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William Fisher: In Defense of (Some) Contractors

In Defense of (Some) Contractors

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Columnist

Wednesday 13 December 2006

The past few years have seen the excoriation of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush administration has been accused of "outsourcing" vital missions for reconstruction and delivery of vital services. Contractors have been accused of finagling no-bid contracts, failing to deliver on these contracts, over-charging our taxpayers, and generally engaging in a free-for-all binge of waste, fraud, and mismanagement.

Much of this criticism is painfully true. Halliburton subsidiary KBR (formerly known as Kellogg, Brown & Root) and Custer Battles, a private security firm, for example, have - justifiably, in my view - become poster children for everything that has gone wrong with our $20 billion-plus reconstruction programs.

Yet all contractors are not Halliburton or Custer Battles. And in indicting contractors generically, critics do a profound disservice to other kinds of contractors who have struggled to be effective under the most perilous conditions.

I refer here to the many international development contractors - both private, for-profit companies, and non-governmental organizations - working in these war zones for the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Their work is about improving health systems, education, agriculture, industrial production, good governance, and much more.

My viewpoint is not academic, nor is it the result of a Google search. It is informed by my own twenty years of serving as such a contractor in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Rewind to Egypt, circa 1999-2002, when I lived in Egypt as a USAID contractor. My job was to lead an all-Egyptian team charged with monitoring, evaluating and improving the performance of more than dozen programs dedicated to improving the country's capacity to take advantage of globalization.

Almost all these programs were managed by US-based international development contractors. There were no no-bid contracts; all had been won on the basis of competitive bidding. Contracting officers were infuriatingly meticulous about dotting every "i" and crossing every "t."

The programs were both diverse and related. For example, one worked with the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture to reduce policy and practice constraints to increased agricultural production and exports. Another, run by Egyptians, was dedicated to matchmaking between Egyptian businesses and their international counterparts and improving potential small exporters' access to credit by a banking system that traditionally made loans only to the super-wealthy elites of the country. Another was conceived to foster access to new technologies and encourage technological innovation among smaller entrepreneurs. All were dedicated to pursuing anti-corruption measures because official and private corruption at the time was adding something like 30 percent to every item lucky enough to enter or leave the country, making Egyptian products and services uncompetitive with many other countries around the world.

Much has been written about the pitiful lack of oversight of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the truth of this has been well-documented. In my experience in Egypt, the very existence of the unit I led constituted a rigorous form of oversight.

But that might have been seen as the fox guarding the henhouse. So there was more. Each of these programs had an experienced USAID officer assigned to monitor its progress on a daily basis, produce strategic objectives and detailed work plans with benchmarks and dates, and make frequent reports and presentations detailing their progress and problems. Most of these officers were Egyptians familiar with their country's customs, constraints and opportunities.

This is not unusual; in fact, it is pretty universally standard operating procedure for USAID projects everywhere in the world. If there were roadblocks, they were more often than not erected by the Egyptian government itself - mostly related to pushing Egyptians to do too much too quickly, or protecting sacred cows from anti-corruption efforts.

There are many such development contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, unlike my experience in Egypt, they obviously have huge security concerns, and the larger contractors have had to assemble small private armies to protect them - at considerable expense. These concerns have increased with the ever-heightening levels of violence and criminality.

But many of them have told me that, in Iraq, the principal problems they faced initially stemmed largely from the arrogance and lack of development experience of the ideologically-driven political appointees assembled by Viceroy L. Paul Bremer's original Coalition Provisional Authority - the CPA - widely known among contractors as the "Cant Provide Anything" authority. Today, many are hamstrung by the lack of experienced officials in the various ministries with which these contractors must interact.

Decisions are delayed for months. When decisions are made, they are often still grandiose and impractical, as in the earlier days of the occupation. Funding does not flow. And development teams, which must travel outside the Green Zone to do their work, cannot get military assistance to protect them.

One project manager in Iraq wrote me: "In my three years in Iraq, I witnessed a US government unprepared for the challenges present in post-Saddam Iraq and which, at times, appeared to deliberately conduct business on the basis of ideology rather than the practical realities of Iraq. Iraqis, who were genuinely happy that Saddam was toppled, deserved better. As the Green Zoners met with each other and made momentous decisions - or as more often happened, they met with each other and made no decisions - we were on the outside working with Iraqis figuring out how in the midst of a terrible war we could give hope to the rural population. My greatest hope is that our project will not be judged as an arm of the American government in Iraq. Rather, I hope that we will be looked upon as a group, most of whom were against the war, that put ideology and politics aside to work humbly for a better Iraq."

The US government has neither the skills nor the experience to take on massive reconstruction and development projects with government employees only. It needs contractors. It needs a competitive bidding process. And the government has a responsibility to provide personnel equipped to provide informed oversight.

But if these development contractors don't sound like Halliburton or Custer Battles, it's because they're not. They are an entirely different breed. Compared to the now well-known companies who took on big-ticket construction or infrastructure rehabilitation or military-services contracts, their cost is infinitesimal. The challenges they face are daunting. Their work is dangerous. But their dedication to development is very real.

To bracket them with those companies that viewed Iraq and Afghanistan as no more than an unpoliced pot of gold does them a huge injustice.


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.

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