Thursday, May 24, 2007

Winning Hearts & Minds: Spotlight on Peacebuilders in Iraq

You've been reading a lot from Erik about how the media paints Iraqis as nothing but victims and victimizers, when in fact the situation is more nuanced. Meanwhile, an anonymous comment on my last blog astutely points out that we should focus on winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis rather than putting all our eggs in the basket of military solutions. Even newly-appointed “war czar” Army Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute said, in a May 16th Washington Post article, that "A short-term ‘surge’ would do little good [in Iraq] and any sustained increase in forces has to be matched by equal emphasis on political and economic steps."

Today, I'd like to tell you more about the people and programs that are winning those hearts and minds, taking those steps and, slowly, building peace in Iraq.

Yes, they're out there. You haven't heard their stories in the mainstream media but that doesn't mean their work is not having an impact. It's just that the most successful programs in Iraq are the ones operating on a small enough scale to avoid being targeted by insurgents.

But their small-scale successes are nevertheless impressive. Back in early May, I wrote about our conference on "Overlooked Successes in Iraq: Rebuilding communities, strengthening civil society, and advancing human rights despite the violence." Expanding upon that entry, here's more detail about three of the speakers.

Daniel Rothenberg is executive director of DePaul University's International Human Rights Law Institute (IHRLI), an organization dedicated to defending and promoting human rights through fieldwork, research and documentation, publications, and advocacy. Recently returning from his eighth trip to Iraq, Rothenberg has spearheaded the organization's efforts to advance human rights and rule of law there. IHRLI provides law training in Iraqi schools, encourages legal education reform, works on the Iraqi constitution and is running one of the largest human rights documentation projects in the world.

All this, as well as developing a plan for criminal justice reform, is done in collaboration with Iraqi partners integral to the success of all IHRLI's projects. "There are talented, educated Iraqis all over the country," Rothenberg observed at our conference. "The capacity exists. The people we work with are really excited. We have to keep a low profile for security, but it's not as hard to work in Iraq as one imagines."

Echoing Rothenberg's positive assessment of Iraqis was Bruce Parmelee, Middle East director of CHF International, who stressed the importance of community involvement in reconstruction efforts. CHF's efforts in Iraq are funded by USAID's Community Action Program (CAP) and are based on interacting with community associations to determine their needs and ways to best address them. CAP empowers Iraqi citizens to set their own priorities for rebuilding the infrastructure in their neighborhoods, towns and villages.

Parmelee recently returned from his twentieth trip to Iraq, and reported that "moving money is a challenge, as is getting around. But most of our projects are sustained and appreciated by Iraqis. We've gotten a lot of positive feedback."

Michael D. Miller, president of America's Development Foundation (ADF), helps run the Iraq Civil Society and Independent Media Support Program (ICSP) aimed at strengthening the role of Iraqi civil society to make democracy sustainable. The program coordinates between 18 different local governments and has reached 1900 Iraqi Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) all outside the green zone. And it is staffed by 275 Iraqis and only 12 foreigners.

"Our Iraqi staff members take big risks," Miller pointed out, "but they really want to be involved in change. They are passionate and dedicated despite the danger."

"Infrastructure development CAN take place in this environment," he continued. "Change can happen. The violence is committed by a small percentage of people, and we can't let the violence dissuade us. The Iraqis feel that way and they are willing counterparts. Not all of them are rooted to position; they are there for change. They want to identify corruption and throw it out. We owe all our success to the diligence of Iraqis."

EPIC applauds all three speakers for their dedication to the future and stability of Iraq. The experiences of IHRLI, CHF International and ADF all prove that when we listen to and engage with Iraqis, we can effectively work together to build sustainable peace.


Q said...

Sounds like a lot of do-good bureaucracy. What about 'where the rubber meets the road"? What specifically in a significant amount is improving?

Anonymous said...

Great posting! We must guard against being too optimistic. We need a 'Plan B'.

Emily Stivers said...

Q - part of the reason the U.S. government effort has failed to achieve much is because of its emphasis on quantitatively measurable results. The kind of work that needs to be done in Iraq can't have quotas and deadlines; otherwise you have organizations just going for numbers without regard for whether they are sustainable or meaningful.

