About 250 reconstruction contracts worth more than $250 million have been awarded to women-owned businesses in Iraq over the past eight months.
Opportunities for Iraqi businesswomen are increasing, with help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to a civil engineer who just returned from Iraq two months ago.
Karen Durham-Aguilera, a member of the senior executive service and former director of programs for the Project and Contracting Office, spoke about current efforts to empower Iraqi engineers and businesswomen at a U.S. Institute of Peace and State Department-sponsored seminar last week in Washington.
The efforts to add women-owned businesses to the reconstruction equation were deliberate, Durham-Aguilera said. As of June 2005, only one contract had been awarded to a woman-owned firm.
To increase that number, Durham-Aguilera and a small team of contracting personnel conducted several network sessions with Iraqi women-owned firms to connect them with general contractors, and to teach and coach them how to put together successful bids to win awards for construction contracts. Goals and incentives were also established for general contractors to hire women-owned Iraqi firms as subcontractors.
Iraq-American Azza Humadi, PCO women's coordinator, also spoke at the event. In order to reach out to Iraqi businesswoman, Humadi frequently travels outside of the safety of the international zone to assist Iraqi women in their efforts to bid on and win contracts. Armed with information she collected on over 400 Iraqi women-owned companies, Humadi literally goes "door to door" marketing these firms to the international design-build contractors on the ground.
"Karen and Azza have done groundbreaking work in Iraq with women-owned businesses," said Merriam Mashatt, former director of Capacity Development for PCO.
Over the past year the U.S. has channeled a significant portion of its reconstruction dollars to Iraqi businesswomen and for capacity development, which is vital to self-sustainment of the Iraqi people, Mashatt said. She was also a presenter at last week's forum.
Durham-Aguilera was detailed for seven months from the Corps of Engineer's North West Division, headquartered in Portland, Oregon. She oversaw about $12 billion in reconstruction, a portion of the overall $18.4 billion Iraq Reconstruction Relief Fund.
"One of the best parts of my time in Iraq was to work together with our many Iraqi professionals, a group of over 300 people," the registered engineer told the group. "Many of these professionals are women: engineers, architects, accountants, project managers, and more.
The Iraqi ministries, the U.S. State Department, the Multi-National Forces-Iraq, the U.S. Agency for International Development, PCO, the Corps of Engineers, and Coalition and Iraqi contractors that build the construction projects, work in unison to rebuild," Durham-Aguilera said. "The reconstruction effort is a huge partnership."
Some of Durham-Aguilera's efforts were to increase the number of contracts going directly to Iraqi firms. While in Iraq, she visited construction projects in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Erbil, Basra, Nassriyah, and other locations.
"I saw first-hand the quality work that Iraqi firms can build, from the very small $100,000 or less, to the larger several million dollar projects," she said. "Included in those firms are several women-owned businesses, as they are also winning construction contracts."
As of Jan. 30, there are nearly 6,000 actual projects started with a program value of $ 2.5 billion. Currently, 2,200 projects are ongoing with a program value of $ 3.2 billion.
About 3,700 projects have been completed with a program value of about $ 2.5 billion.
Probably the most important component of the partnership are the Iraqi firms that do the work, Corps officials said. The work includes school renovations, health clinics and hospitals, border forts, police and fire stations, public buildings, water treatment units and plants, water supply facilities, sewer networks, work at oil refineries to increase oil production and revenue, and electrical generation, transmission, and distribution projects.
Durham-Aguilera told the group about her Middle Eastern roots. Her mother, who was Lebanese, had family that came from a village outside Beirut.
She continues to receive e-mail from Iraqi women telling of their continued progress.