Following The Reconstruction Money In Iraq

NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, about the billions of American dollars wasted on reconstruction projects in Iraq.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

President Obama will officially declare an end to combat operations in Iraq tomorrow. Also winding down is the massive reconstruction effort there. The U.S. has spent more than $53 billion on projects ranging from new schools and hospitals to Iraq's energy grid.

There have been some successes, but Stuart Bowen, the special inspector for Iraq reconstruction, says there's also been tremendous waste: between four and five billion dollars have been spent on hundreds of unfinished or ineffective projects. That's about 10 percent of the total spent on Iraqi reconstruction. I asked Stuart Bowen what was the most notorious example of waste in the Iraqi reconstruction.

Mr. STUART BOWEN (Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction): I think that the single largest failed program has been the health sector. The plan was to build a state-of-the-art children's oncology hospital in Basra, to construct 151 public health care clinics, taking a new level of aid out to the hinterlands in Iraq and to refurbish the many broken-down hospitals across the country. None of those programs really succeeded.

SIEGEL: One measure of rebuilding Iraq that we've followed over the years is electricity, of how many houses are getting electricity, how often it's off. What's the record there for waste in U.S. spending on improving electric service?

Mr. BOWEN: Well, the Monsaria(ph) power plants was started by the U.S. Agency for International Development about five years ago, had to be curtailed after about $62 million was spent, not effectively completed.

But let me say across the board, of the $5 billion spent on electricity, we have seen some outputs that have enhanced Iraq's capacity. Specifically this last quarter in June, Iraq reached an historic peak in electricity output.

Is it as much as was expected? Is it as much as needed? No. But has it improved the situation that was in place six years ago? Yes.

SIEGEL: Now, your office has been overseeing U.S. contracts in Iraq for several years now.

Mr. BOWEN: Six years.

SIEGEL: If you look for a number one explanation for why there's been so much waste of U.S. funds, what is it? What would you say?

Mr. BOWEN: The lack of an integrated institution to plan and execute and be accountable for the U.S. reconstruction program. The process has been diffuse across agencies from the outset. It was an adhocracy, as I've called it, but no single entity to ensure that U.S. dollars are well spent to help the Iraqis get on their feet.

SIEGEL: Of course, 10 percent waste means that 90 percent of the U.S. money that was spent presumably was not wasted. Is there enough there that's been built, enough facilities, that you would say Iraqis 10, 20 years hence can look at their landscape and see all sorts of monuments to the good things the Americans left behind?

Mr. BOWEN: Well, I'm very concerned about the sustainment of what we've provided Iraq. We have issued a series of audits on asset transfer, that is the process by which finished projects are handed over to the Iraqi government, and sustainment, that is the process by which those projects will be operated and maintained. And those audits do not paint a good picture. Indeed, they raise significant concerns about continuing waste. Indeed, perhaps the most substantial waste will occur after those projects are transferred.

Hundreds of projects have been transferred unilaterally. Iraqis didn't want them, and they're falling into desuetude, I think, as we speak. And as they break down, that's waste. That's lost benefit to the Iraqi people.

SIEGEL: And when you speak of those hundreds of projects, what sort of project are you speaking of?

Mr. BOWEN: A wide variety. I mean, security projects, water projects of the kind that the Iraqis didn't want, didn't ask for or in locations that they didn't need. The Khan Bani Saad prison up north of Baghdad, $40 million spent, and the deputy minister of justice told my inspectors that they never wanted that prison there. And it stands as a monument to failure, up just north of Baghdad in the desert.

SIEGEL: Stuart Bowen, thanks for talking with us once again.

Mr. BOWEN: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.

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