Iraq The Beautiful – As an introduction and at the very end, some photographs of Iraq sent by a close friend.
Baghdad Museum and Northern Iraq
More of northern Iraq
Marshlands area in southern Iraq
Imagine you are a teacher with an economics degree, bagged with world-wide experience in economic development and project generation, and 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of people not speaking your language, with a fractured background of religious strife, totalitarian rule, and years of outdated statist management of “if you don’t do it my way, there’s the door”, in a region that is totally different from yours.
Imagine also that you can’t see your class and have to do everything by remote and telephone. Imagine further you are working with a sometimes squabbling but very intelligent and technically capable home team of diverse ethnicity, many of them Arab speaking from the Middle East, with opiniated opinions about the Iraq invasion, Palestine and Israel, and Bush. Imagine lastly that everything has to be done by yesterday.
That’s how I felt when I was tasked to join that team in 2005. But in spite of this list of paralyzing limitations, the team managed to identify, prepare and help execute a project portfolio of a US$450 million equivalent UN donor fund, established after the Iraq invasion of 2003 and later extended by a soft World Bank loan of US$500 million. This included projects for water supply and sanitation, irrigation rehabilitation, school construction and rehabilitation, health and hospital rehabilitation, electricity reconstruction, road and telecommunications repair, energy development assistance, private sector development, household/poverty reduction and pension reform, and others, all in all a 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 the way it was done without the support of (a) carefully selected Iraqi consultants who courageously inspected the project sites and assisted in strengthening the basic ministerial administrative capabilities of procurement of works, goods and supervision consultants, and (b) dedicated Iraqi counterpart teams in the ministries that 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 complete.
The Iraqi counterpart teams met with the World Bank teams and consultants in Jordan and Lebanon 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 in executing their programs and added much to their ownership of their programs. You may notice the translation boot in the back.
Meetings with Iraqi counterparts were held in Lebanon and Jordan (Dead Sea) as security did not allow meetings in Baghdad.
Beirut and the Dead Sea shore
Only in 2007 was a one man hero mission 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 relatively well-educated technocrats into modernized administrators, taking on complex rehabilitation and further economic development.
The relative success of the projects compared to sometimes overly complex design and expected results in a battling environment surprised many. Some projects, such as irrigation rehabilitation where farmers had a direct incentive to get better, succeeded remarkably well against all expectations.
But politics and religious strife took priority over rational thought. Soon we were back at square one and the invasion of ISIL has 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 endangered sustainability.
We are now at a point where the Middle East, including Iraq, has to decide how it solves it internal issues. Some Middle Eastern nations realize that ISIL is not the answer. But will they be able to stop the brutal reactionary tsunami?
Mesopotamia was rich in agriculture. Eve gave Adam the apple but there was also a snake spoiling the fruits. Bad 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 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. Combined with sectarian strife, politics and tyranny, priorities get distorted and the general population suffers.
Can a religiously divided Middle East eliminate ISIL’s barbarian Sunni regime and continue Iraq’ s economic development? Should we not let them fight it out among themselves? For centuries the UK, France, Spain, 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?
The USA is not very eager to get into a new war in the Middle East. The recent speech by the White House contained some buzz words but what action can we expect? Europe entered into brutal wars in 1914 and 1940. The United States got dragged into them kicking and screaming. In World War I, after much foot-dragging of Woodrow Wilson, because the Germans torpedoed the Cunard line’s flagship Lusitania near England in 1915, in which over a thousand people died, among which at least a hundred Americans.
Americans were furious but at first Woodrow Wilson did not act. Germany halted torpedoing passenger liners temporarily, but in 1917 Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm approved to resume its u-boat war on the seas, cutting off commercial trade between the USA and Great-Britain, which compelled Woodrow Wilson to finally join forces with its European Allies and defeat Germany.
In World War II, it was the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and Hitler’s declaration of war to the US a few days later that forced the USA to join, although a year earlier President Roosevelt had said: “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again: your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” (source History.co.uk). Sounds familiar?
The issue is that the USA is the only fully free democratic political and military power (still…) standing tall on a hill, to where all suppressed and desperate people want to come, and that extremist religious ideologues want to destroy.
Does the USA need another 9/11 to get convinced that it must help out a moderate Middle East to solve its quagmire? Who else could? Iceland? Then, except the Gulf War in 1990, albeit with a coalition force of more than 30 countries, the USA has not won a war it started itself.. In Korea, Truman stopped McArthur halfway to victory; Janet Fonda cum suae lost the Vietnam war for the USA; President Obama withdrew from Afghanistan and Iraq before the achievements were stabilized. If you start a war only victory counts. Has anybody any confidence left in US management?
Barring another major attack on its mainland, the best thing a US leadership can do is to keep the borders shut tight (which it is able to do), become fully energy independent (which it is able to do), strengthen the military just in case instead of weakening it (which it is able to do), make sure it defends Israel and its NATO allies (which it is able to do) and get its financial house in order (which it is able to do), and stop throwing money at ill-defined nation building, preserving a fish specimen in lieu of irrigating agricultural land (which it can do, too) and stop indebting itself further with inefficient social or health programs and environmental tyranny of doubtful reward. And instead of letting everybody and its brother cross its southern border, it should allow persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East to come to the USA immediately.
Meanwhile, my Iraqi friends are left in the doldrums, knowing that we could have achieved a lot more if given the chance. That’s the sad realization.
Southern and northern areas in Iraq