Stabilizing Iraq’s economy: An interview with the DOD’s Paul Brinkley

From the latest issue of the McKinsey Quarterly, here is the beginning of the Brinkley interview:

When the US Department of Defense (DOD) sought to modernize its business practices, it turned to a Silicon Valley executive with a proven track record in streamlining operations. Paul Brinkley had been the chief information officer and a senior vice president at the technology company JDS Uniphase, as well as a licensed industrial engineer with four US patents to his name, when he joined the DOD in 2004. Brinkley promptly went to work improving the department’s processes and systems. But two years later, in a turn of events he did not anticipate, he was spending half of every month in Iraq.

An eye-opening first visit to Iraq in 2006 convinced Brinkley that the DOD could do more to improve economic conditions for the Iraqi people, and that doing so would help stabilize the country. In June 2006, largely through Brinkley’s efforts, the DOD established the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), dedicated to revitalizing Iraq’s economy and creating jobs for Iraqis. TFBSO placed civilians with expertise in industrial operations and factory management on the ground in Iraq—skills previously absent from the American presence there.

Under Brinkley’s leadership, the task force began on-site assessments of idle Iraqi factories and worked with Iraqi businesspeople to reopen them—providing training for employees, upgrading equipment, and preparing the factories for large-scale private investment. The task force also engaged leaders from the United States and international corporations to support Iraqi industries, hosting more than 130 private investors and senior executives in Iraq and facilitating several joint ventures. In addition, TFBSO has deployed more than 400 US business leaders, engineers, accountants, and academics across Iraq’s provinces. For example, faculty and staff from American universities have worked on farms in central, northern, and western Iraq, helping Iraqi farmers increase production levels and learn modern farming techniques. To date, TFBSO has helped restart production at more than 60 Iraqi factories, facilitated contracts worth more than $1 billion between foreign private investors and Iraq’s state-owned enterprises, and helped provide jobs for 250,000 Iraqis.

In October 2009, Brinkley spoke with McKinsey director John Dowdy in Washington, DC, about his work in Iraq and what lies ahead. Excerpts from the interview follow.

The Quarterly: Before 2005, you had never even been to Iraq; now you are there every two weeks. What surprised you most when you went to Iraq for the first time?

Paul Brinkley: In my private-sector career, I had been to East Asia and India, but never the Middle East. My image of the Middle East had been formed by what we see on television and the mass media. I probably wasn’t atypical of an American businessperson in that I expected to see desert, camels, palm trees, oil. I never went into Iraq expecting to find a skilled workforce and an industrial economy. That was completely surprising to me.

I think the West has a notion of the Middle East and the Muslim world that is colored by the sensational events that dominate the media. Many Westerners have an impression of an entire people that is extremely unfavorable and not at all representative of that world. I wish every American could get to know the Iraqi people. They have the same hopes, dreams, and aspirations as people in every other country. They aspire to a good life, a job, advancement, an education for their kids. I think so much of what we’re exposed to in the media dehumanizes Iraqis and makes the problems in Iraq just seem insurmountable. American businesspeople think, “How could you possibly do business in a place where the people are so different?” But they’re not so different. That has been a lesson learned for me, and it’s a challenge we really need to confront in the West. How we currently view the Middle East definitely damages our ability to be effective there.

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