Monday, October 25, 2010
KHAN BANI SAAD, Iraq – A $40 million prison sits in the desert north of Baghdad, empty. A $165 million children's hospital goes unused in the south. A $100 million waste water treatment system in Fallujah has cost three times more than projected, yet sewage still runs through the streets
As the U.S. draws down in Iraq, it is leaving behind hundreds of abandoned or incomplete projects. More than $5 billion in American taxpayer funds has been wasted — more than 10 percent of the some $50 billion the U.S. has spent on reconstruction in Iraq, according to audits from a U.S. watchdog agency.
That amount is likely an underestimate, based on an analysis of more than 300 reports by auditors with the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. And it does not take into account security costs, which have run almost 17 percent for some projects.
There are success stories. Hundreds of police stations, border forts and have been built, Iraqi security forces have improved after years of training, and a deep water port at the southern oil hub of Umm Qasr has been restored.
Even completed projects for the most part fell far short of original goals, according to an of hundreds of audits and investigations and visits to several sites. And the verdict is still out on whether the program reached its goal of generating Iraqi good will toward the United States instead of the insurgents.
Col. Jon Christensen, who took over as commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region District this summer, said the federal agency has completed more than 4,800 projects and is rushing to finish 233 more. Some 595 projects have been terminated, mostly for security reasons.
Christensen acknowledged that mistakes have been made. But he said steps have been taken to fix them, and the success of the program will depend ultimately on the Iraqis — who have complained that they were not consulted on projects to start with.
"There's only so much we could do," Christensen said. "A lot of it comes down to them taking ownership of it."
The in Iraq has been troubled since its birth shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The U.S. was forced to scale back many projects even as they spiked in cost, sometimes to more than double or triple initial projections.
As part of the so-called surge strategy, the military in 2007 shifted its focus to protecting Iraqis and winning their trust. American soldiers found themselves hiring contractors to paint schools, refurbish pools and oversee neighborhood water distribution centers. The $3.6 billion Commander's Emergency Response Program provided military units with ready cash for projects, and paid for Sunni fighters who agreed to turn against al-Qaida in Iraq for a monthly salary.
But sometimes civilian and military reconstruction efforts were poorly coordinated and overlapped.
Iraqis can see one of the most egregious examples of waste as they drive north from Baghdad to Khan Bani Saad. A prison rises from the desert, complete with more than two dozen guard towers and surrounded by high concrete walls. But the only signs of life during a recent visit were a guard shack on the entry road and two farmers tending a nearby field.
In March 2004, the Corps of Engineers awarded a $40 million contract to global construction and engineering firm Parsons Corp. to design and build a prison for 3,600 inmates, along with educational and vocational facilities. Work was set to finish in November 2005.
But violence was escalating in the area, home to a volatile mix of Sunni and . The project started six months late and continued to fall behind schedule, according to a report by the inspector general.
The U.S. government pulled the plug on Parsons in June 2006, citing "continued schedule slips and ... massive cost overruns," but later awarded three more contracts to other companies. Pasadena, Calif.-based Parsons said it did its best under difficult and violent circumstances.
Citing security concerns, the U.S. finally abandoned the project in June 2007 and handed over the unfinished facility to Iraq's Justice Ministry. The ministry refused to "complete, occupy or provide security" for it, according to the report. More than $1.2 million in unused construction material also was abandoned due to fears of violence.
The inspector general recommended another use be found for the partially finished buildings inside the dusty compound. But three years later, piles of bricks and barbed wire lie around, and tumbleweed is growing in the caked sand.
"It will never hold a single Iraqi prisoner," said inspector general Stuart Bowen, who has overseen the reconstruction effort since it started. "Forty million dollars wasted in the desert."
Another problem was coordination with the Iraqis, who have complained they weren't consulted and often ended up paying to complete unfinished facilities they didn't want in the first place.
"Initially when we came in ... we didn't collaborate as much as we should have with the correct people and figure out what their needs were," Christensen said. He stressed that Iraqis are now closely involved in all projects.
One clinic was handed over to local authorities without a staircase, said Shaymaa Mohammed Amin, the head of the Diyala provincial reconstruction and development committee.
