Faded Dreams of Contracted Democracy

by Kevin Begos
published in MER234

Iraq now has an elected provisional national assembly and elected provincial councils. In the end, the $467 million given to a US contractor to build democracy had little to do with these achievements.

In early 2004, even as plans were being made to form the interim Iraqi government and hold elections for a national assembly, funding for the largest US program to promote democracy and local government since the Marshall Plan was slashed. The program was run by the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), a North Carolina company that was the only bidder on a contract the US Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded in April 2003. Originally given a budget of up to $467 million over three years, RTI was tasked to open offices in 17 Iraqi provinces staffed by about 235 international development experts and 3,000 Iraqis -- all within the first year.

By the end of 2004, over 2,000 Iraqi employees and about 190 international staff had been terminated, leaving what one former employee called “a shell” of the original program. [1] RTI’s core mission was to help create and train local governing councils across post-Saddam Iraq -- hence sowing the seeds of representative democracy at the grassroots. The contractor was also expected to help administer US grants for reconstruction of the war-damaged country.

The original RTI contract with USAID, which charged the company with combing Iraq for “the most appropriate ‘legitimate’ and functional leaders” to sit on local councils, has been examined in great detail. [2] As with so many of the Bush administration’s plans for Iraq reconstruction, the reality of RTI’s efforts never lived up to the expansive prewar vision. There were so many changes to the RTI workplan, so many unexpected events and so many political forces within the program and Iraqi society that those who worked on the project often sound like they are describing a pinball game -- one sometimes played with guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Guesswork

RTI had never worked in Iraq and had virtually no staff assigned to the Iraq project when the USAID contract, which was drafted before the war in January 2003, was awarded three months later. As a subsequent report by the USAID inspector general noted, so little was known about Iraq that the agency mostly wrote the contract so as to spend the available funding, not to address specific needs on the ground. RTI began work with a plan that had been taken from its democracy building efforts in Indonesia. Instead of first building the team to be deployed to a war zone, RTI had to try to build its Iraq project on the ground, even while being shot at. “It wasn’t until I got there they told me I was going to be a team leader,” said John Hawley, a city manager from Washington state who arrived in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyya in September 2003. “And I said, ‘Well, what does a team leader do?’ And they said, ‘Set up the program.’”

Dozens of former and current RTI employees agree that the project got off to a good start, despite the guesswork. “They [Iraqis] have such a culture of politeness and civility. They were just wonderful to me,” said Sandra Tripp-Jones, a retired civil servant from California who worked in northern Iraq from September 2003 to March 2004. “When I first arrived 99 percent of the people were happy to see us,” concurred Jerry Kuhaida, a former mayor of Oak Ridge, Tennessee who also said that at first he was “honored” to work for RTI because of its reputation for excellence in scientific research. Kuhaida worked in Karbala and Hilla from September 2003 until March 2004; by the time he left, he said, many Iraqis had grown disillusioned with the US presence.

The motivations and experience of RTI staffers who wound up in Iraq varied widely. The Baghdad RTI team was led by an Iraqi-American woman whose relatives had been murdered by Saddam Hussein’s regime. A Mormon professor from Utah with a lifelong interest in the Middle East was in charge of southern Iraq. There was a Vietnam veteran with decades of development experience, a woman from the Cherokee Nation who had previously worked in Uzbekistan and a feminist from London. Others were from Africa, Lebanon or Indonesia. As the diverse team settled into their jobs, USAID and the Bush administration demanded “results” that could be used to show progress. “We had to do daily and weekly updates on what we were doing,” Hawley said. “A lot of it had to do with trying to develop statistics that didn’t exist. If you had no baseline data, you just couldn’t [do it]. But we had to do it. Some of it, I felt, we were putting together numbers to make it look good.”

“It was the Washington sensibility. We were told to fluff things up,” Kuhaida confirmed. “The number of Iraqis you contacted, whatever. The pressure would be jacked up.”

