South Central, Iraq: January 2004
January in Kut was dismal. There was no infrastructure for draining the black water which covers the town during the rains and the hardscrabble surface didn't allow for any percolation downward.
The concrete in our projects didn't dry and our ‘burn rate’ or ‘money spent’ was significantly behind State Department expectations. It was a contradictory grant from State - one that insisted on participatory decision-making and local ownership at the community level - normally a painstaking process involving, 'in the parlance of our profession', knowledge transfer and behavioral change.
And while we were attempting to do this with folks that hadn’t seen hide nor hair of any aspect of civil society for decades, we were also supposed to achieve ‘quick impact’, meaning we were to demonstrate visible evidence of American largesse so as to give hope to the Shia for a better tomorrow. And so we were plugging away to get communities to ‘own’ their investment decisions but also to get through the process fast enough so that a new school or clinic saw the light of day. Of course the donor - AKA the Green Zone - was, in turn, under extraordinary pressure to show the White House and Congress measurable results such as beneficiaries, jobs and most importantly – ‘burn rate’ - all the while emphasizing the transformative impact on local governance.
Frankly, we weren't doing very well with most of the numbers. In fact, the Green Zone had threatened me to lop off a third of our area of responsibility (AOR) and give it to another NGO. “Are you sure you are counting correctly?” They would ask. “Maybe you should go back and re-calculate.” They said. “Your numbers seem awfully low.”
And then there were the questions ‘beyond the numbers’. Were we really changing behavior?
When we sat down with the Muktars and Sheiks and the other folk in the communities and went through the community mobilization process, were we really growing an appreciation for democracy, or were we rather being indulged by a culture much older than ours which played along so as to get that new school? It was hard to tell.
By January, the general population was all over the liberation. Dishes had mushroomed on every roof, no matter how rudimentary, and with them, ‘forbidden sites’. Channel 2 and Al Arabiya had the whole city transfixed at 2100 hrs with their menu of Hollywood movies. Even in squalid little apartments with bare brick walls and oilskin tacked up to protect the woman and her cooker from the visitor’s eye there is a dish on the roof and Hollywood on the screen while you try to get through some desiccated chicken wing. Newspapers had popped up overnight with any news they wished, whether it was fit to print or not and citizens everywhere were trying to define the relations between freedom and democracy mostly in spectacularly unsuccessful ways.
Rules were the problem. The heavy hand of Saddam had been there so long and was now lifted so quickly, that the first response was anarchy. Every night as we leaned over our MRE's at Park Palace our windows rattled intermittently with the repercussion of another Baathist home being bombed. The policeman at the intersect across the Tigris was no more than an observer and the cordon sanitaire that we had established around our ‘tendering process’ was probed daily by contractors who assumed an entitlement to win.
“These folk are damaged” I told my housemates. When they come at us they look normal enough but then when you get to manage them, you see what Saddam did. They fly off the handle at the first rumor. A few shots in this or that neighborhood can become a massacre by the time it reaches your ears. A woman seen near an expat becomes a whore - ruined. A man denied a benefit spends the indefinite future trying to relieve anyone who has received such a benefit from ever enjoying it.
Also into that vacuum came the mysteries and faith. They had returned from Iran or from underground and were now making Najaf and Kerbala pre-eminent in the Shia world. Millions now would soon make the pilgrimage on foot to the Holy Cities, progressing on with their bandanas and staffs. It was the drum beat and sway of what I called ‘flagellation music’ as they flailed themselves in great rhythmic processions.
And so it was this great dynamic of the fixation with Brad Pitt at night at 9 along with the lawlessness and the resurgent zeal for Allah.
Other than the occasional frayed nerves from the bombing of the Baathists and the reprimands from the donor on the numbers, in retrospect it was almost pleasant compared to what would come. Portraits of George W. still were scattered around the souk. We went around town freely, got our teeth fixed by Dr. Ali, our hair cut nearby. And once a week that Ramadan we played league football as an NGO team and lo and behold made it to the final 8 with me in attendance as honorary manager.
And then at the end of January we packed up and left the 4 Seasons to ensconce ourselves into Al Houra neighborhood. This was what Chris called "acceptance strategy" in contradistinction to deterrence strategy where one adopts a medieval approach of fortified residences, armed forays out of the perimeter and body armor. By now that had become the method of choice for all American government officials in Iraq.
