TOPICS > Politics

Rebuilding Iraq

November 27, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. Congress recently authorized another $18 billion to rebuild Iraq on top of more than $2 billion already spent. One of the lead players in this massive reconstruction program is the U.S. Agency for International Development or USAID. AID awards overseas contracts to restore schools, roads, bridges, health facilities, electricity, water, sanitation, and telephone service, among other things. It’s also helping Iraqis establish local governments. The man in charge of AID, Administrator Andrew Natsios, has just returned from a trip to Iraq. And welcome back to the program.

ANDREW NATSIOS: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: The last time you were there was in June. You were just there last week. What’s the more striking differences you see?

ANDREW NATSIOS: There was a lot of street crime in June because Saddam had opened all of the prisons, street criminals, and they were running around doing what criminals do. And most of them had been re-arrested and put back in prison now so there is not as much as street crime as there was and the Iraqis told me that for them security has actually improved dramatically in the last three or four months.

The second thing that’s different is we were only beginning to ratchet up the scale of the reconstruction effort in June and we didn’t have a lot to show — now the reconstruction effort’s on a massive escape. We just finished with the U.S. military reconstructing 2,000 schools. AID did 1,600, U.S. military did three or four hundred. And because of that, school attendance has dramatically creased over what it was last year which means there are fewer kids on the streets and it’s much better in a reconstruction setting to have kids in school rather than on the streets.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you something about the schools, because Newsweek magazine went and looked at five of the schools that have been on the completed list and you may have read this…

ANDREW NATSIOS: I did.

MARGARET WARNER: …story found that there was trash all over, there weren’t enough desks for the students, there weren’t enough textbooks, and that the story was, well, Bechtel had been in charge, Bechtel Corporation, but it had been subbed down, down, down, to a subcontractor that really cut corners. I guess my question is, how confident are you that that $1,600 figure … $1,600 school figure is really for real?

ANDREW NATSIOS: We actually have inspectors go in. Bechtel does one set of inspections and then we have a second set done by the Corps of Engineers that we have hired to oversee Bechtel’s quality control and the inspectors go in. If they see anything that is different than what was contracted for, they don’t pay the contractors.

In fact, none of the contractors have been paid yet, so if you don’t do your work, you don’t get paid, that’s number one. Number two, if you want to get paid you have to go back and fix the things that were broken. We told that to Newsweek. Newsweek chose not report it, which I thought was it a little unfortunate.

MARGARET WARNER: But as you know, there is criticism, for instance Refugees International put out something last week saying you all are under such pressure from Washington to show results and understandably so.

ANDREW NATSIOS: We are, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Obviously. That it’s become something of a numbers game and that so many corners are being cut, that in fact, it’s hard to know whether to trust the figures…

ANDREW NATSIOS: Well I have to say I know Refugees International very well. They don’t actually have a presence on the ground, and I think some of the reporting is a little sensationalist and, I think, inaccurate. This is a massive effort. It’s the most massive reconstruction effort the U.S. government and AID have been engaged in since the Marshal Plan.

We have never spent this much money in one country at the same time. So there is an issue about scale and management but we knew this when we started and so we planned for quality control measures that would ensure that standards were kept up. And if you go to the port of Um Qasar, one of our big efforts was to open the biggest port in the country — it’s a modern port now. First time in 20 years, it’s fully functioning and being maintained properly.

The schools are another big success. If you go around the country, ask the parents. Many parents would not allow their kids to go to school because the bathrooms weren’t functioning. There was no running water, there was no electricity in the schools, the ceilings were falling in, not from the war, but because of bad maintenance and because no money was being invested in them, and now kids are going back to school.

What counts is the data we’re getting from the Ministry of Education about how many more kids are in school. We’re now focusing on the health system. The health care system was in terrible condition because the annual budget for the entire health care system for the whole $10 million a year under Saddam. It’s now $200 million a year. And we’re putting a lot of money into rebuilding infrastructure that has been allowed to deteriorate for 28 years.

MARGARET WARNER: How are you doing on power and electricity? What’s the latest there?

ANDREW NATSIOS: The latest is … that’s the hardest thing, because it these are huge project to get the electrical power plants reconstructed after years of very poor maintenance. And so we have the electrical power up the first week in October to what it had been before the conflict, but that’s not sufficient.

Our problem is not electricity right now, because we’re not in the peak load, which is in the summertime when it goes up to 125, 140 degrees a day. I mean, I was there in June. I had never been to a place so hot. People get very, very upset if the water doesn’t run and of course electricity affects the water system, the sewer system, the electric lights. If those services don’t function and it’s 140 degrees out, people get very upset.

