Why are people saying all those terrible things about Research Triangle Institute?

Last month, about three dozen protesters massed at the busy intersection of Cornwallis Street and NC-55 in the Research Triangle Park with signs that said, “RTI No! Democracy Yes!” One woman held a sign above her head that said, “Tell RTI Elections Not Selections.”

They gathered to demand that RTP-based RTI support elections in Iraq rather than a selection process under the control of the U.S. The protest was held along with 20 others across the nation for the International Day of Action. Flyers supporting the event said, “Stop the corporate invasion of Iraq!” They called attention to the millions of dollars that companies such as Bechtel and Halliburton have made in the American occupation. And here in the Triangle, the flyer pointed to “our local profiteer: RTI International.”

And in the Feb. 5 issue of The Nation, Naomi Klein wrote:

At first, RTI’s Iraq mission attracted little public attention. Next to Bechtel’s inability to turn the lights on, and Halliburton’s wild overcharging, RTI’s “civil society” workshops seemed rather benign. No more. It now turns out that the town councils RTI has been quietly setting up are the centerpiece of Washington’s plan to hand over power to appointed regional caucuses–a plan so widely rejected in Iraq it could bring the occupation to its knees.

Klein contends that Iraqis’ demand for democracy has outstripped RTI’s process.

“Poor RTI: The appetite for democracy among Iraqis keeps racing ahead of the plodding plans for “capacity building” it drew up before the invasion. In November the Washington Post reported that when RTI arrived in the province of Taji, armed with flowcharts and ready to set up local councils, it discovered that “the Iraqi people formed their own representative councils in this region months ago, and many of those were elected, not selected, as the occupation is proposing.” The Post quoted one man telling a RTI contractor, “We feel we are going backwards.”

At protests and on the left, RTI and Halliburton are being lumped into the same malevolent group. That’s strange company for a liberal, non-profit organization founded in 1958 by UNC-CH, Duke and N.C. State to engage in science research and technology development.

The controversy began in April 2003, when RTI International was awarded a three-year contract from USAID for $167 million. The contract is one of the 10 largest awarded in the Bush Administration’s reconstruction effort in Iraq. The large sum was a huge financial boost for RTI. In the fiscal year that ended in September 2002, for example, RTI reported revenue from research projects totaling only $286 million.

The USAID money went to RTI to implement the Iraq Local Governance Project, aimed at establishing local neighborhood councils in 180 cities and villages throughout the country. Two weeks after signing the contract, RTI began sending international workers to Iraq.

RTI’s neighborhood councils are designed to teach post-Saddam Iraqis how to form local democratic units. The councils serve as an institution for community communication and action. The goal is to teach the councils to provide services for the surrounding area, such as delivering clean water and collecting garbage. However, this goal is complicated by the lack of uniformity that exists between the localities.

In addition to addressing local concerns, the neighborhood councils will play a significant role in the selection of Iraq’s transitional national government. It is this connection that drew protests (though some protesters note that RTI also has recommended privatized garbage collection).

Under the supervision of Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, the country has until June 30 to appoint a governing body through a series of selections. This hierarchical system will begin with the RTI-established neighborhood councils’ selections. Their appointees will then have to pass a series of selection processes, which ultimately require the approval of Bremer.

The final authority lies in Bremer–a man who has taken unprecedented steps to promote U.S. and foreign business interests in Iraq, while exploiting Iraqi interests. He unilaterally passed orders to lower taxes for international businesses and to open Iraqi resources to foreign interests, with the exception of oil. Under Bremer’s orders, these companies then have the right to remove 100 percent of their profit from the local economy.

However, when the country transitions back to local authority, it will have the power to accept or deny these orders. Those benefiting from Bremer’s economics fear that an Iraqi government would negate his radical economic reforms. Critics say the selection process seeks to prevent this change by ensuring American control of the transition. Bremer will have the final say over who’s on the governing body. That plan for power change has led to the cry for elections instead of selections.

At a recent seminar at UNC, Christian Arandel, RTI technical advisor for the Local Governance Project in Iraq, acknowledged the overarching system that the neighborhood councils must adhere to.

“Let us be clear,” Arandel said, “This is not elections. These are all processes of selections.”

Forming a democracy without elections is a questionable feat–elections are the fundamental framework for a democratic system, a government by the people. But in light of Bremer’s selection model, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan emphasized the importance of elections to democracy in a report released Feb. 23.

“Elections are a necessary step in the process of building democratic governance and reconstruction,” the report said. “The caucus-style system as it now stands is not practical and is not a substitute for elections.”

Attempts to interview officials at RTI were unsuccessful. But RTI has said elsewhere that Bremer’s plan and the institute’s work remain separate. RTI officials argue that they are concentrated on establishing neighborhood councils to help develop a spirit of democracy on a grass-roots level. They have denied responsibility for the larger role that these councils will play in selection a transitional national government.

In an interview with the Durham Herald Sun, Aaron Williams, vice president for International Business Development at RTI, said,

‘We’re not the ones who go and make decisions as to how and when elections are going to take place.”

However, at a teach-in at UNC the night before the protest, Rania Masri, director of Southern Peace Research and Education Center at the Institute for Southern Studies, said RTI cannot evade the $167 million connection. For this reason, she said, the protest was a demand for RTI to take a position in support of elections.

‘RTI is not as despicable as Halliburton and Bechtel,” Masri said in an interview following the teach-in. ‘But, RTI is arguably more dangerous because if it continues to put a liberal stamp of approval… it may be laying the groundwork for much more destructive economic policies.” EndBlock