The Aid Bottleneck

Despite continuing commitment from the international community, reconstruction efforts in Iraq are making little progress.

The Aid Bottleneck

Despite continuing commitment from the international community, reconstruction efforts in Iraq are making little progress.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

Baghdad residents like taxi driver Jasim al-Fartoosi are looking forward to the completion of a new overpass at the capital’s busy al-Shariqa roundabout.

“The construction of the bridge will benefit me financially, since I’ll no longer have to waste time in traffic jams,” al-Fartoosi told IWPR. At the moment, queues at the intersection can stretch up to a kilometre long.

But the traffic jams are compounded by another kind of bottleneck – in the funding for such infrastructure projects. The 24 million US dollar al-Shariqa project has been hampered by a reliance on equipment left over from the Seventies, and is expected to take over a year to finish.

Plans to build a further ten bridges in the clogged-up capital have been frozen because there is no money.

Local observers say these problems are symptomatic of the slow progress made by reconstruction efforts across the board in Iraq, and argue that violence, bureaucracy and corruption are largely to blame.

Last month, 60 donor governments and international organisations met in Jordan to discuss the reconstruction of Iraq’s infrastructure following the years of war and sanctions.

In a joint report presented at the meeting, the World Bank and United Nations said the country’s electricity sector was top priority. The document’s authors estimated that just to restore this system to the condition it was in back in 1990 would cost around 20 million dollars.

Other priorities discussed in the report include improving Iraq’s water and sanitation systems, and addressing a shortage of housing for its population.

To date, donors have pledged more than 30 billion dollars in aid money to Iraq. But public works minister Nasreen Barwari told IWPR that so far, the country has seen only ten per cent of this promised funding.

Christiaan Poortman, the World Bank’s vice president for the Middle East, announced at last month’s conference that only one of nine projects the bank has launched in Iraq since the fall of the Baath regime has been properly completed.

“I haven’t seen or heard anything about reconstruction,” 32-year-old Iraqi engineer Habib Ahmed told IWPR. He went on to describe reconstruction as a “rosy dream”.

Many observers, including even some officials, say graft lies at the heart of the slow pace of rebuilding. “The corruption from which Iraq suffers is the biggest threat to [its] rehabilitation,” admitted planning minister Barham Salih.

Thair al-Faili, a senior advisor in the reconstruction ministry, also acknowledged that government officials are largely to blame. “Administrative corruption and government red tape are the reasons behind the halt in reconstruction,” he said.

Widespread violence is cited by many as another root cause.

At last month’s conference, Staffan Demistura, the UN’s deputy special representative in Iraq, acknowledged that security challenges have hampered the organisation’s ability to operate there.

A number of donors also expressed concern about the proportion of reconstruction funds being channelled into security rather than actual building work.

Earlier this year, it was announced that of the nine billion dollars spent by the United States government on reconstruction in Iraq since the toppling of the Baath regime, two billion has gone towards security costs.

Some delegates at the conference even went so far as warning that increasing instability in Iraq, along with reports of corruption, might discourage donors from continuing to provide aid.

At the same time, observers question how much of this security spending is actually necessary.

Nasir al-Abboodi, a civil servant in the ministry of reconstruction, criticised government officials for spending money on protecting themselves while “the citizens are left to fight alone”.

He cited the al-Shariqa project as a perfect example of this contradiction, “The government justifies the slowdown in rebuilding by using terror as a pretext, yet the bridge workers have been doing their job for a several months and no one has laid a hand on them.”

“I don’t think there is much transparency in our government,” concluded al-Abboodi.

In the face of such problems, the Iraqi government is currently working to establish an advisory body called the Iraqi Rehabilitation Forum, which is intended to facilitate the flow of information between donors and the planning ministry.

The hope is that it will allow the aid money to be spent more efficiently.

Ziyad Khalaf al-Ajely and Safaa al-Mansoor are IWPR trainees based in Baghdad.

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