Monday, May 14, 2007

Successes in Iraq: How NGOs and Iraqis are Building Peace Together

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.

Roundtable speakers, left to right: Michael D. Miller, Bruce Parmelee, Daniel Rotheberg and Erik Gustafson (EPIC photo/Emily Stivers)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.


t said...

That works for me. In addition, I think its essentials that key leaders from all 3 of these remain in constant communication to make sure they are keeping the Iraqi citizen's interests at heart with all their divided funding.

Cincy Clint said...

Great post. Look at the beginning of our own country. First comes the legal system, then the strong national defense and interior security. Iraq lives in a bad neighborhood. The borders must must have secure integrity.
It is so refreshing to read something positive instead of our steady stream of negative sensationalism from the media.

Anonymous said...

In one article you say there are successes in Iraq but in the next we have Iraqi's fleeing the country and having to immigrate here. What is the true state of affairs?

Anonymous said...

Maybe democracy is not the best for Iraq. Perhaps a strongman is needed to bring everyone together under a legal system. The question is who? Are any benevolent strongmen available?

IMO said...

I guess that's supposed to be funny but sometimes it works. Just take a look around.

Emily Stivers said...

T - we agree, communication is an essential component of any reform strategies.

Cincy clint - I don't think the order can follow in quite the same way in Iraq as it did for the U.S. We already had the foundations for civil society: a structured economy, local government, a thriving middle class. Iraq has none of those things, and we must work to build them at the same time as we focus on the legal system.

Anonymous - we make no attempt to deny that the overwhelming picture in Iraq is bleak. However, small pockets of success show some hope of improvement in the future - if we can properly fund the programs that work and cut out the wasteful ones.

Emily Stivers said...

Anonymous - while a well-intentioned charismatic authority figure might do a lot of good, the last thing Iraq needs is another Saddam Hussein, or a sectarian seeking to repress rival factions.

On the contrary, the small pockets of success discussed at our conference last week proved there are plenty of Iraqis who want and have the capacity to build a thriving democracy. The violent are an extreme - though powerful - minority.

Oscar said...

Your triangle should be a pyramid with the military/police being the other footing.

Emily Stivers said...

Oscar - you're right, military/police reform is an important component of the Iraqi reconstruction because it's essential to making people feel secure.

In my mind, I included that with the government/legal reform issue. Police, at least, are an aspect of criminal justice, right?

George Stivers said...

If, as I have read, over 1.2 million of the educated 'middle class' Iraqis have already fled the country and additional thousands are leaving each month, who are the 'educated' Iraqis who will implement this program? If some physical stability and security is not provided soon, there will be no one left but the radicals of all sides and the poor and uneducated.

Emily Stivers said...

Uncle George - thanks for the comment!

Iraqi "brain-drain" is very definitely a problem and hopefully we can follow up on that with another entry soon. However, NGO workers on the ground report to us that many are staying, and are committed to rebuilding their country.

I agree whole-heartedly that we need short-term fixes, such as those proposed in my recent "Economic Solution" entry, to provide a modicum of stability and particularly employment so the remaining middle class Iraqis will stay and contribute to the new Iraq.

gshiwenwu said...

I call your attention to the editorial in the Sunday, May 20, 2007 Los Angeles Times concerning Iraqi refugees. If the numbers in the editorial are correct, out of an estimated population of 27 million, some 1.9 million Iraqis are internally displaced and 2 million are refugees abroad. I suspect that many or most of those that have fled abroad are the better educated, the better off, those with foreign connections and those who have assisted the U.S. effort to rebuild Iraq – in other words, those most likely to form the core of a rebuilding effort and most likely to be the targets of extremist revenge. While your descriptions of successes in the rebuilding effort are heartening, they seemed dwarfed by the other problems. I expect that, when the U.S. armed forces turn the bulk of the security job over to Iraqis, that those in charge and the insurgents will target these sorts of people even more than is the case today. This would make the return of any significant proportion of the increasing number of refugees problematic at best.
What will happen then to the brave and dedicated souls whose stories you provide in your blog? Is it possible that these successes are possible because they are too insignificant to gain the attention of the insurgents and Al Qaeda in Iraq? What is being done to protect the people who are engaged in these rebuilding projects that you describe? I am terribly afraid that that the violence will overwhelm them, as it has with so many of the large infrastructure rebuilding projects that the U.S. government has sponsored in Iraq, such as the electrical power system.

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