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.