Climate of Mistrust

In the wake of the invasion, 13 years of economic sanctions and decades of Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule, many on-theground observers wondered if RTI’s mandate was really among the most urgent tasks for rebuilding the country. Said Tom Dobinson, a British aid worker based in a compound that RTI shared with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Kut: “I think what Iraq needs is lots of people getting sewage off their streets, water running, that sort of thing. It struck me as strange that RTI was there with an emphasis on social engineering, when you had so many infrastructure problems.” “The irony,” he added, “is that women in Iraq are now less free than they were under Hussein.”

As grand US promises (and even grander Iraqi dreams) of tangible benefits from reconstruction faded amidst the harsh realities of a huge bureaucracy, mismanagement and insurgent attacks, suspicions about RTI’s motives grew. Jabir Algarawi, an Iraqi who had fled the south in the wake of the failed 1991 Shia uprising against the old regime, saw both sides of the cultural split when he returned home to work for the North Carolina contractor. Many international staffers “were shocked when they got to Iraq,” Algarawi said, claiming that Iraqis are “very hard to lead. Many of the staff members were unrealistic.”

Little decisions by the contractor added to the climate of mistrust, he said. “A lot of money was spent on furniture from Kuwait, instead of buying locally,” to renovate offices, for instance. “[RTI] had a lot of money but they didn’t know what to do with that money.”

Even the relations with the local councils that RTI helped install were undercut by odd bureaucratic decisions, Tripp- Jones said. The council members were paid $120 a month. Out of that allotment they were expected to pay for supplies, transportation, their own staff and security. “Some of the council members wouldn’t even take the money,” she reported. “They thought [the amount] was so insulting. They paid for their own security. It was a joke -- I’m sorry,” she said. “These people really were doing it out of a desire to serve.” The Coalition Provisional Authority or USAID made many of these controversial decisions, but RTI was responsible for implementing the policies of its customer in cities across Iraq. As the only local face of the US-British occupation authority, RTI field workers took the blame for the wide range of frustrations and anger.

Independent Challenges

The RTI-installed councils began to be challenged by independent local initiatives, sometimes leading to their outright collapse. On February 20, 2004, a local group called the United Council of Karbala’s People issued a telling statement. According to the CPA translation that was distributed to RTI employees and obtained for this article, the statement read: “Now, it is a time of work and people have to cooperate with each other in order to get our aims: our freedom and building a democratic and independent country where security, dignity and luxurious life are kept for all citizens. We would like to declare our disapproval of this council and we call the American management in our governorate to give the citizens of this holy city their complete freedom to choose their representatives...and to stop its interference in Iraq’s affairs.”

In drier bureaucratic language, the RTI’s monthly progress reports told the same story. “In effect, the CPA recognized that shutting off the public from the governance process is problematic,” noted the March 2004 report on a provisional council in Karbala. “The [CPA] chose this Council without input from the wider public. Nearly half of the 40 members chosen for the Council have resigned. As a result, CPA is now involving professional groups and segments of Karbala society to select their replacements.” The same report noted that when five small reconstruction projects for water, roads, streetlights, sewage and education had begun, there was a “gratifying response” from the local community.

RTI staff often felt that independent Iraqi initiatives to build representative institutions were less than democratic. Analyzing a district election in Basra, a July 2004 report noted “the unfairness and predictability of the big parties’ inherent advantage in an area winning all the seats, which happened in Zubayr with the religious parties. As a result, the substantial Sunni population does not have a single representative, [which] will inevitably have consequences in the future.” [3]

The Basra section of the report contained a litany of concerns, including direct criticism of Iraqi plans to use a multiple vote system in the district election. “Although it may be an election, it is hardly democratic. Desperate efforts are being made to persuade Iraqis to use a ‘one-man, one-vote’ system. This unfortunate situation resulted from decisions to postpone the planned district elections in Basra earlier this year, which were being organized with the help of the [Coalition Provisional Authority]. As a consequence, the Iraqis started organizing their own, and the withdrawal of [RTI staff] from Al Basarah [sic] in early April compounded the problem.”

