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Deconstructing reconstruction

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COMMENTS

20 March 2013 14:20

Naima Lynch was a researcher for MSNBC and worked in media and communications in Yemen and Afghanistan.

The final report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGUR), Stuart Bowen, was published last week. It seeks to account for the US$60 billion in American taxpayer dollars spent on Iraq reconstruction. During an interview with PBS's Judy Woodruff, Bowen stated:

Stabilization and reconstruction operations are a reality with us to stay, hopefully never again the size of Iraq and Afghanistan. But we have had them before, the Balkans, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, and we will have them again.

Stabilization and Reconstruction Operations (SROs), often simply referred to as 'reconstruction', encompass a range of activities that are not only country specific, but often city and village specific. Reconstruction can refer to bricks & mortar such as hospitals and schools, or it can refer to more nebulous activities under the banner of 'the promotion of democracy'. Reconstruction covers a whole host of other terms (rebuilding, recovery, reconciliation etc) that pepper the debate around the obligations and responsibilities of an invading force.

As Bowen stated, reconstruction is here to stay. So it is worth examining and demystifying the language around it. Here are two terms worth unpacking, 'governance capacity' and 'contingency contracting', both of which feature prominently in the SIGUR report:

Governance capacity

What is it?

A deceptively simple term that ultimately refers to the ability of a political leadership to provide services to its people, enforce rule of law etc.

But, what is it really?

In US parlance, 'governance capacity' really means 'democratic governance capacity'. Of course, truly dissecting this would require an examination of what, exactly, is democratic governance. Suffice it to say that developing governance capacity in countries the West wants to 'reconstruct' means building governments that are amenable to (perhaps susceptible to) the political and economic intentions of, lets call a spade a spade, the US.

What should we be asking?

A number of things. Returning to Iraq as an example, the range of activities that came under the purview of 'building governance capacity' included the restoration of public services, promotion of democracy and building civil society. But how are these activities carried out? How is their success measured? Who, at the end of the day, are they really serving?

The day-to-day activities involved in building governance capacity essentially revolve around transferring knowledge about governance. This raises further questions: who is teaching? What is the curriculum? Who are the students? Who decides if the knowledge was transferred successfully? And, perhaps most importantly, do the students want to learn? Is the whole process inherently politically patronising?

Contingency Contracting

What is it?

The term 'contingency contracting' has its roots in psychology's 'contingency theory'. In its most basic form, it's a 'I'll do this if you do that' form of negotiation and agreement. Simply, it's meant to protect against one party changing the terms of the agreement, and to protect both parties should extenuating 'contingencies' occur.

But, what is it really?

Contingency contracts are awarded within an environment where nobody really knows what the most germane variables for project success might be. What this amounted to with Iraq's reconstruction was a slew of cost-plus contracts which say 'We think maybe it will cost US$2 billion to build these schools, but if it costs more, we'll charge more'.

It's easy to see how this arrangement could spiral out of control. The US Government awarded so many cost-plus contracts within the framework of contingency contracting that in its 2011 final report to Congress, the Commission on Wartime Contracting estimated that 'waste and fraud during contingency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan averaged about $12 million every day for the past 10 years.'

What should we be asking?

To their credit, both SIGUR and the US Government have moved away from cost-plus contracting and towards fixed-cost contracting, among other measures intended to reduce fraud and waste. Given the infamy of cases like Halliburton and Anham, they had no choice. Still, it is important to keep looking closely at the outsourcing and contracting practices of reconstruction efforts, wherever they take place. If these contracts aren't monitored closely, the taxpayer pays.

Bowen's report has an air of apology and contrition — with an edge of practical hopefulness. Bowen may like us to believe that best practices only emerge from worst practices, that oversight only emerges from corruption. Whether this is true or not is an important debate to have, but it is a debate steeped in semantics and a vocabulary that obfuscates as much as it clarifies. Unpacking and challenging the language we use to discuss 'reconstruction' may be the best way to avoid a repeat of the waste and fraud of the last 10 years.

Photo by Flickr use US Army