For us, it was the neighborhood which agreed to bring us in; to let us live on their street; attend their marriages and funerals and shoot hoops with their kids. We, in turn, watched our DVDs and drank our beer in seclusion from them. We built the neighborhood sidewalks, taught the computer keyboard to their teenagers and ran electricity to their homes from our colossal generator. We promised not to watch their black draped women when they walked to market in the afternoon
There was also a neighborhood watch - as much for them as for us, to stop either zealot or criminal from hurting us, or them for harboring us. There were no arms (except the AKs under every citizen's bed) and no blast barriers.
Instead we relied on "hue and cry", a neighborhood crowd massing and the fear of any intruder for Tribal Law, should the neighbors or their guests be violated. In the Arab world, once invited past the threshold, the devil himself is protected.
Could our acceptance be penetrated? Probably not, as long as our neighborhood was already cohesive. Perhaps with an RPG from a distant rooftop, or a burst of fire by a car speeding by, but these would be meant to scare rather than to kill.
However, within our ‘acceptance strategy’, one insidious threat did remain - the ‘Judas’.
We foreign humanitarian workers were worth a fortune. Zarqawi and company would pay a fortune for those of us from a coalition country. Such a captive allowed them almost unlimited airtime before they chopped our heads off.
So, yes, there was the threat of Judas....the old gardener who trims the lawn, the woman who cleans the house. They go home at night to their poor circumstances and a word slips out about ‘the American’ in the neighborhood. It slips again, and again, until it may reach the ear of Judas.
Or, there is the contractor whose bid was not sufficient for the school you will build or the employee who was just released for threatening to I.E.D. his supervisor on a matter of ‘dignity’. They too may let it slip before criminal or zealot about the American in the neighborhood.
Still, notwithstanding the Judas, the power of the neighborhood or the village was strong and, most nights, we slept well.
The more difficult issues for us were first, we had to venture out from our neighborhood. We were employed to promote salve and transformation across wide swathes of Iraq. For that we had to have a larger, albeit thinner, acceptance...as we sat on a dozen floors in a dozen homes, discussing investments with communities. For us foreigners, we first had to have guidance from the notables, as we call them. In the Shia heartland, this had mostly come to mean the clerics, those affiliated with Ayatollah Sistani, Hakim, Sadr. Each week, we gave them the opportunity to suggest investments in salve and transformation. What they said at Friday prayers about us could have the population seeing us as either ‘Zionist Crusaders’ or friends of the community. We traveled at their pleasure.
Even so, the reach and impact of the notables did not run into all places and into all minds in a place as large as South Central, Iraq.
For that, there was only stealth. The vehicle that was undistinguishable from most of what was on the road. The spontaneous and unpredictable visit. The bare essential of a meeting and the expeditious farewell. The shirt an Iraqi would wear, the stubble an Iraqi would allow, sometimes a Kaffiyeh, the dark glasses to hide the blue eyes, and ,of course, my Cal cap hidden deep under my seat along with the sat phone. And finally, the one car ahead for reconnaissance to sense whether the police at the check point would whisper my identity to the criminal or the zealot.
And then second, ironically, there was the evident good we did - a school, a health clinic, plastic sheeting for the displaced and migrants. Definitely, a two-edged sword as pertained to protecting our skin. Indeed, as our community acceptance spread among the beneficiaries, so too, in some dark places, it was noticed as a dangerous accommodation with the West. For us, there was not much way around this dilemma. Every chance we got, we put an Iraqi face on our work but, at the end of the day, folks knew who had the money.
The third issue for us humanitarian workers was the donor. In our case, that was the United States government which granted us taxpayer monies. Of course, they employed a ‘deterrence strategy´ and thus lived and worked in the various fortresses, the principal one being the Green Zone in Baghdad. They rarely left them. But, when they did they came in armored cars with an armed detachment, often South Africans. And, of course, any blending we had sought to do with the locals then became suspect. Was our intent really as ‘unencumbered’ with ‘the political’ as we swore every chance we got? Yes, the distinctions between Non Governmental Organizations and U.S. government donor did indeed confuse and endanger.
Throughout this dynamic, one clear conviction coalesced in my mind. If we were risking our lives daily in Iraq, it had better be for some worthwhile notion. We - the team - had to be able to answer the question: “Why are you here?” And, in my mind, “Adventure, Adrenaline, Proving oneself, Escape, Fame or Tax-free pay” did not suffice. Deep down, we had to feel that we were doing something very valuable to improve the human condition as it had been visited upon South Central. One thing for sure, neither State nor our HQ was going to answer that question for us. I called a general meeting. I had written "Salve and Transformation" on the flip chart. In our little world, it was our great debate.
