Iraq: “People are fed up”

by Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach

Last year a group of MCC staff met with a young woman who was running for the Iraqi Parliament. When asked what had motivated her to do this, she explained her desire to give voice to people’s frustrations. “People are fed up,” she said.

That frustration is becoming increasingly evident. In late February Iraqis organized a “Day of Rage,” along the lines of protests organized in other Middle Eastern countries, to call for reforms within their government. The protests highlighted the lack of basic needs such as adequate clean water and electricity, along with high rates of unemployment and poverty.

The Iraqi government bears responsibility for providing basic needs for their people. But the role of the U.S. must not be forgotten. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and subsequent fighting destroyed much of Iraq’s infrastructure. This was followed by poorly managed reconstruction efforts, so huge sums of money were invested by the United States with few tangible or sustainable results.

Now, as the U.S. transitions from a military to a civilian role in Iraq, the need for better development practices remains critical. If the transition happens on schedule, all 50,000 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq will be withdrawn by December 31, 2011. Funding for U.S. efforts in Iraq is projected to drop accordingly, from about $75 billion (in the Pentagon’s budget) in the current fiscal year to less than $20 billion in the next fiscal year, to be administered by the State Department.

How well this money is used could affect, in part, whether Iraqis continue to be frustrated. Most critical will be how much say Iraqis will have in the planning and implementing of projects in their own communities.

Thus far most decisions about U.S. development projects in Iraq have been made in Washington, far from the needs and concerns of Iraqis. When projects have been led by Iraqis and involved Iraqi civil society in a significant way, they have been much more successful.

The leaders of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development committed last year to “working closely and consulting with organizations and the people most directly affected by programs and activities.”

Making this commitment is a good start. But it must be more than just words on paper. The U.S. should actively engage civil society leaders in Iraq, as well as government leaders. This would demonstrate the importance of a strong and engaged civil society, something that is sorely needed.

Iraqis have suffered much and are understandably frustrated with the state of affairs in their country. It is critical that there be ways, like the path sought by the young candidate for Parliament, for the people of Iraq to express this peacefully and to know that their concerns are being heard and addressed.

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