Monday, March 8, 2010

The Changing U.S. Role in Iraq & The Future of Iraqi Civil Society

Bob Feidler
Director, Defense Education Forum

On March 4, the Defense Education Forum, in partnership with the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC), presented a two hour program on the future of Iraqi civil society as the U.S. drawdown of troops continues. The program focused on the ability of Iraq’s civil society to safeguard the nation’s sovereignty and stability. Key issues discussed included the political climate, the history of NGOs in Iraq, the ability of NGOs to sustain themselves and face challenges, whether the needs of Iraqi civilians could be met, and what role in the future the U.S. and its international partners might play in supporting civil society entities.

Mr. Michael Corbin, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, keynoted the program. He stated that a functional civil society was critical to our success in Iraq. It was noted that we are in a transition from a military/security dominated environment into one in which political, economic and cultural issues would come to the fore. Two major agreements were concluded in 2009, one being a Security Agreement relating to the drawdown of U.S. forces, but it was noted that the other agreement – the Strategic Framework Agreement – was also of enormous interest to the Iraqi government and this Agreement has a direct effect on the future of civil society. A system of checks and balances is in place with three working branches of government. Nobody got everything they wanted or on a timeline they wanted it, but a working, mostly democratic government is in place and functioning. The judicial branch – although it has elements of corruption – is working. And an NGO law was recently enacted that is relatively liberal in its nature. It does not require all NGOs to register with the government and it has no restrictions on foreign affiliations. It should be a good foundation for the future evolution of a civil society. Today there are 7000 NGOs in Iraq, of which 3000 are registered. The new law is groundbreaking but the proof will be in how it is implemented.

A panel that consisted of Erik Gustafson (on the phone from Iraq), Ellen Laipson of the Stimson Center, Emily Gish of Mercy Corps, Dr. Allan Dyer of the International Medical Corps and Manal Omar of the United States Institute for Peace addressed the progress of their NGOs in Iraq and assessed the future. Erik noted that he was amazed at the critical role Iraqi NGOs were already playing in such areas as the release of prisoners and dealing with honor killings in Northern Iraq. He noted the surveys that NGO were doing and the contributions they were making to the assist the government in doing its job.

It was commented upon that getting NGOs into an area early in a crisis was essential so that the people could observe the good they could do and thus be prepared to work with them and bolster them in the future. But this also raises issues among the people as to who NGOs really are -- do they represent the U.S.? Are they independent? The Iraqis have many “filters” as they try to decide whether they wish to be part of the NGO process. NGOs are a part of governance but must be sensitive as to whether they are perceived as neutral, opposed to or supportive of the government. Sometimes NGOs are an alternative to the government. Funding of NGOs is always an issue and very often the NGOs are personality driven. A culture of intimidation has prevailed for so long in Iraq that cultural adaptation will certainly be needed to create an environment for success and allow for NGOs to work closely with the government and advocate for their causes. It was pointed out that the Iraqis need to develop a philanthropic sense to support their NGOs.

The state of civil society in Iraq is evolving in a positive way. The government is functioning and recently adopted a legal framework for NGOs to exist that is conducive to their growth and survival. Funding will always be an issue and a cultural change to evolve to a philanthropic environment is needed. There has traditionally been a fear of civil society entities approaching the government – this must be overcome these NGO must push back as needed while also assisting the government as they can.

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