MARGARET WARNER: But, for instance, do people in Baghdad have power 24 hours a day? How many hours a day?

ANDREW NATSIOS: Baghdad has less power than it had before because it always had 24 hours, because it’s the capital city and Saddam poured all of his funding and resources into the capital to avoid political unrest. The Shia itself, which is 60 percent of the country, is like a different country. There are no public services.

In Basra, the second-largest city in the country, they had three hours of electrical power a day for the last 15 years. They now have 23 hours of electrical power a day. We’re not discriminating, but the way in which — there has been some sabotage in the transmission lines and we’re fixing those now. This was sabotaged last may. We have to fix the lines so that all of the power is regularized across the country to make the system more reliable.

By next June we hope to have electrical power go from 4,300 megawatts to 6,300, which will be more sufficient to get us through next summer. So there is a plan in place that our contractors are implementing and we’re on schedule to achieve those results.

MARGARET WARNER: You said a few minutes ago that the port of Um Qasar had been built, it’s like a modern port. And as you know some members of both the Iraqi governing council and council in particular have said, “that’s part of the problem, that the Americans come in and they want to do it to this gold-plated standard, and that they could get a lot more for the money if they spread it around more, let Iraqis do more of the work and perhaps it wouldn’t meet AID contract specifications, but things would work.” Is there something to that? Is there a sort of tension here between the American desire to do things to a certain standard and the need to get all the stuff up and running in some fashion?

ANDREW NATSIOS: I think the distinction is, we want to create a standard so that a year from now Newsweek won’t go in or Lehrer report and say everything has collapsed. You fixed it only for a year. We don’t want that to happen. The president keeps saying to us we want this to work over the longer term. We want the public services to improve for the Iraqi people. That’s the plan. This is not a gold-plated standard.

We are not improving any of the services from what they were 25 years ago. Twenty-five years ago, Iraq had the finest education system in the entire Arab world and the finest health care system. And since the Iran-Iraq war that began in ’82-’83 everything has slid down to oblivion, and we’re trying to restore what existed before.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about the impact of the violence. To what degree does the security situation slow down what you’re trying to do and add to the cost?

ANDREW NATSIOS: It’s clearly adding to the cost, because we’re having to put security measures in place and security firms, and that does cost something, but it’s not enormous. Is it slowing down the efforts? In the area … in the greater Baghdad area, which was the center of Baathist control, it has restrained our ability to provide these services and work with the Iraqis.

In the southern area, which is the most discriminated-against, poorest area of the country, actually there is so much support locally for what we’re doing they are protecting us from problems. And we have a lot of public support in the Kurdish area as well, so 80 percent of the country actually the relief effort and the reconstruction effort it is at a very, very high level of energy and the volume is very impressive.

But we even have programs now in Fallujah, which is one of the most insecure areas, and we have them in Tikrit. Some people can’t imagine we’re able to do that but we are. They’re not huge, and we have told the sheiks and city councilors, “If you want to us help you, you have to bring some security on your own through the local police department, because we’re not military force,” and the NGOs that work with us, the contractors, the U.N. agencies need security in order to help you reconstruct your country.

MARGARET WARNER: How is this work of trying to build up these local councils going?

ANDREW NATSIOS: Some of the work we’re doing restoration of public services and they are important but the most important thing we’re doing is not restoration of services. It is what I call “transforming reconstruction,” which means transforming one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world into a democratic society, which I’m very optimistic about for a couple of reasons. One is this is an urbanized population, and democracy works better in urbanized settings. 70 percent of the people live in cities.

And two, there is a high level of very well-educated people in Iraq — this is more — it’s not really like the developing world. It’s more like Eastern Europe. It’s more like Poland or Bulgaria after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And depending on how the elites respond, this country can be a very functional — could look like Poland in six or eight years, which would be a really good thing from our perspective. I told the Iraqis that. It’s up to them to decide whether or not they want to have an accelerated level of democratic development, move to a private market economy with free elections, protection of human rights and civil liberties or not. The program that’s most transformative that we’re working on is the creation of these local councils of newly elected town and city councils who are providing public service as we make small grants to them and we’re training them in how you actually administer public services, write a budget, you have to hold a public hearing, you respond to public complaints and act as our city councils would in the United States or Europe.

MARGARET WARNER: Andrew Natsios, thanks.

ANDREW NATSIOS: Thank you very much.