobs in Iraq. They initiate or lend support to projects throughout a particular province, the goal being to make essential and lasting improvements to that province. I spent a day with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) based at COB Speicher , their territory: the Salah ad Din province, and was reminded that no good deed goes unpunished, especially in Iraq.
The PRT was scheduled to meet with the mayor of Tikrit, and some of the local business people interested in being involved in the projects under discussion for the area. Many PRT projects are developed to help local workers, or provide jobs to those out of work, to strengthen the local economy. Good honest work. Who wouldn’t want to get involved?
As the meeting got underway, the mayor asked Joseph Pinon, of the State Department, what he had been up to, his tone suggesting he thought maybe Joe had been floating up and down the Tigris on a raft, working on his tan instead of on rebuilding Tikrit. Joe produced a stack of folders, each representing a project in some stage of development. It seemed strange that he should have to appease the mayor. All of these projects would benefit his city. And one could just as easily ask him what he had been up to. Would he have been able to produce as thick a stack of folders?
After this awkward start, the focus shifted to one of the projects that was, as of now, just pages in a folder. A farmers’ market.
A farmers’ market would obviously be an asset to local farmers and people shopping for fresh produce, but its construction was an opportunity for local contractors to make money. It would cost money to construct the market, but how much? The discussion went back and forth across the table. American dollars would be funding the project, but what would the city of Tikrit contribute? The mayor said the land will be donated, as if his generosity knew no bounds. But did the land in question really belong to the city, and who would take care of the maintenance of the property? How much would construction actually cost, and were we being quoted a fair price or were we being taken advantage of?
As enthusiasm for the discussion faded--not enough concrete figures for the Americans, too many for the Iraqis--three more businessmen joined the meeting. One sat beside Joe Pinon. He was the chairman of an investment committee. It benefitted him to attend a meeting with the PRT because then he would know which projects the Americans were initiating and funding, and he could send the investors he collaborated with in other directions. He was being given access to very useful information, but rather than appearing grateful, he, like the mayor, seemed annoyed. He too turned to Joe and asked what the PRT had to show for itself. It was almost as if he and the mayor had talked to each other before the meeting, and decided to have a little fun with the Americans.
An awkward silence filled the room and I waited for the soldiers to fill the man with bullets. They were too disciplined for that and instead shifted in their seats and watched to see where this is going. Joe mentioned a figure, a very large figure, which represented the amount of money the United States has poured into Iraq to help with the rebuilding process. The man laughed, and asked again to see some evidence, some proof that the money arrived and went where it was supposed to go. I had to give it to this guy; he knew how to make a meeting interesting.
A lot of money has gone missing in Iraq. Give piles of cash, yes cash, to anyone, anywhere, let alone Iraq in the middle of a war, and tell them to make sure the money makes it into honest hands, to legitimate projects. How much of that money will actually make it to its intended destination? There is proof that at least some of the money was used in the way it was intended. There are water treatment plants, clinics, schools, and numerous other developments across the country, but there should be more. We are to blame and the Iraqis are to blame. It is difficult for either side to trust the other at this stage because patterns have been established.
The State Department workers and the soldiers of the Provincial Reconstruction Team did their best to stick to the agenda of the meeting. They really did want more of the folders to represent actual finished projects. They wanted to be part of the solution and not part of the problem, but they needed some help from the Iraqis at the table. More assistance and less attitude.
It was hard to listen while hard-working, honest people were being belittled by the very people they were trying to help. At the same time, the Iraqis raised a question that deserved an answer. Where did all the money go? The meeting took place on the grounds of one of Saddam’s old palaces. The Birthday Palace. Apparently, he only spent one day out of the year here, his birthday. Iraqis are used to greed and corruption from the top down. Maybe they miss the old days, when all of that misdirected money at least resulted in a palace. A palace is a lot more impressive than a pile of folders.

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