While everyone is rightly debating the structure and process of the long-overdue inquiry into the Iraq War, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the crucial question of how effective British aid and development efforts in Iraq have been.
The questions around our reconstruction effort are particularly disturbing. In the run up to the 2003 invasion, the Department for International Development was run by the anti-war Clare Short, who eventually quit the Cabinet in protest. Some observers claim that this set the tone for the rest of DFID’s work in Iraq. Many staffers resented the fact that DFID had to shut down its work in Latin America in order to fund reconstruction in Iraq. Some in DFID regarded the Iraq aid programme as an "ugly duckling", a politically-driven enterprise in a middle-income country, very different from DFID’s "home turf" of large, poor sub-Saharan African countries.
There have been real tensions between DFID and the military on the ground in Iraq. They subscribe to fundamentally different visions of the meaning of development and reconstruction. The military tend to focus on quick results and physical reconstruction. DFID tends to focus on long-term capacity building in the central government. Both approaches have their merits and demerits. But there is a sense that the two models have failed to be joined-up in Iraq.
In recent months, the independent National Audit Office has exposed deep problems with UK aid in Iraq. It has revealed stories about DFID spending £5 million on private security for a consultancy project that was worth just £1.9 million, and serious corruption in a £20 million project where local officials massively overbilled the amount of work days for a contract. And it found that almost 25% of DFID projects in insecure environments suffer from fraud or financial problems.
On a visit to Basra earlier this month, I also heard of real problems with some "Quick Impact" development projects. Military commanders would come in on 6-month tours of duty, deliver a number of quick-win projects, and then leave. These were sometimes unsustainable, not plugged-in to local Iraqi institutions, and subsequent rotations of troops didn’t check up on their progress. Surprisingly, I learnt that there is no central record of the different reconstruction projects that Britain has supported.
Successful aid has the potential to help win the battle for hearts and minds. But British aid projects are often not flagged as British, because otherwise they may be targeted by insurgents or Iraqi staff working on them may be put at risk. This caution is understandable and right – but it does mean that our aid sometimes doesn’t do all it could to generate goodwill toward the wider British presence in Iraq.
My visit to Baghdad and Basra brought home to me the fact that Iraq is one of the hardest places in the world to deliver aid effectively. DFID’s staff in Baghdad and Basra are beyond reproach: committed and impressive civilians who have chosen to swap the safety of home for a life of concrete blast-walls, armoured cars and the constant threat of incoming mortars.
But there are only a handful of them, and they are holed up behind the barbed wire and checkpoints of the Green Zone and Basra Airbase. Contact with ordinary Iraqis is minimal. This makes it very difficult to keep an eye on whether our aid is delivering what it is supposed to. Moreover, most DFID staff in Iraq are there for only a year at a time. As soon as they’ve built up genuine relationships with Iraqi colleagues, they have to leave and be replaced, with the whole process starting again.
Much aid in Iraq has been well-spent. Well-targeted capacity building played a key role in establishing the office of the Iraqi Prime Minister, and the Iraqi Ministers to whom I spoke (including Bayan Jabr, the finance minister, with whom I am pictured above) sung the praises of a recent investment conference that DFID organised in London. At its best, successful aid has made an impressive contribution to poverty reduction, whilst also bolstering the wider British effort.
But serious problems have occurred. As Britain’s brave troops draw down from Iraq, we need a full investigation into all aspects of the British involvement there. This should include a careful look at our aid and reconstruction effort. We must learn lessons for the future, not least for our ongoing involvement in Afghanistan.