You can't measure civic engagement, rule of law training or even community-level infrastructure support in raw numbers.

As for significant amounts, the only effective programs are going to be small, bottom-up, community-based ones that won't be targets for insurgents. We need to use these small successes as models for further grassroots movements, reform and peace building.

t said...

Oh, well then forget deadlines and quotas. Just get us some more information about successes besides speakers and talks. Those are important, but I also want to hear about construction (utilities, hospitals, and schools), refugee family reunions, and presents at Christmas time. You know, real-live hands-on positive stuff. Call me a romantic.

Emily Stivers said...

T - you should check out our Ground Truth interviews at, or click the Ground Truth graphic on the right side of the blog and select "Interviews."

Just reading through the short overviews, you can see a lot of the specific projects various peacebuilders are working on. Particularly, check out the one with Khaldoon Ali (3rd one down). He runs a program called Mercy Hands that does some amazing work.

Emily Stivers said...

PS. a lot of the people we work with can't reveal specifics of their work - such as a particular school, road, etc. - because doing so might draw the attention of insurgents. Unfortunately, we have no choice but to speak in generalities to some extent, or else risk the lives of those we're trying to help.

susan k. said...

The relatively "small percentage" of the people you're talking about do a very signifcant amount of damage and has managed to kill thousands of Iraqis and US soldiers. As long as people are afraid to walk outside their doors, winning their hearts and minds is a bit far-fetched.

Anonymous said...

Winning hearts and minds isn't just about Iraq - it is about our relations with people in the Middle East and indeed the rest of the world. Honestly, I think we may be too late with the Iraqi people. Much more should've been done with infrastructure, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance at the beginning of the occupation. We didn't even try to win the hearts and minds and now we are not wanted in the country by the general population, not just those causing violence. We need a new foreign policy or at least a new President.

reader said...

Today's news of Al-Sadr returning to Iraq from Iran is rather disheartening.

Anonymous said...

What are the real obstacles these organizations face. Everyone can obviously cite and even exaggerate the threats to their security, but for something like running an educational program or building infrastructure, where are the Iraqi civilians in terms of having the supplies, competance, and capabilities to benefit from and sustain these positive forces?

Emily Leaman said...

Anonymous -- We are in the process of polishing off an interview that gets to the heart of your question: beyond security, what challenges are Iraqis facing in rebuilding their country?

Our upcoming interview with Hala Al-Saraf looks at the public health sector. She notes a sort of cyclical problem, where violence is forcing Iraqi doctors out of the country, thereby diminishing the base of professional expertise. She points out that one of the biggest problems this forced migration is creating not only a diminished supply of Iraqi health professionals, but also a diminished supply of experts who can train a new generation of doctors -- so, really, there's no way to replenish the base, even as it depletes due to forced migration.

Hala proposes that instead of continuing to build hospitals -- which can't be staffed anyway because there are no doctors left to staff them! -- we should be focusing our time and money on training programs for young doctors and medical students. This would help restock the base of experts and eventually raise the standard of healthcare in Iraq.

Hala has been doing her part. An Iraqi Fulbright Scholar, she just completed her Master's degree in Health Policy at Columbia University, and as I type this she is en route back to her home in Baghdad. While in the U.S., Hala created an online information-sharing program -- called Project THINK -- that connects Iraqi medical students with training resources, books, CDs, and manuals from prestigious medical schools here in the States. When she gets back to Iraq, she will be working hard to make official connections between Iraqi and U.S. medical schools so that Iraqi medical students can complete some of their training at universities here in the U.S. These are simple, yet viable ways to address the problem of the forced migration of professionals from Iraq.

I think it's these out-of-the-box, on-the-ground solutions that are having the greatest impact in Iraq (even if they aren't being talked about). For one, they are being generated by Iraqis themselves, folks who are in the thick of it and who can truly understand the heart of the challenges their country is facing. Second, they are relatively simple and easy to maintain -- lots of bang-for-the-buck power, if you know what I mean.

Hala's interview should be ready for release next week, so be on the lookout. You won't want to miss the interesting perspective of this incredible Iraqi peacebuilder!

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