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Iraq in need of spending lessons

Stuart Bowen, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: The Iraqi parliament recessed for the summer today. They did it without resolving key disagreements about a set of provincial elections scheduled to be held this fall. The recess also stalls negotiations over a supplemental budget.

So far, the United States has budgeted almost $118 billion for rebuilding Iraq, but a new report out today suggests that's just about enough.

Stewart Bowen's the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

Mr. Bowen, welcome to the program.

Stewart Bowen: Hi. It's good to be with you again.

Ryssdal: If I read this report right, sir, you don't think the Iraqis necessarily need more American money to finish their reconstruction.

Bowen: Well, it's not just what I think, it's what they say. A couple of months ago in Brussels, Prime Minister Maliki said exactly that, that Iraq didn't need more funds, it needed technical assistance and last week, Barham Salih echoed those words when he said that financial assistance is not the chief need for the country, but building their capacity to govern is.

Ryssdal: Barham Salih, of course, the Deputy Prime Minister who's in charge of reconstruction, right?

Bowen: That's correct.

Ryssdal: What then is the problem? Do they just not know how to spend the money they have?

Bowen: That is one of the most significant problems. Budget execution is what it's called, a term of art meaning how well can the Iraqis spend the enormous resources that they are taking in this year and the answer is not very well. It was a significant problem in 2006. Under a quarter of their budget that year was spent. Last year over half of it was spent. But this year, certainly at the provincial level, the early numbers are not very good. For the country to make progress, it needs to spend its money well, it needs to do it fairly expeditiously and certainly instead of spending U.S. taxpayer money.

Ryssdal: How do you teach somebody, though, how to spend money?

Bowen: That's a fair question. It's about understanding the new contracting regulations that the Iraqi government has chosen to adopt: the process for soliciting bids, the award process and then ultimately how then the money is dispensed to the contractor and the work is carried out. That's sort of the soup to nuts on getting a project done. It's much more complicated than what I just described, though.

Ryssdal: Your report's been in the public domain for a day or so now. Have you started getting calls from members of Congress now asking why we're still funding Iraqi reconstruction?

Bowen: I actually just came from the Hill and a meeting with Congressman Chandler from Kentucky asking me exactly that question -- rhetorically I might add, because he and his fellow members of Congress make those kinds of decisions. I think it's notable that the latest supplemental was less than half of the previous one, so less U.S. money is being spent, fewer dollars are being appropriated and it's going towards targeted capacity building and operations and maintenance programs.

Ryssdal: What does that mean -- "targeted capacity building"?

Bowen: That's a good question. Capacity building means teaching the Iraqis how to spend their money, teaching the Iraqis how to carry out governance programs. That means develop a plan to expand the electrical grid, to implement their oil law if they ever get it passed and to develop an army and a police that can enforce the rule of law.

Ryssdal: Stewart Bowen is the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Mr. Bowen, thanks a lot for your time.

Bowen: Thank you Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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