Democracy by the Dollars

1 July 2004, Pratap Chatterjee, CorpWatch


Just days after the coalition handed Iraq over to a caretaker government, several individuals hired by a private contractor to teach Iraqis about democracy and creating civic organizations say that they completely failed in their task.

In March 2003, the U.S. Agency for International Development awarded the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) International of North Carolina a $167 million contract to help 180 Iraqi cities and towns "foster efficient, transparent, and accountable sub-national government that supports the country's transition to sovereignty."

In real terms, this meant RTI staff in Iraq were charged with setting up local neighborhood councils, providing technical advice for municipal services such as garbage collection and water supply, and funding new local community organizations and initiatives.

Three former RTI employees who worked on the project told CorpWatch that the company spent 90 percent of the money on expensive expatriate staff, gave out lots of advice and held lots of meetings, but did little to provide support for local community organizations or councils.

Three former RTI employees-Jabir Algarawi, an Iraqi-American from Arizona; Jerry Kuhaida, a former Tennessee mayor; and Jim Beaulieu, a former provincial deputy minister from Canada-all went to work with hopes of building democracy in Iraq.

Algarawi, a Shiite from Diwaniya, had fled Iraq in 1991 after taking part in an uprising to overthrow Saddam Hussein as called for by the first President Bush. Last December, Algarawi, who supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, quit his job as executive director of the Arizona Refugee Community Center in Phoenix, and took a position with RTI, which flew him to Al Amarah, the capital of Maysan province in southeastern Iraq, to help Iraqis establish local governance.

At first, he said, "almost 95 percent of the people [in the south] supported us. Now there are only a few, and those who do don't have the courage to say it." He believes that the lack of tangible support for local communities is one of the principal reasons for the withdrawal of popular support.

Algarawi said that the only project he was able to finish was the creation of a women's organization, for which RTI allocated $90,000 in spending money. "We spent more than that on entertainment for our staff alone, bringing in satellite television," he said. "Many of the expatriate staff individually earned twice or three times as much money as the annual budget of this organization. Probably we spent 90 percent of our money on RTI staff and very little on the community."

Algarawi also said that the RTI expatriate staff spent most of their time at their protected compound. "Some of my colleagues never left the compound; they spent all their time filling out forms for the United States government. It seemed like our main objective was satisfy our funders not to help people in Iraq," he said. "Those of us who did go outside, were told we could not go anywhere without our four Australian bodyguards, but that made the local people afraid of us. Many people said we were CIA and especially since we were not supposed to speak to the media, this did nothing to dispel the rumors."

He added that the company, whose supervisors stayed at the posh Sheraton Hotel in Kuwait, bought supplies, from food to televisions, from Kuwait, not Iraq. "[We] gave no money to Iraqi organizations, [so] local people started to say that they needed to get Saddam to get the Iraqi money back from Kuwait," Algarawi said.

In early April, Algarawi and all the other expatriate staff were told to evacuate Iraq because of the escalating violence. Then in late May, he heard that what little he had achieved might soon be undone. Dr. Kifaya Hussein, a staff member of the women's organization he had helped establish, was gunned down in front of the office. "When she was killed, RTI didn't pay out the money they had promised, so now all the women are just volunteers," he said.

The paucity of resources for actual community initiatives was confirmed by Jerry Kuhaida, the former mayor of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who had also resigned from his job in the United States to work for RTI in late 2003. He was assigned to Karbala, a city of 500,000 people about 60 miles south of Baghdad.

Kuhaida was put in charge of determining how money had been spent in the south central region, which covers four of Iraq's 18 governorates. He calculated that RTI had given away eight to 10 grants of between $5,000 and $50,000 each. "It was all fluff," Kuhaida said. "We weren't really doing anything for the local organizations."

But Patrick Gibbons, a spokesperson for RTI in Baghdad, disagreed with Algarawi and Kuhaida, arguing that the local grant-making program was successful: " The original LGP (local governance program) budget had $10 million allocated for grants to support local projects. The grant program was so successful that LGP, with USAID approval, reallocated budgeted funds to administer more grants. To date, nearly $15 million worth of grant-funded projects have been approved, and almost all are completed or nearing completion."

Statistically speaking, the $15 million was slightly less than 10 percent of the total $154 million paid out to RTI for the first year of work, which suggests that 90 percent was spent on company staff and administration expenses.

But by spring, disenchanted with the company and frustrated by the little work being done, all three men quit their jobs and returned to North America. Beaulieu explained his motives: "I resigned because it became obvious we could not do what we were hired to do," he explained. "There was simply no credible evidence that the United States had a plan of what they want to do.” And Algarawi said he was disenchanted with RTI. "They went there to make a profit, not to help the people," he said.

COMPLETE ARTICLE: Democracy by the Dollars

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