Archive for the ‘When Projects Work’ Category

When Projects Work or How Contracts Get Messed Up

November 16, 2009

Spring 2007

Today CMD Mike went to the site of a small water treatment plant in order to conduct the final inspection and sign off on the paperwork, releasing the project into the custody of the village.

The project, located in a small village in Thi Qar province, experienced a rocky beginning. The project location was identified in the contract as a village name and a lat-long position. The name alone could have referred to any one of five or six villages, being a common village name. The lat-long location that designated the project location was more effective, narrowing it down to one village, but when the Iraqi contracting company initially visited that lat-long location, they found that the US Air Force was already funding construction of a water treatment plant on that very site.

Although many people seem to believe that the Corps of Engineers initiates and funds projects, that is not the case. The Corps has no money of its own. The Corps is essentially a project design and management branch of the military, so what it does is design and manage others’ projects with their funding. Here in Iraq, specifically, the Corps is paid by the Army and the State Department to organize the necessary information for contracts, sometimes design the project, award the contract, and finally to manage these reconstruction and military construction contracts.

The water treatment project in this small village that I’ll call Al Ma was funded by the US State Department. The project was initiated, however, by the Thi Qar Provincial Reconstruction and Development Council (PRDC), a body that is composed entirely of Iraqis coached by the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). In an exercise intended to encourage ownership in the reconstruction projects, and to encourage and train the Iraqis to identify and prioritize projects in their provinces, the State Department designates a certain dollar amount of reconstruction monies to each PRDC. The PRDC accepts project applications from communities, then sorts the ideas, prioritizes the ideas, and chooses which will be funded. The PRDC is then required to develop a project description, including project location, for each proposed project. In a perfect world, the PRDC is actually supposed to design the project, although the PRDC’s in our area have never provided even detailed project descriptions. What we normally receive from the PRDC is a village or city name, a lat-long position fixing the construction site, and a brief project description: “xx/hr reverse osmosis water treatment plant” for instance.

When the PRDC has their list of projects completed and prioritized, they pass it on to the PRT, who passes the list to the State Department, who passes the approved list to us at the Corps. We, the Corps, then take the list of essentially bare bones project descriptions and build them into contracts. We design what needs designing, draft the contract, advertise the contract, accept bids, rate the bids, and award the contract. We then manage project implementation; in plain English, we babysit the contractor to be sure that contractor is following the contract and applicable laws.

… Wow, this all sounds so orderly and functional when I describe it like this! In reality, an astonishing – perhaps infinite – number of difficulties complicate this process in ways that continually tempt me to beat my skull against the nearest wall.

The little water project in the village of Al Ma began as an example of one way that contracts can get screwed up. When we received the project description from the PRDC through the PRT representatives that liaise with us, we didn’t require the PRT to ground-check the location or verify ownership of the proposed project site, nor did we go out in the field to ground check it ourselves. We assumed the location provided by the PRDC was good. Oops! We wrote up the contract, sent it out for bids, and awarded the work to an Iraqi contractor.

Who, upon driving to the site to begin work, discovered another contractor, funded by the Air Force, building a water treatment plant on the site identified in our contract.

(The fact that the US Air Force would be building a water project on a location that the US Army and State Department had approved as a location to build a water treatment plant might properly be seen as a colossal failure to communicate, but I’m going to just note that and sail right on by, as this sort of snafu is, though not common, at least not surprising.) 

I would have solved this by taking the location back to the PRT, personally, but the field office chose to send one of their Iraqi engineers out to investigate.

The Iraqi engineer sent out to investigate the mystery of the project location was a man I’ll call Ali, who had been twice fired by the Corps for suspicious actions in connection with projects he’d been assigned. Without going into specifics, he was a man who seemed to have his own self-serving agenda. Although he was suspected of nefarious back door dealings, CMD Mike refused to fire him (again) because Ali was effective at solving problems. (My pointing out to CMD Mike that he caused as many or more problems than he solved only earned a wry laugh.)

Our initial theory was that the PRDC had identified the project and site without actually securing ownership of the site. While Ali investigated out in the real world of Iraq, CMD Mike and I separately sought off-the-record discussions with the PRT representatives, and with our bosses, and with one person in the State Department, suggesting that it was a land ownership issue and assuring them that we had the inquiry under control. We wanted these interested parties to know that there was a problem and that we were actively seeking a solution so they’d know why the project was delayed, and we wanted it off the record so that no one panicked and stepped in to mess things up even more … (which is a functional and even tactically critical strategy that I, for one, have learned the hard way!).

Ali returned to the office every few days with some piece of news, then with information that contradicted that news, then with some other tidbit of possible fact, then with more. He went back out to investigate.

About one month after Ali had originally been sent out to investigate, he returned with an unwavering opinion: he had concluded that the project was not meant to have been built at the lat-long provided in the PRDC description at all, but rather at another village named Al Ma, located twenty miles north of the original village of Al Ma. I voiced my concerns that Ali had relatives living in this village, or that he’d extracted payment from the village on behalf of his proposing to us that this village was the intended site – (hell, the villagers may even simply be calling this village Al Ma for a few weeks in order to get a water treatment plant!), but CMD Mike was pleased with the results and didn’t want to tinker. When I suggested that someone at least confirm the new Al Ma conclusion with the PRDC, I was brushed off. The Al Ma twenty miles north desperately needed a water treatment plant; the Al Ma of the contract description was already being taken care of by the Air Force; the Al Ma twenty miles north had a location that would be perfect for a water treatment plant; and we had a contractor itching to go to work.

A contract modification was written up, changing the lat-long to match the Al Ma twenty miles north. No one at the PRT or PRDC came screaming into our offices, so it was assumed they approved of the new location. The State Department signed the modification without comment.


The contractor went to work. He not only went to work, his construction was of excellent quality. He chose high quality components and installed them with skill. His equipment was well cared for, the site was kept tidy, and his men all wore hard hats and boots. He stayed on schedule. He finished a 200cm/hr reverse osmosis water treatment plant in three short months, and he trained a local man to operate the plant.


When CMD Mike arrived at the site this morning in order to conduct the final inspection, he was met by the entire village of Al Ma. When he’d climbed out of the truck, men, women and children swarmed him with huge smiles on their faces. Adults and children grabbed his hands to hold while they thanked him.

When things calmed down, the head of the village then formally thanked CMD Mike for this water treatment plant. With tears in his eyes, he explained that until now the village people and animals drank from shallow wells. The children were often sick, and many had died from the bad water. They were too poor to buy water from the trucks. “Our village,” he told CMD Mike, “has not had clean water before sixteen years.” The village had not had clean water for sixteen years.

This is why we love working in Iraq. Even when we hate it.