"We were almost forced to take them," she said during an interview at the heavily fortified local government building in the provincial capital of Baqouba. "Generally speaking, they were below our expectations. Huge funds were wasted and they would not have been wasted if plans had been clear from the beginning."
As an example, she cited a date honey factory that was started despite a more pressing need for schools and vital infrastructure. She said some schools were left without paint or chalkboards, and needed renovations.
"We ended up paying twice," she said.
In some cases, Iraqi ministries have refused to take on the responsibility for U.S.-funded programs, forcing the Americans to leave abandoned buildings littering the landscape.
There is little doubt that for most Americans calling them a socialist would be about the worst thing they could be called. Americans seem convinced that having a socialist system of economics (and it is an economic system - not a type of government) would be against everything America stands for. They feel this way because the word has been demonized for decades in this country by right-wingers and corporate interests.
Most Americans equate socialism to communism (a different economic system) and dictatorship (a type of government). The truth is that socialism has little to do with either one. I don't think most Americans even know what socialism is. To them it is just an evil lurking in the shadows waiting to steal our freedom, something akin to slavery or tyranny.
But there is an interesting survey that tends to show we, as Americans, may be more afraid of the word than the reality. There's no doubt Americans are afraid of the word, but the survey by Michael I. Norton of the Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University shows that a huge majority of Americans may actually think socialism produces a fairer and better result than our own biased-toward-the-rich capitalist system.
Their survey, which included a large group of 5,522 American citizens, showed a couple of very interesting things. The first is that most Americans don't realize just how out-of-whack the distribution of wealth is in America. Survey respondents believed that the richest 20% of Americans controlled about 59% of the country's wealth. The truth is much worse. In 2005, the richest 20% actually controlled about 84% of the wealth in America (and that percentage has undoubtably grown in the last five years).
The authors of the survey then presented the respondents with three unmarked pie charts. The first showed an even 20% of wealth for each fifth of the population. The second showed the distribution of wealth in the United States. The third showed the distribution of wealth in Sweden (definitely a socialist country, where the richest 20% controls 36% of the country's wealth). They were asked to choose which pie chart showed the most appropriate (fairest) distribution of wealth. Here are the results:
WHEN ASKED TO CHOOSE BETWEEN ALL 3 CHART.
WHEN ASKED TO CHOOSE BETWEEN EQUAL AND SWEDISH CHARTS.
WHEN ASKED TO CHOOSE BETWEEN EQUAL AND US CHARTS.
WHEN ASKED TO CHOOSE BETWEEN US AND SWEDISH CHARTS.
It is interesting that a small majority of Americans chose the Swedish distribution of wealth over an exactly equal distribution of wealth. They were quite willing to accept that there will be some inequality in an economic system and thought the Swedish (socialist) distribution of wealth was the best possible outcome. But virtually none (8%) of the respondents thought the distribution of wealth created in the United States was fair or appropriate.
And even more amazing is that the preference for the Swedish distribution of wealth over the U.S. distribution of wealth cut across gender, party and income lines. Here is that breakdown:
PREFERRED THE SWEDISH (SOCIALIST) DISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH
Make under $50,000...............92.1%
Make over $100,000...............89.1%
These lop-sided figures bring into question the supposed American hatred of socialism. It turns out that at least 90% of Americans would prefer the distribution of wealth created by a socialist system to the distribution our own capitalist system has created. They may be afraid of the word "socialism", but they believe the results of socialism are better -- as long as you don't use the "S" word to describe it. In other words, years of propaganda and scare tactics have frightened them into accepting a system they know is fair only for the richest few Americans.
Now I know that some will be screaming that socialism involves "income redistribution" -- another term Americans have been convinced is a bad thing. But the truth is that there is income redistribution in all economic systems. In our form of rich-biased capitalism, that redistribution is to the richest citizens in the country from everyone else. In a socialism, the redistribution is much fairer and more even.
Americans are really socialists at heart and believe in a fairer system of wealth distribution. They have just been convinced by decades of propaganda to vote against the best interests of themselves and their fellow citizens, and that's just sad.
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