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In Defense of (Some) Contractors
Opinion: William Fisher - From: http://www.truthout.org
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
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
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
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
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.