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Provincial Development in Iraq and Afghanistan

October 5, 2007


In an earlier post [Tensions Mount with Uneven Iraqi Development], I noted that uneven development in Iraq frustrates people in the Kurdish region because they feel the rest of the country is acting like an anchor on their economic growth. They are not alone in feeling frustration with the recovery of the Iraq’s economy. James Glanz reports how provincial governments are taking matters into their own hands to speed development at a faster pace than the central government can manage [“Provinces Use Rebuilding Money in Iraq,” New York Times, 1 October 2007]. Glanz begins his article in Hilla, Iraq, capital of the Babil province.

“This mostly easygoing provincial capital, where the Euphrates River winds around as if it is in no hurry to go farther south, holds the latest sign that political power in Iraq is leaving its historical home in Baghdad for outlying regions. That sign is a local government that knows how to spend money. Because of security threats and a seemingly immovable bureaucracy, the federal ministries in Baghdad largely failed to spend billions of dollars of Iraqi oil revenues set aside last year to rebuild things like roads, schools, hospitals and power plants. Although some ministries have improved slightly, what has really caught the eye of Iraqi politicians is the way some local governments have begun bypassing the morass in Baghdad by using hundreds of millions of dollars of the reconstruction money they receive from the government to finance regional projects.”

Babil authorities have been so successful with their rebuilding projects that the central government recently announced that it would make $70 million more available for provincial projects. Provincial success comes as good news, but it also comes with concerns.

“For a province whose entire 2007 capital budget is $112 million, $70 million is a stunning addition. In fact, the rate of spending has some authorities concerned that the push for provincial spending could drive a wave of corruption. They fear it could also unleash new centrifugal forces in a country already on the verge of breaking into semiautonomous regions.”

Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, believes that Iraq’s future lies in strengthening the provinces so that a strong federal system can be created. The progress achieved in Hilla is modest when compared to the economic boom in Kurdish region, but it is progress nevertheless.

“[The] modest effects of Babil’s talent for spending money [can be seen] in the form of new schools, road repairs, small electricity projects and the improving commercial vigor of Hilla, where smoke can be seen rising from brick factories and the streets do not have the deserted feel of many districts in Baghdad, 50 miles north.”

The fact that some Iraqi government officials are willing to relinquish power to provincial leaders is a promising development. Cooperation between the central government and provincial governments is a necessary pre-condition to achieving greater peace and prosperity. One key to success, as noted in the article, will be eliminating corruption as money begins to flow down to local authorities. Big money means big temptation. Controls must be put in place to ensure that money is spent wisely and well. For a relatively poor country, the sum of money flowing to the provinces will be large — approximately $4 billion next year according to Iraq’s finance minister, Bayan Jabr. According to Silah, Babil is not alone in demonstrating the wise spending of money.

“Other provinces that have been picking up the pace of spending, Mr. Salih said, are Diwaniya and Wasit in the south and Kirkuk in the north, along with Anbar in the west, where Sunni sheiks continue to work with American forces to fight groups linked to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a homegrown militant group that American intelligence has concluded is led by foreigners. Surprisingly enough, Baghdad, which has its own municipal government and is also formally a province, is ‘generally among the good performers,’ Mr. Salih said.”

The article does identify one well-known challenge that comes with government money — pork-barrel politics. Projects become a hotbed of negotiation as politicians try to bring home the bacon (or bacon substitute — Iraq is a Muslim country!) for their constituents. This is not always the best way to prioritize how money should be spent. That is one reason that Development-in-a-Box™ focuses on public/private partnerships. Private money is only attracted by strategies that make economic sense. Such partnerships assist governments in setting proper priorities. Not everyone is unhappy with the emergence of pork-barrel politics.