But Iraqis knew that RTI was preaching an inconsistent message. The CPA itself had not wanted to schedule a “one-man, one-vote” direct election until January 2004 protests called by Ayatollah Ali Sistani forced its hand. “What really happened [is that] the CPA had a certain agenda,” said RTI worker Amal Rassam of the local council selection process. “We never really had genuine voting.” [4]

RTI reports to USAID, however, made clear the supposition that the locals simply were not qualified for the job of organizing a credible process. “This experience exemplifies that the greatest difficulty faced by Iraqis, including our own local staff, in the absence of expatriate specialists, is explaining the conceptual background of democratic principles.” The anonymous author of the report seems oblivious to another interpretation: that Iraqis had tired of outside attempts to structure their political affairs, and had taken matters into their own hands.

Scaling Back

By early 2004, there were increasing reports of attacks against RTI compounds, and insurgents assassinated many of the local council members -- hundreds, by one estimate. [5] A vicious cycle was picking up speed. As attacks on anyone involved with the US-led occupation force increased, RTI’s security procedures did too. Workers had long been forbidden to travel without armed security guards, and now even social visits began to be prohibited. “They were begging me to come to these towns and meet their families and know their place -- and I couldn’t go there,” Tripp-Jones said of the Iraqis she worked with. “I really regretted [the security] was necessary -- but I agreed it was necessary.”

That trend reminded Dobinson of a hard lesson the British had learned in Northern Ireland. If the British soldiers sat in “little fortresses,” he said, they “developed a yellow streak.” Instead of putting themselves in the center of the towns where they worked, the Americans attempted to “bring little Americas with them” to Iraq, he continued. “The Green Zone [in Baghdad] is a perfect example of that.”

But the “little fortress” in Kut wasn’t enough to protect RTI. In late March followers of Muqtada al-Sadr demanded that RTI and the CPA leave the district, and in early April an all-out assault by up to 300 members of the Mahdi Army forced RTI and others in the compound to evacuate under cover of US air support. RTI’s mission in Kut was over. The contractor’s international staff from almost all the missions was moved to Kuwait or the Green Zone. Though the staff knew USAID had decided to reduce funding for the second year of the contract a few months earlier, few had any inkling that the cut would total roughly $80 million -- about half the first-year budget of $167 million. On top of the funding cut, rising security costs meant that even less of the budget for the remainder of 2004 went to fieldwork or grants. Then in December came word that USAID would not renew the third year of the  original contract. [6] Instead, the agency issued a revised proposal that scaled back staff to about 50 internationals and 425 Iraqis -- 20 percent of the work force stipulated in the original contract. Instead of 17 provincial offices, there would probably be only four, in Baghdad, Hilla, Erbil and Basra. Some tasks are to be assumed by other organizations, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, though often by RTI or USAID staffers who simply switched jobs. RTI has submitted a new bid, and the results of the competition are due in mid-spring of 2005. Top officials with RTI characterized the USAID decision to rebid the contract as a technical one, and not a reflection on their work.

RTI had no direct role in the January 30 elections for a provisional national assembly and provincial assemblies. Those elections, organized by the Iraqi interim government and the UN under pressure of demonstrations called by Sistani, were in some ways a definitive comment on the USAID-funded local governance venture. Many Iraqis saw the elections as their first chance to make their own choices about their political future -- unlike the local governing councils RTI attempted to create. The cuts in the RTI project suggest that the Bush administration may have realized that the best hope for peace in Iraq lies not with massive social engineering programs that preach democracy, but with democracy itself, grown by Iraqis and not imposed.

Endnotes

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[1] Winston-Salem Journal, January 24, 2005.

[2] See, for example, Herbert Docena, “Silent Battalions of ‘Democracy,’” Middle East Report 232 (Summer 2004).

[3] Monthly Report to USAID, version 1, July 2004.

[4] Winston-Salem Journal, December 19, 2004.

[5]Christian Science Monitor, February 24, 2005.

[6] Winston-Salem Journal, December 19, 2004.
 

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