Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Spending the Aid Money

New ministry bosses will have to put their own houses in order so as to address huge needs.
By Sayf al-Khayat

Iraqi cabinet ministers came away from the Madrid donors conference last week with aid pledges amounting to 33 billion US dollars, but huge bureaucratic obstacles will frustrate efforts to spend the money.

The World Bank and United Nations estimate that the reconstruction bill over the next four years will come to around than 55 billion dollars, but in some ways the financial shortfall is the least of the problems facing the 25-member interim cabinet selected by the Governing Council last month to rebuild Iraq.

They face a host of practical obstacles that will make it difficult for their ministries to deliver services and repair Iraq's shattered infrastructure.

Most of the cabinet members come with little or no experience in government or high-level administration. Nesreen Mustafa Sidiq Berwari, appointed minister of public works, previously served as minister for reconstruction in the semi-independent Kurdish government - but she is an exception.

Ministerial powers are limited by the temporary nature of the cabinet, and sometimes by uncertainty about where its authority stops and that of United States administrators starts.

Rapid decision-making is rare - if ministers want to introduce a new regulation or even alter an existing one, they must refer to the Governing Council, which, in turn, must get approval from the Coalition Provisional Authority.

On a practical level, the new officials have to produce change on the ground with the help of overstaffed and inefficient ministries.

A post in public administration continues to be valued as a sinecure, and people employed in ministries told IWPR that many of their colleagues have little motivation to work. "For employees, showing up and leaving on time seems to be more important than the actual work," said Hana Jasim, who works at the ministry for planning.

Oil ministry employee Sayed Abd-al-Khaliq told IWPR that ministries are clogged with hundreds of employees who he says are "unnecessary". It is a no-win situation, he argues, "If you keep them, you have to pay them salaries; if you sack them, unemployment increases."

The sacking of Ba'ath party members has not reduced staffing numbers, either - ministry insiders say that the moment a post become vacant there are many applicants clamouring to fill it.

The over-staffing of ministries has created thick layers of bureaucracy that turn even the simplest of procedures into a nightmare.

Baghdad reporter Abd-al-Qadir Sharif says that whenever he enters a ministry building he is immediately swarmed by crowds of people waiting to be seen, who complain about the sluggish pace of work.

Some staff still apply repressive laws created in Saddam Hussein's era, which are now irrelevant but have yet to be changed. For example, anyone who wants to travel abroad with their spouse first has to get security clearance and then lodge proof of their marriage with the foreign ministry.

Recent applicants have been told that their marriage certificates cannot be accepted until they supply the right documents from the security and intelligence agencies - even though these were dissolved shortly after the war and no longer exist.

The ministries themselves face major infrastructure problems. Their offices are having to be built up almost from scratch, because the main ministry buildings were thoroughly looted in the days following the fall of the regime - with the exception of the oil ministry, which had full US military protection. Records, files and statistics were destroyed or stolen.

Once the ministries reorganise themselves enough to start handling the donor money, there will be plenty to spend it on. Public services are in tatters after years of neglect, war and United Nations sanctions.

Education minister Abd Al-Sahib Alwan told IWPR that of the 16,000 schools serving six million pupils, 2,700 were destroyed or looted during and after the war. Eight out of ten urgently need renovation, since most high schools lack toilets, and half of them have no drinking water.

Almost half of all schools operate in two shifts to cope with overcrowding.

"We need 4,500 new schools to cover our needs. We obviously cannot build them in a short space of time," said Alwan, noting that the budget he has been allocated for 2004 will "only cover the employees' salaries".

Healthcare is in a catastrophic state, but minister Saad Khudhayr does at least have a vastly increased budget for next year - as a result of the Madrid meeting it was increased from 26 million to 1.5 billion dollars.

The ministry will need every penny. According to Khudhayr, the infant mortality rate for one-year-olds in Iraq is running at more than 10 per cent, and even higher for children under five. Twenty-five per cent of under-fives are malnourished.

"This is a good enough indication of how extremely poor the health situation is in the country," said Khudhayr.

Sayf al-Khayat is a Baghdad-based journalist and IWPR contributor.