“Advocates of the approach say it is precisely that direct connection with citizens that sets the provincial effort apart from the centralized program. ‘Politics is breaking out in this country!’ the ebullient Mr. Salih said. … Nearly all of the national budget is dependent on oil revenues. The provincial capital budgets, like the ones that go to the national ministries, are specified in the national budget. But the provinces spend the direct allocations largely as they see fit, rather than being forced to accept projects approved by the ministries in Baghdad. Officials … said Babil had used its capital budget faster than any other province. … Mr. Mesimawe, the governor, said his province had done so by creating a detailed strategic plan and a set of committees to see it through. Still, for all the success the province has had on paper, residents who have heard a constant stream of promises since the invasion are not convinced that their living conditions will change substantially.”

Iraqi citizens certainly have good cause to be skeptical; but the chances of seeing real progress (like in the Kurdish north) depends on local politicians being held responsible for security and economic decisions. The more secure an area the more rapid the progress that can be made. This holds true in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. John Ward Anderson, writing in the Washington Post, notes the progress that is being made in one of the more secure provinces in Afghanistan [“A Haven of Prosperity in Afghanistan,” 29 September 2007].

“Slashed across the side of a rugged mountain like the sign of Zorro, the Z Road started as a simple $59,000 U.S. project to put a radio tower atop a small peak in the Hindu Kush, so people in the remote Panjshir Valley could for the first time pick up commercial radio from Kabul, about 60 dusty, bone-jolting miles away. After road crews conquered the mountain’s 270-foot face last November, other forces took over. By the new year, private companies had extended the road to the next hilltop, two-thirds of a mile away and 640 feet higher, for a bank of cellphone towers. Then came another half-mile extension to the next peak for a TV tower, then plans for a wind farm and, last month, a series of switchbacks down the far side of the range to give villages in the next valley their first road to the outside. This is the way reconstruction in Afghanistan was supposed to be. A little bit of U.S. pump priming, combined with profit motive and human need, would be harnessed by a grateful, liberated population to transform their lives and country. In the process, the people would become loyal allies in the fight against terrorism.”

That is the way that the Development-in-a-Box approach is organized to unfold — seed money from governments when the risks are high, followed by private foreign investment when a return seems more certain, followed by local entrepreneurs who help create a sustainable economy. Anderson points out that development in Afghanistan has been a lot like development in Iraq. Security concerns have undermined development and generated frustration, if not anger, among the local population. As I’ve frequently noted, a region must be relatively secure before development can take off. Anderson reports such conditions exist in the Panjshir Valley.

“In the famed Panjshir Valley — a remote, sparsely populated mountain region that is almost entirely ethnic Tajik — an unprecedented synergy among the local government, the people and U.S. soldiers has helped spark a development boom that is modernizing and transforming the valley, which became Afghanistan’s 34th province three years ago. Underpinning it all is an unusual sense of calm that has come with the people’s success in keeping the Taliban at bay. When a U.S. reconstruction team recently returned to Forward Operating Base Lion about 10 miles inside the valley, troops parked their military vehicles for the duration of their stay and traveled throughout the province in regular sport-utility vehicles, without body armor and helmets. They often eschewed convoys and went out on missions in single vehicles.”

The big question, Anderson asserts, is whether the success found in the Panjshir Valley can be repeated elsewhere in the country.

“Panjshir Gov. Bahlol Bahij … extols his zero tolerance for opium poppy cultivation and his systems for working with the U.S. military and foreign aid workers and for stopping the spread of the extremist Taliban into his province. But many aspects of Panjshir make it unique. Panjshir province is almost entirely Tajik and Sunni Muslim, so the region lacks many of the ethnic, religious and cultural differences that have fueled the insurgency elsewhere in Afghanistan. The province, about 1 1/2 times the size of Rhode Island, has 300,000 residents and is isolated. An indigenous intelligence network with a knowledge of the landscape enabled Panjshir fighters to repel repeated Soviet, mujaheddin and Taliban offenses in the 1980s and ’90s and helped this region remain the only unconquered area of Afghanistan. The fighters were led by national hero Ahmed Shah Massoud, the so-called Lion of Panjshir, who was killed in an al-Qaeda suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. Today, nomad sheep herders graze their flocks on the valley floor among rusting Soviet tanks and decrepit armored vehicles. Terraced gardens line the lower slopes, which climb to slate gray mountaintops scarred by foxholes and trenches. Pictures of Massoud peer out from the windows of mud-brick houses, car windshields, billboards and storefronts. Women in all-encompassing sky blue burqas walk along roads with young girls in black dresses and white shawls — the traditional school uniform in the valley. Irrigation canals feed groves of walnut, almond and mulberry trees and fields of potatoes, beans and grapes. ‘This is the safest part of Afghanistan, because the people of Panjshir stick together,’ said Mansor Azimi Panjshir, 23, a construction worker. ‘There’s new building all over. We have bridges now, wells, new schools, water — everything looks good.’ “

