Is anything actually going right in Iraq?
If you listen to the mainstream media, you might think the country has nothing going aside from violence, hatred, corruption, squabbling and failure. But the reality on the ground is that several institutions - including Depaul University's International Human Rights Law Institute (IHRLI), CHF International, and the American Development Foundation's Iraq Civil Society and Independent Media Support Program (ICSP) - are seeing success in helping Iraqis strengthen civil society, improve their economy, and advance human rights and the rule of law.
On Friday, May 11th, EPIC joined representatives from over 20 distinct NGOs for an Open Society Institute-hosted event titled, "Overlooked Successes in Iraq: Rebuilding communities, strengthening civil society, and advancing human rights despite the violence." We'll be releasing a summary later this week detailing the specific programs and qualitative success stories described by conference participants, but for now, I'd like to highlight a few particularly interesting points from the discussion.
First, talented, educated Iraqis are never in short supply in the work of the NGOs reporting. Iraqis all over the country are excited about justice reform, improving infrastructure, and playing an active role in their communities. Only a very small percentage of people participate in violence, and many more take huge risks to be involved in change. They are passionate and dedicated despite the dangers of being associated with a U.S.-funded venture. They are ready to identify and throw out the corrupt, and they aren't rooted to a single position. They want and are willing to work for change.
Second, several conference participants questioned accountability measures determining which programs receive U.S. funding. Right now, our government seems to throw money at organizations with the sole mechanism for accountability being a return of numbers. But does it matter how many people you can claim to have helped if what you're doing doesn't result in sustainable development, or build the capacity for lasting change once you're gone? The most successful programs are those paying attention to the needs of Iraqis and giving them a vested interest in the process. But to truly determine what works and what doesn't, we need the kind of evidence we can only get after a program has been around for years and had a chance to take root, not meaningless numbers and statistics just because they're easily organized into talking points.
In the final Q & A period, the participants engaged in a heated debate over U.S. funding priorities. What are Iraqis most in need of: civil society, economy or government reform? You have to have a middle class in order for civil society and government to function; you have to have civil society in order for government to be representative and an economy to function; and you have to have some level of government security in order for economic development and civil society to approximate stability. So what comes first - the chicken, or the egg?
At the conclusion of the event, I realized from the important points made by all the participants that it won't do to focus on any one component more than the others. Iraqi government, economy and civil society are like three points of a triangle, each one essential to the integrity of the whole.
We must equally fund programs in all three fields, and use the experiences and advice of successful programs to determine future funding.