ENCHANTÉ – Iraq: A case for hands-on economic development
In the midst of all the hoopla about border control of the seven Middle East countries, among which Iraq, I want to repeat a column I wrote in September 2014 (well before Mr. Trump came on the scene). Much what I said in that column is relevant today. It occurred to me how important it was to shed light again on the “good Iraq.”
Frankly, I felt hurt that under Obama Iraq had been listed as one of the dangerous Middle East countries; and that as a consequence it became part of an immigration ban for 90 days by the Trump administration until effective immigration procedures could be assured.
Much has changed since I dealt with Iraq at the World Bank. Already during the period that I collaborated to implement a diversified project portfolio in Iraq from 2003-2009, Shiite and Sunni rifts hampered execution, and covert Iranian meddling became increasingly ostentatious. Then Sunni ISIS grew exponentially after the US allied forces left.
It broke the camel’s back. Iraq became a wholesome mess with unsavory characters threatening and terminating the life of many. Iraq’s relationship with the US changed from partial partner to full-fledged terror. I felt horrible for my good friends over there, with whom I had worked so closely to get things going in the right direction. It’s always the bad guys that spoil it for the good guys.
In 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq, the UN allotted US$450 million to the World Bank, to devise and help implement basic needs development projects (water supply, school construction, education, health facilities, administrative reforms, technical assistance and training, road rehabilitation and construction, environmental protection, etc.) This relatively small donor-led operation, subsequently enhanced by a US$500 million World Bank soft loan, lasted through 2010 when the funds were exhausted. It was a period where both the World Bank and Iraqis strived to rebuild and upgrade the country’s decades-long retardation to modernize the economy and administration. The operation started out in the most difficult circumstances of growing insurgency. Eventually, after the “surge” in 2007, it reached a stage where both sides began to see the fruits of the hard work. This was achieved through regular exchanges on project development and implementation, a mutual desire to learn how to do things better, how to succeed, and relay the lessons to local and national economic management.
When the US and allied military support disappeared in 2011, much of what had been achieved was destroyed again in the growing sectarian strife and the ISIS insurgency.
Let me repeat the blog of 2014. It shows what is possible in Iraq, in the right environment of mutual give and take by religious sects, and given a chance to succeed:
“Iraq The Beautiful – As an introduction, some photographs of Iraq sent by a close friend.
Baghdad Museum and Northern Iraq
More of northern Iraq
The Marshes, near Nasiriya, Iraq — Marsh Arab Village — Image by Nik Wheeler/CORBIS
Marshlands area in southern Iraq
Imagine you are a teacher with an economics degree, bagged with worldwide experience in economic development and project generation. You are tasked to teach a class of people not speaking your language, with a fractured background of religious strife, totalitarian rule, and years of outdated statist management with the mantra “if you don’t do it my way, there’s the door”, in a region that is entirely different from yours.
Imagine also that you can’t see your class and have to do everything by telephone and e-mail. Imagine further you are working with sometimes squabbling but very intelligent and technically capable Iraqi teams of diverse ethnicity. World Bank staff consisted mostly of capable Arab and Palestinian engineers, educationalists, health specialists, and economists, with similar diverse backgrounds and opinionated opinions about the invasion of Iraq. Imagine lastly that everything has to be done by yesterday.
That’s how I felt when I joined that team in 2005. But in spite of this list of near-paralyzing limitations, the team managed to identify, prepare and help execute a broad-based project portfolio of some 25 projects.
Underlying this effort was a strong push for capacity building and technical assistance. None of this could have been done without the support of (a) carefully selected Iraqi consultants who courageously inspected the project sites and assisted in strengthening the ministerial administrative capabilities of procurement of works, goods and supervision consultants, and (b) dedicated Iraqi counterpart teams in the ministries who were in charge of project implementation.
During the insurgency of 2005-2007, work continued, even though Shiite and Sunni participants were shooting at each other in some ministries, the Central Bank in Baghdad was bombed, and contractors and supervision consultants were threatened and even pursued on project sites. Some of the local consultants got wounded in Baghdad’s almost everyday bombing that caused long delays in just organizing one meeting at an implementing ministry on a given day that would take just a few minutes to arrange in Washington D.C. and an hour or two to finish.
The Iraqi counterpart teams met with the World Bank teams and consultants in Jordan and Lebanon (security reasons prohibited missions from meeting in Iraq) to discuss project progress, crosscutting issues, and necessary changes in design due to continuously changing circumstances. These conferences proved extremely useful, as they were the only real life contacts with Iraqi administrators as a group. It gave the Iraqis the opportunity to talk to their colleagues of other ministries and implementing agencies about common problems they faced and made them feel owners of their programs. You may notice the translation boot in the back.
Meetings with Iraqi counterparts in Lebanon and Jordan (Dead Sea) as security did not allow meetings in Baghdad.
Beirut and the Dead Sea shore
In 2007, a one man hero World Bank mission was set up in the Green Zone in Baghdad, and when security improved in 2009, it was extended to a formal resident office. Some missions took place in Baghdad and Erbil in the Kurdish area which was relatively safe.
The experience of meeting with the Iraqi counterparts, even if taking place mostly through simultaneous translation, convinced me personally that with a sustained effort over the longer term, it would be possible to turn well-educated but held-back Iraqi technocrats into modernized administrators, taking on modern rehabilitation and economic development.
The relative success of the projects, compared to sometimes overly complex design and over-estimated results, surprised many. Some projects, such as irrigation rehabilitation where farmers had a direct incentive to get better, succeeded remarkably well against all the odds and poor expectations.
But politics and religious strife took priority over rational thought. Soon we were back at square one and the spread of ISIL put everything in question. As a pilot enterprise, the hands-on effort in Iraq proved that it is possible to do it right if you give it a chance, but its future looks somber. It was a drop on a hot plate with an uncertain sustainability.
We are now at a point where the Middle East, including Iraq, has to decide how it solves its internal issues. Some Middle Eastern nations realize that ISIL is not the answer. But will they be able to stop the brutal reactionary insurgency?
Mesopotamia was rich in agriculture. Eve gave Adam the apple in Paradise in Iraq, but there was also a snake spoiling the fruits. Ominous foreboding for later Iraq? At one stage, Iraq’s Tigris and Euphrates rivers made it the grain storage of the Middle East, until oil drove the incentive to rigs, and the rivers became polluted because of environmental neglect and were drying up fast. Still, agriculture was and still is Iraq’s largest employer. Oil dependence drives out diversification as often happens in similarly endowed countries. Because of sectarian strife, politics, and tyranny, priorities get distorted, and the general population suffers.
Can a religiously divided Middle East overcome ISIL’s barbarian Sunni frame of mind? How can Iraq continue its economic development? Should we not let them fight it out among themselves? For centuries the UK, France, the Habsburgers and later the USA got their fingers burned in the Middle East. If there had not been oil, what would the Middle East have been now? But ISIS has killed in Europe and the US and operates among others from Iraq. The US and Europe cannot let that continue.
The US is not eager to get into a new war in the Middle East. The Trump Administration intends to erase ISIS, but what action can we expect?
Meanwhile, my Iraqi friends are left in the doldrums, knowing that we could have achieved a lot more if they’d been given a chance. That’s the sad realization.”
Southern and northern areas in Iraq
ISIS has occupied large slices of Iraq. The fight on Mosul is still going on. I watched Iraq reaching stabilization after six years of hard and idealistic efforts, and am saddened by the fate that many of my good Iraqi friends now suffer because of what cruel people do to them and that the US has to close its borders to make sure that those cruel people do not enter the US.
I hope the current administration finds a modus vivendi for Iraq.