In other words, the Valley shares many of the characteristics of the Kurdish region of Iraq. Although not as populous, the area has a reasonable foundation upon which a stronger economy can be built. Like Kurdistan, the Panjshir Valley can demonstrate how security and economic growth benefits the average person.

“Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher J. Luedtke, 42, commander of the [local U.S. Provincial Reconstruction] team [asserts that stable conditions in the Valley] … has allowed the unit to focus on development issues instead of security, permitting it to mentor local Afghans in planning, budgeting, modern construction techniques, maintenance and other areas that should help them build similar projects on their own and sustain them long-term. ‘Panjshir is very much a model for the rest of the nation,’ Luedtke said. ‘Security and good governance have provided development, because you can build something and know it will still be here’ in the future. In addition to the Z Road, which helped bring regular telephone service to the valley six months ago, the Panjshir PRT has been involved in about 90 other projects worth more than $8 million in the two years since the team was created. USAID has pumped an additional $32 million into projects, including $20 million to build the province’s first paved road, which snakes 30 miles along the banks of the Panjshir River on the valley’s floor. The road opened five months ago and has cut driving time between the provincial capital, Bazarak, and Kabul from five hours to two, dramatically reducing the cost of transporting crops to the market and enticing more business into the valley, residents said. ‘Now, we can go early to Kabul and come back in the same day,’ said Abdul Gafur, about 50, a Panjshiri truck driver. ‘And having the telephone is solving thousands of problems.’ Local officials said that because of cellphone service, they received warnings about devastating floodwaters heading toward the area this summer and were able to mobilize emergency help within hours. The same should be true for Taliban incursions, they said. Piggybacking on the private expansions of the Z Road, the PRT is erecting 10 windmills on a mountain 1,100 feet above the valley floor to provide a new government center with electricity 24 hours a day, vastly extending its reach to citizens. The team is also giving security training to local police.”

The local government, in cooperation with the PRT force, is investing in human capital as well as in infrastructure projects.

“Six 16-room schools have been built or are under construction by the PRT, and four more were constructed or refurbished by USAID, improving educational opportunities in the valley, especially for girls. ‘Women are really clamoring for education,’ said Lt. Col. Michelle B. Atkins, 55, an Army reservist from Columbus, Ohio, who is the team’s deputy commander. ‘These women know there’s more out there, and they want it, and I see myself as offering it to them. But we’re at least a generation away from seeing the real impact.’ The team is also challenging long-standing cultural taboos, like men and women working together. Teresa Morales, 37, a civilian with the Army Corps of Engineers from Corvallis, Ore., stands toe-to-toe with Afghan builders, explaining proper construction techniques, such as how to mix and pour cement, with an authority that leaves them looking dumbfounded. ‘She’s taught us a lot about construction that we can use in the future,’ said Feda Mohammad, 38, the head of a local construction company, as he stood on a school roof this week and reviewed the project. Mohammad said he had two daughters, and after working with Morales, he figured that they, too, could do construction work and join his company when they were older. ‘That’s why we’re building these schools, so women can be educated,’ he said with a smile. ‘If they want to, I will let them in my business, and then I can sit at home.'”

Exciting things happen when security, development, and investment in human capital converge in a region that is well-governed. Development-in-a-Box was designed to take advantage of these conditions and help local organizations adopt world-class practices and standards in order to take advantage of information age technologies and opportunities.

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