We all knew that the great presumption of making Shia folk more democratic by letting them choose their projects was somewhat fanciful and impossible to prove in any case, given all the other incoming aspects of liberation.
And we all knew how damaged they were from the years under the ex-regime. And we knew that little of that damage would disappear over this generation.
And we knew that Iraq, since Oil, created nothing. Not one creative aspect to it. And that a person, town, nation that creates nothing, dies and was dying before our very eyes.
The air in the meeting room was alive with ambition and presumptions and with time came to swirl more and more around the thoughts of our Albanian woman, a real firecracker, who had come of age under Hoxha. She told us we would marry up the teenage hopes and dreams with opportunities for creation and we could do this transformation on a massive scale.
Hot damn, one of the Americans had said, "We're going to transform South Central - neither Channel 2 nor the masses flagellating?” This would be - close your eyes, Green Zone - art, theater, poetry, inventions, a better mousetrap, an IT connection to the outside world. This would be Renaissance “on their terms”.
Afterward, I had sent an e-mail to my boss at HQ, laying out the logic for our plans over the years to come: Excerpts are below.
Subject Line: At work in the Shia Heartland
Iraqi ownership of our projects is elusive. We must often settle for less. Much of Iraq is a country of entitlements. Or dreams of entitlements. A tribal leader 'provided'. The religious leaders 'provided'. The government still allows a monthly food basket for all Iraqi's. Energy is almost free, as is health care and education.
Scratch the surface of most Shia Iraqi's and they will tell you they expect, before long, if all goes well, for a Sudanese or Egyptian guest worker to plant their garden and serve them tea.
It is indeed a passive population. There is nothing in the thousands of stores across this Shia swath, which is created there. Not by necessity nor by happenstance. In the end, if neither tribe nor cleric nor civil servant will provide, OIL will. Not to mention, the imminence of paradise just one short step away and where all earthly needs are met.
The net result for local ownership in our projects is disappointing. There is usually some desultory response to roll up the sleeves and pitch in for the community project. But the school wall only gets one coat of paint. The trees around it are indeed planted, but often not watered. And when the storage tank on top of the toilets needs filling, the responsible is nowhere to be found.
Ever wary of our obligation to the donor, nevertheless we have fiddled with the original designs for which we were contracted. We have had our big meeting and have concluded that the ubiquitous and profound ‘passivity’ was and is indeed one of the foundations for despots and that the greatest challenge to an open and free Iraq is the legacy of unjust governance and the passivity which allows for it.
Against the risks we were taking, we could not justify doing ‘bricks and mortar’ any longer, when in fact, any good contractor could do as well.
And so please be aware we have now amended the approach by offering less choice to the community, meaning that if creativity and learning is a key antidote for despotism, then we will focus on investments in ‘platforms for learning’ such as schools, libraries, museums, Internet centers, recreation halls, theaters, and community centers. We will offer a community such a ‘platform’ if they will ‘own’ the effort - not by painting a wall or planting some grass but rather by joining with their children and by using these platforms for supplemental investments in art, narrative, music, invention and connectivity.
We have addressed the parents of the teenagers in those places of learning. We will bank on their appreciation that, for Iraq, and for the next generation to prosper, there will have to be these opportunities for creativity. (After all, an Iraq which creates nothing of value for the global society is a country which has become little more than oil and consumption). We will leverage the parent’s love for their children and their future and, in return, get our heretofore elusive ‘ownership’.
These teenagers - boys and girls - will now be connected through our investments to other voices and other ideas. Their schools and clubs and homes will have Internet connections and the transformative projects in creativity will create the beginnings of a new culture that will allow them to participate in the surrounding global society. And while their parents will not allow these innovations for themselves, they will see the future clearly enough to insist upon them for their children.
Absent the renaissance that these platforms for learning and transformative projects could produce, most other investments in Iraq have marginal value. The alternative to renaissance is passive accommodation to the extraction industries and non-participation in the global society.
This is the fifth post in a series on how Foreign Assistance really happens, taken from the perspective of a manager for one of the large organizations which are typically granted or contracted Federal funds for Relief and Development Overseas.
Watch a young Iraqi girl express her dreams for the future below.
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