RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK -- The U.S. Agency for International Development has awarded RTI International a one-year contract extension worth up to $154 million to foster democratic local government in Iraq, a company executive said Wednesday.
With a handover of power from the United States to an Iraqi government scheduled for June, the nonprofit institute's second year in Iraq will be crucial, said Ron Johnson, RTI's vice president for international development.
"If there are disruptions in services, that could disrupt the handover of sovereignty, and the new Iraqi government could have more trouble," he said.
The contract's first year just ended. Worth as much as $167 million, it was the largest in the 46-year-old institute's history. In the end, RTI spent about $156 million -- and in the coming year, it probably will spend significantly less than the ceiling, Johnson said.
RTI helped set up many local governments in Iraq during the contract's first year. RTI is now working with more than 300 local councils and all 18 provincial governments and has a staff of about 2,200 Iraqis and 220 foreign workers. About a dozen are from North Carolina.
RTI is working with local governments in two ways. It's helping provincial, town and neighborhood councils learn to govern democratically, and it's also helping workers learn how to provide services such as water and sewer and garbage collection.
Under President Saddam Hussein, those services were run from Baghdad, and there were no locally elected councils.
Johnson said second-year goals include building fully functioning councils with the authority to allocate revenue or influence such allocations. Also, RTI wants to help local government staffs continue to improve service delivery.
Another issue is for Iraqis to determine the relationship between national and local governments. RTI has begun seminars to present various models, Johnson said.
The Iraq project will cost much less to run in its second year, Johnson said, in part because RTI increasingly is using local workers, who don't need housing and other assistance.
Security is a major expense and worry for foreign companies involved in Iraq's reconstruction, a point driven home Wednesday when four civilian security contractors from a North Carolina company were ambushed in Fallujah and their bodies abused before television cameras. Johnson said that when he heard about the incident, he immediately called RTI's Baghdad headquarters to make sure none of the company's workers were involved.
Security has become a greater concern as insurgents shift more attention to "soft targets" such as foreign civilians. RTI has a large security staff in Iraq provided by its own contractor, many of them former special forces soldiers from various countries.
RTI has six foreign workers and even more Iraqis working in Fallujah. Johnson declined to discuss how the company reacted to the incident Wednesday, but typically when violence escalates in a city, RTI pulls out its foreign workers until tensions fade.
No RTI workers have been seriously hurt in violence in Iraq, he said. A couple received cuts from flying glass when a bomb went off nearby. Last fall, a rocket hit beside a building in RTI's Baghdad compound where Johnson had slept the night before. The building was damaged, but no one was hurt.
USAID decided to employ RTI for a second year because it was impressed with the institute's performance and thought that the transfer of power requires stable local government, said Dana Peterson, head of the Iraq office at USAID's Washington headquarters.
"This is a program that's critical to the stability of Iraq," she said. "Strong support at the local level is one of the best ways to address citizen needs."
She said that if Iraqis can continue to see improvements in the delivery of water, sewer, garbage collection and street cleaning, and if they have a way to engage politically -- through locally elected councils -- that will promote stability.
RTI was founded in 1958 with the mission of providing a place where scientists could find practical uses for research emerging from Triangle universities. It has expanded its role to include surveys for government agencies, AIDS prevention programs in Africa and redevelopment throughout the Third World. It has worked on local governments in various countries, including Indonesia and El Salvador. It now bills its basic mission simply as improving the human condition.
The Iraq contract includes an option for USAID to add a third year, but Johnson thinks that's unlikely. A long-term local government program will probably still be necessary, but its scope would be different.
"Would we bid on that?" Johnson asked. "You bet. We'd bid and expect to be very competitive. We anticipate being in Iraq for the long haul."