Corruption? Not so fast!
As I sat waiting in the heat of the Iraqi desert for a C-130 transport, and overheard three law enforcement advisers talking about corruption in Iraq. My gregarious and extroverted nature could no longer be restrained and I injected myself into the conversation. “Corruption”, I explained, “is one of the most overused words in Iraq”. “Why do you say that?”, one guy asked. My explanation was simple “if what we in the US refer to as corruption is essentially an ‘overt or concealed act to under an established rule, system, tool or process ‘, the problem in Iraq is far less a problem of corruption, but rather the absence of rules, systems, tools or processes.” Disorganization, yes. Corruption…not so fast!
I arrived in Iraq in May to serve as a senior advisor / subject matter expert in local government development. My job was to assist in the nation-wide implementation of Law 21 in 14 provinces. Although 15 years of local government experience from advising more than 300 clients in the US would be useful, only a fraction of that experience was related to the Middle East - and none of it Iraq. Iraq was going to be a completely different animal - so I set my expectations low .
Zeal without Knowledge
What I have quickly learned - and what has astonished me personally and professionally - is the eagerness of provincial and local elected officials to develop effective, efficient and sustainable practices. Most of us who are served by one of the 80,000 political subdivisions in the United States, forget that most of these organizations have developed organizational structures, policies, procedures, and practices. Most of them have skilled persons working in them, and most of them have an articulated mission and vision, and have defined service delivery plans. Not so in Iraq.
The end of 30-year hegemony created by a Totalitarian Dictator exposed the lack of defined systems, tools as processes. Since 2003, while the US Military was providing SECURITY and BUILDING INFRASTRUCTURE, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) have been working feverishly to provide STABILITY and BUILDING STRONG AND LASTING RELATIONSHIPS while USAid and its implementing partners have been focused on providing SUSTAINABILITY through BUILDING CAPACITY. Considering the short timeline, the results have been nothing short of remarkable. Certainly, there are some in Iraq who aren’t accustomed to or schooled in developing and implementing sustainable practices. Fortunately, most US participants I have observed appear conscientious of the consequences of exercising zeal without knowledge and work together despite significantly different, and sometimes competing mission objectives.
Provincial Powers Act / Law 21
On 1 January 2009, the Provincial Powers Act became Law 21. This Parliamentary Act decentralized and relegated the functions of (a) regional planning, (b) budgeting, (c) service delivery monitoring and (d) organizational development to Local Government (LG). Previously, these functions were controlled by the central government. There was no local control over regional planning - it was performed by the Central Government. There was no local control over government hiring and firing - it was performed by the LG. There was no monitoring, evaluating or local control over local and regional service delivery issues - if controlled by the Central Government. That was, of course, until Law 21, the Provincial Powers Act.
Just prior to Law 21 - must provinces experienced an 80% or higher turnover in their elected officials. New Local Government officials (Provincial Council members, Governors, and professional staff) desired to participate in orientation sessions to Law 21 immediately after being seated. Thousands attended hundreds of other workshops, and participated in on-the-job training and networking sessions. They asked for and have received technical assistance in several areas including: (a) development of a Provincial Development Strategy (PDS), and (b) corresponding Provincial Development Plan (PDP), (c) preparation of a Provincial operating budget, (d) preparation of a Provincial 5-year Capital Investment Budget Plan (CIBP), (e) and top-to-bottom assessment and reconstruction of the functions, organizational structure and staffing of both Provincial Councils and Governor’s offices.
Looking back at 2009, the progress has been remarkable. Local governments in Iraq increased their capacity to self govern, to perform monitoring and measuring delivery of water, sewer, solid waste and electricity services. They have developed effective Human Resource systems. They have developed project tracking information systems and have networked those systems for greater transparency, oversight and accountability of $ hundreds of billions in capital projects. They have and continue to establish performance benchmarks in service delivery, and they are beginning to establish and maintain effective relations with the press and (as security improves) they are increasing the amount of information available to the public. It is truly amazing to observe.
Corruption in Iraq? I certainly wouldn’t call it that. I will wait and see how well the systems, tools and processes take root. As they become more established and refined, transparency and accountability will increase substantially and chaos (corruption as is often called) will sharply decline. It has already.
Just after my arrival, I sat in a hotel dining area speaking with an Iraqi colleague who I felt comfortable asking the universal question on people’s mined back home “are were making a difference here?” He responded, “In 2003, no chance. In 2008, 50-50.” “Today (with a gleam and a smile), wonderful! You don’t understand what a difference you [consultant advisers] have made, and how much we will miss you when you leave.”
9 months later, I sat in a quaint meeting with Iraqi leadership as I had many times before. This time was different as I was introducing the replacement for a colleague who was leaving Iraq. As my outbound colleague and the Iraqi leader said their goodbyes, I witnessed an expression on their faces that will be forever impressed upon my mind. Clearly, bond of friendship, love and gratitude had been formed though side-by-side service. Something a camera could not have captured.
Will local government in Iraqi continue toward a path of prosperity? Insha’Allah (God willing).
About the Author:
David Evertsen is an International Development and Government Efficiency expert currently serving in Iraq. He is a former City Manager, and currently the CEO of Municipal Solutions, llc (US) and Director of Municipal Solutions, ltd (UK). Mr. Evertsen can be reached at www.municipalsolutions.org/contact/.