Quick school fixes won few Iraqi hearts
The US government lists renovations done on 2,356 Iraqi schools in a $70 million effort as one of its major accomplishments. The idea behind it was to meet a pressing Iraqi need and quickly win goodwill from a wide swath of the population.Skip to next paragraph
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But many Iraqis, like Mustafa Ibrahim al-Jubari, weren't won over. Mr. Jubari is the deputy principal of the Zam Zam elementary school (named after a sacred freshwater well in Mecca). His two-story building in northern Baghdad smells far from fresh. Jubari points to a four-month-old paint job already peeling, a roof that was caulked but leaks, and new porcelain toilet bowls installed on top of backed-up sewage lines. "You're lucky that school has been out for a few weeks,'' he says. "When they're here, the whole place stinks."
Though a tiny piece of the more than $18.6 billion committed by the US to Iraq, the money spent on Iraqi schools, and their poor state, ties together much that's gone wrong here, past and present, as the June 30 handover approaches. Critics of US-led reconstruction efforts say it has been slow to come, poorly targeted, and occasionally littered with waste.
To be sure, the real problems at Zam Zam, built in the early 1960s, aren't America's fault. Like almost every other piece of domestic infrastructure, the school suffered decades of neglect under Saddam Hussein, who diverted resources to fight two destructive foreign wars and to cronies to shore up his regime.
Bechtel Corp., which oversaw the work at Zam Zam and about 1,300 other schools, points out that its contract, part of a larger $1 billion contract to fix Iraqi infrastructure, didn't include money for long-term problems like sewage.
Yet amid a construction program focused on the long-term, the schools program was one of the few designed to touch many Iraqi lives quickly. Education under Mr. Hussein was undermined by indoctrination, so it was a perfect symbol of the US program to transform Iraq's present and future. But few Iraqis ended up appreciating the effort. "My kids are still on rickety desks in a broken-down school,'' says Uday Jabbar Mahmoud, the father of three who works as a security guard in Baghdad. "We're not seeing any reconstruction. We hear that millions have been spent, but nothing we can touch."
Thanoon Hussein, an engineer at the Education Ministry who checked the work at Zam Zam, says no documents were filed with the ministry on the school by Bechtel or its subcontractor, Al-Assem. He says the average amount Bechtel spent per school was $40,000. "I'd be amazed if $10,000 was spent at Zam Zam."
"We're grateful that the US and Bechtel tried to help us,'' says Nazar Mikhael, the ministry's chief engineer. "But they didn't coordinate with us." Mr. Mikhael says about half of the schools worked on by Bechtel suffer from shoddy work.
"The contracting process was scandalous to say the least - some of these things are subcontracted six times,'' says Isam al-Khafaji, a former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) reconstruction adviser who runs Iraq Revenue Watch, a nonprofit that tracks spending here.
In a press release, Bechtel says that of 52 formal complaints, only 27 schools have required additional work, 2 percent of the schools it renovated. The company says complaints it didn't consult with Iraqis are unfair: the relevant Iraqi institutions were "not yet operational because their facilities had been looted and their personnel dispersed by the conflict" when it started work last year.