Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Iraqi Labor Leader Comes To DC

Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein. Ready for hard work, accountability, and  action. Photo by David Bacon.Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein is an amazing woman. She is the first woman to head a national union in Iraq, a statement that belies the difficulties that position entails. In response to, and because of her activism, she and her eight and a half year old son, Muhammad, both receive daily death threats.

While her presentation on June 6th was brief, the question and answer session was the defining characteristic of the press conference. What was so interesting was that, although disparaging news on the surface, her suggested solutions coincide with everything I have been reading in our Ground Truth Interviews, and hearing in off the record conversations with natives and NGO workers. And from the message she delivered in her responses, it's definitely "the economy, stupid."

Unemployment is a staggering 65% in Iraq -- a number that, in her eyes, corresponds directly with the level of sectarian violence. With nine million under the poverty line, virtually no basic services such as water and sewage, and sometimes only one hour of electricity out of every six, the militias have a prime pool of candidates to draw from.

Because the cost of survival has reached such critical levels, the different sects are turning to their respective militias just to put food on the table. The vast disagreements in sectarian beliefs have a long history, but according to Hashmeya, the divide was "negligible" before the conflict because "Saddam repressed every group equally," she laughed.

When asked what our twenty billion in reconstruction aid has accomplished in the country, she declared that hardly anything has been done on a large scale. All of the factories have been shut down, there has been no improvement in roads, and electricity is so unpredictable it's close to worthless.

Hashmeya stated that young Iraqi workers are waiting around for something to do and that unemployment is hitting them the hardest, depleting the hopes of future leaders. She feels the most disappointing aspect of this is the apparent lack of concern and attention the situation is commanding: "there have been no serious efforts to solve this issue."

The overarching theme of the press conference was accountability and pride. She declared the Iraqis are ready to be accountable for their own actions, their country, and their future.

What she fears most, however, is the United States' involvement in privatizing Iraq's businesses. She wants the public sector to play the predominant role in the economy while the private sector simply supplements. She fears that if the private sector comes before the public, under these circumstances, Iraqis would not get hired and the country would be no better off than it is now. If Iraqi's are not getting hired after fundamental economic changes have taken root, then they cannot take responsibility for themselves and be held accountable for their own actions. If this becomes the case after we're gone, in their eyes, the "occupation" simply takes a different form.

So, while economics can, and should, be the savior of Iraq, we need to make sure the Iraqis are the economists.


Anonymous said...

It's surprising that more isn't being done by the Iraqi government and US military to alleviate unemployment and improve infrastructure. Although a very different time and situation, it somewhat harkens back to the American government's ability to decrease unemployment by sponsoring multiple infrastructure initiatives as a way to rebound from the Depression. Why isn't the Iraqi government and military sponsoring more such projects with Iraqi labor?


Geoff Schaefer said...

Anonymous. I think what's going on is the Iraqi government is waiting it out for us to leave. From everything I've been reading and hearing from natives, they feel like if they were to make a move and start taking action themselves on different initiatives they want to accomplish, that the US would quash any efforts to do so. I'm not saying they are right or wrong on that but it looks like that is how they feel. On the other hand, the good news is that it looks the Iraqi people are desperate to step up and start accomplishing goals to bring their country back. They feel an immense pride in Iraq and want to see it flourish. What we should be doing is paying attention to these smaller developments and pumping money and aid into them to help get things started from the ground up. I think what's going on though is that the US military sees the security situation and doesn't feel like any sort of economic development could take root right now. What needs to be happening is a greater marketing of smaller successes in Iraq and documentation on what steps and measures were taken to guarantee the programs' success. If we can create attention for a lot of these smaller developments, then when we step back and look at it from the macro perspective, it will appear that successful development is possible on a comprehensive scale.

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