Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Guest blogger: Building Iraqi democracy - from the ground up 

Note: for the latest "Good news from Iraq" segment and my thoughts on the youth vote, keep scrolling - it's not that far - or click here and here respectively).

To continue with the Iraq theme, today's guest blogger is Geoffrey Gold. Geoffrey works in institutional and investment decentralisation and promotion programs in South East Asia and maintains keen interest in related developments in Iraq.

Building Iraqi democracy - from the ground up

You probably have already seen the new "Iraq: Can Local Governance Save Central Government" report from the International Crisis Group.

In my view its conclusions are reasonable: "Amid spiralling violence, perhaps the only way to hold Iraq together now is to concentrate on local governance. The occupation should have focused on establishing effective, representative local institutions quickly, but it did not, having had no plan and altering strategy in response to political concerns. These mistakes have been compounded by the Iraqi authorities' distrust of decentralisation. Much territory is beyond the Interim Government's control, and national elections are likely to be postponed or held in parts of the country only. If national elections in January are not realistic, elections to provincial councils should be organised first, wherever possible and on a rolling basis so laggard governorates can vote when ready. Elected local governments must also have real powers and funding to be credible."

However, it pretty much ignores the excellent work undertaken to date in most of Iraq (which you've covered much of in your reports).

For instance, just prior to the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi interim government in June this year, the Coalition Provisional Authority reported that all provincial governments and 90 percent of Iraq's municipalities already had "sovereign operating councils" which were addressing the civic interests and needs of Iraqis at the provincial and municipal levels. "Even before full transfer of sovereignty on June 30th, local officials are providing goods and services for local citizens and are helping Iraqis learn about democracy at a local level," the CPA said.

This directly follows from USAID’s strategy of helping to establish stable local governments in post-conflict Iraq as outlined by Ross Wherry, Senior Reconstruction Advisor and leader of USAID’s Washington-based Iraq Management Team in November 2003. At that time Wherry emphasized the importance of the local government structure to regain a semblance of order.

With the aid of representatives from various NGOs and U.S.-based companies, Iraqi citizens have chosen 88 neighborhood advisory councils and elected nine district councils. Iraq's government structure, Wherry said, is beginning to resemble New York City's in organization. Local groups have "sufficient inherent legitimacy" that they can represent people in their area well, said Wherry. It is local governments, he said, that can most quickly address the disruptions of civil order which face Iraq today. Local officials best serve citizens' interests because "they can't get away from them," Wherry said.

In addition, minorities have a greater chance of finding a voice within local government than they do on a national scale, Wherry said. In the last three weeks, 67 Kurdish women's groups in northern Iraq have worked together to establish clinics for women. As of now, USAID estimates that 15 million Iraqis — one-half of the country's population - are involved in at least one aspect of the political process.

While Wherry spoke in positive terms of Iraq's political progress, he warned that the formation of a stable political system is not yet inevitable. "Local government is necessary, but not sufficient," he said. The next important step is building a receptive and accountable national government upon the foundation of the local government, he added.

USAID reported in June this year that its key accomplishments to enhance local government administrations and interim representative bodies; promoting community development in cooperation with the NGO community in Iraq included:

· Local governance teams working in all 18 governorates as part of CPA Governance Teams.

· Facilitating an interim structure of government, the Governorate Council, to represent the population of 18 governorates, including Baghdad.

· Establishing 16 governorate councils, 78 district councils, 192 city or sub-district councils, and 392 neighborhood councils, allowing more than 19 million people to engage in local policy discourse.

· Committing $2.4 million for the implementation of the CPA's nationwide Civic Education Program to introduce Iraqis to democratic principles and ideas in preparation for the upcoming transition to sovereignty.

· Awarding rapid-response grants worth $13.4 million to allow local governments to deliver essential services.

· Rehabilitating nine key central government ministries, Baghdad mayoral buildings, headquarters of nine Baghdad municipalities, and urban water and electric authorities, while providing 40 directorates and agencies with enough furniture, equipment, and basic office supplies to enable them to return to service.

· Assisting local governments in budget formulation.

USAID-funded local government programs include RTI training of more than 9,000 municipal council members to foster accountability through the development of financial methods, including operating and capital budgets; training on tendering and bidding processes; and documentation of financial transactions. Council members are also learning how to hold public hearings and open meetings, and how to provide information about government activities to the media. In addition, RTI has spearheaded efforts to help Iraqi citizens develop neighborhood councils that perform watchdog roles. In Al Basrah, for instance, RTI's Local Governance Team introduced the concept of advocacy and helped new councils learn to monitor the use of funds and develop relations with provincial and city governments. In this way, informed citizens are helping ensure accountability in their local governments.

Britain has committed 50 million pounds ($90 million) to specific bilateral aid projects including local government: "Some £20.5m [$37 million] will be spent on capacity building for local government in southern Iraq, where some 8,000 British troops are deployed, and 16.5m [$30 million] on job creation and restoring essential services. Three million pounds [$5.4 million] will go on supporting central government efforts on economic reform particularly with respect to debt relief... Ten million pounds [$18 million] will be split between a civil society project and another on engage citizens in the political process." This new commitments takes to £380 million, or $680 million, the total amount earmarked by Great Britain for specific projects in the liberated Iraq.

The success of the local government initiative in Iraq relies on the service of specialist civilians. They are real heroes in my view. Even though they are mostly working in the "safe" areas such as the Kurdish north and Shiite south, they are constantly in danger.

Take for instance Wallace Rogers, previously a county administrator in Wisconsin, USA. He is currently working in Tikrit and Erbil, in the Kurdistan zone managing project teams that organize Iraqi city councils, municipal budgets and public works programs. He works closely with local and provincial authorities, usually on public works and planning projects. His tasks include organizing city and provincial councils to work on issues like constituent relations and developing good working relationships between mayors and governors, councils and legislatures.

"Although I didn't, and don't, support the politics that's involved us in Iraq, once here, we have to try to get this right," he said. "I believe democracy and democratic tendencies grow from the ground up. It won't work in Iraq, or anywhere else, unless and until ordinary people have confidence in the institution of local government and feel they can access its decision-making and policy-making processes".

"The security situation overlays everything we do," he said. "Working in a war zone severely limits what you can do. But the U.S. government and international non-governmental organizations have poured billions of dollars in resources into the country to help finance and promote the efforts of people like me who are working here."


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