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How US Taxpayers Got Plucked in Iraq

The tale of a failed $2.5 million chicken processing plant, just one example of US reconstruction madness in the Middle East.

| Tue Oct. 4, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

A Poultry Field of Dreams in Iraq

How many PRT staff members does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One to hire a contractor who fails to complete the job and two to write the press release in the dark.

We measured the impact of our projects by their effect on us, not by their effect on the Iraqis. Output was the word missing from the vocabulary of developing Iraq. Everything was measured only by what we put in—dollars spent, hours committed, people engaged, press releases written.

The poultry plant had a "business plan," but it did not mention where or how the chickens would be marketed, assuming blindly that if the plant produced chickens people would buy them—a poultry Field of Dreams. Without a focus on a measurable goal beyond a ribbon cutting, details such as how to sell cold-storage goods in an area without refrigeration fell through the cracks. We had failed to "form the base of a pyramid that creates the possibility of a top," the point of successful development work.

The plant's business plan also talked about "an aggressive advertising campaign" using TV and radio, with the modern mechanized chicken processing, not the products per se, as the focus. This was a terrific idea in a country where most people shopped at open-air roadside markets, bargaining for the day's foodstuffs.

With a per capita income of only $2,000, Iraq was hardly a place where TV ads would be the way to sell luxury chicken priced at double the competition. In a college business class, this plan would get a C−. (It was nicely typed.) Once someone told the professor that $2.58 million had already been spent on it, the grade might drop to a D.

I located a report on the poultry industry, dated from June 2008, by the Inma Agribusiness Program, part of the United States Agency for International Development (and so named for the Arabic word for "growth"). The report's conclusion, available before we built our plant, was that several factors made investment in the Iraqi fresh-poultry industry a high-risk operation, including among other factors "Lack of a functional cold chain in order to sell fresh chicken meat rather than live chickens; prohibitive electricity costs; lack of data on consumer demand and preference for fresh chicken; lack of competitiveness vis-à-vis frozen imports from Brazil and USA."

Despite the report's worrying conclusion that "there are no data on the size of the market for fresh chicken," the Army and the State Department went ahead and built the poultry-processing plant on the advice of Major Janice. The Major acknowledged that we could not compete on price but insisted that "we will win by offering a fresh, locally grown product... which our research shows has a select, ready market."

A now defunct blog set up to publicize the project dubbed it "Operation Chicken Run" and included one farmer's sincere statement, "I fought al-Qaeda with bullets before you Americans were here. Now I fight them with chickens." An online commentator named Jenn of the Jungle added to the blog, proudly declaring: "This right here is what separates America from the swill that is everyone else. We are the only ones who don't just go, fight a war, then say hasta la vista. We give fuzzy cute little baby chicks. I love my country."

So, to sum up: USAID/Inma recommended against the plant in 2008, no marketing survey was done, Major Janice claimed marketing identified a niche, a business plan was crafted around the wish (not the data), $2.58 million was spent, no chickens were being processed, and, for the record, al Qaeda was still in business. With this in mind, and the plant devoid of dead chickens, we probably want to wish Major Janice the best with her new ventures.

Telemarketing? Refi sales? Nope. Major Janice left the Army and the US Department of Agriculture in Baghdad hired her. Her new passion was cattle insemination, and we learned from her blog, "You don't just want semen from bulls whose parents had good dairy production. You may want good feet, good back conformation or a broad chest." Just what you'd expect from a pile of bull.


War Tourism

Soon after my first chicken plant visit we played host to three Embassy war tourists. Unlike the minority who traveled out on real business, most people at the Embassy rarely, if ever, left the well-protected Green Zone in Baghdad during their one-year assignments to Iraq. They were quite content with that, happy to collect their war zone pay, and hardship pay, and hazardous duty pay while relaxing at the bar.

Some did, however, get curious and wanted to have a peek at this "Iraq" place they'd worked on for months, and so they ginned up an excuse to visit an ePRT. A successful visit meant allowing them to take the pictures that showed they were out in the field but making them miserable enough that they wouldn't come back and annoy us again without a real reason.

One gang of fun lovers from the Embassy who wrote about water issues in Iraq decided to come out to "Indian Country." At the ePRT we needed to check on some of the wells we were paying for—i.e., to see if there was a hole in the ground where we'd paid for one. (We faced a constant struggle to determine if what we paid for even existed.) So the opportunity seemed heaven sent. The bunch arrived fresh from the Green Zone, two women and a man.

The women still wore earrings—we knew the metal got hot and caught on the headsets—and had their hair pulled back with scrunchies. (Anyone who had to live in the field cut it short.) The guy was dressed for a safari, with more belts and zippers than Michael Jackson and enough pockets and pouches to carry supplies for a weekend. Everyone's shoes were clean. Some of the soldiers quietly called our guests "gear queers."

Everywhere we stopped, we attracted a crowd of unemployed men and kids who thought we'd give them candy, so the war tourists got multiple photos of themselves in their chic getups standing next to Iraqis. They were happy. But because it was 110 degrees and the wells were located in distant dusty fields an hour away, after the first photo op or two the war tourists were quickly exhausted and filthy, meaning they were happy not to do it all again.

We took two more tourists back to the chicken plant: the Embassy's Deputy Chief of Mission (who proclaimed the visit the best day he'd ever had in Iraq, suggesting he needed to get out more often) and a journalist friend of General Raymond Odierno, who was thus entitled to VIP treatment.

VIPs didn't drive, they flew, and so tended to see even less than regular war tourists. Their visits were also more highly managed so that they would stay on message in their blogs and tweets. It turns out most journalists are not as inquisitive as TV shows and movies would have you believe. Most are interested only in a story, not the story.

Therefore, it was easy not to tell the journalist about the chicken plant problems. Instead, we had some chickens killed so the place looked busy. We had lunch at the slaughter plant—fresh roasted chicken bought at the market. The Iraqis slow roast their chickens like the Salvadoreans do and it was juicy, with crisp skin. Served lightly salted, it simply fell apart in your mouth. We dined well and, as a bonus, consumed the evidence of our fraud.

Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now in Washington, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well. This essay is adapted from his new book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books). To read about the grilling he's gotten from the State Department for his truth-telling click here. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses what a State Department roast is like click here, or download it to your iPod here. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from here.

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