Iraqi voluntary sector: Out of the Ashes

The incredible dangers presented to those working in post-Saddam Iraq have been made obvious by the kidnap and killing of a number of hostages - so how do charities and NGOs cope in such an environment? Katherine Demopoulos spent a week in southern Iraq to find out.

I am trapped in a flying mausoleum - at least, that's how it feels as I sit staring into the darkness, weighed down by body armour and a helmet, as the plane hurtles down into Basra. The other passengers aboard the British Army aircraft seem to know what's coming - but having been offered the flight at just six days notice, I have little idea what to expect.

All I know is that I am to spend a week embedded with the British Army in southern Iraq. My plan is to speak to people involved in reconstruction, both civil and military, and to ask everyday Iraqis about the situation they find themselves in.

I soon learn that in Iraq plans are just that - intentions. Since the police station siege in Basra last September, when images of burning soldiers being dragged from tanks appeared on TV screens the world over, transport has been restricted - a vital consideration when you realise that most travel must be done by helicopter for security reasons anyway. The week of my visit coincides with changeover time for British troops, which brings more uncertainty. It is little wonder that some of my plans are not to bear fruit: a day of meetings with relief workers at Basra Palace is cancelled, for example.

When we do leave the base, flying the six miles or so from the airport over the desert and towards the town is instructive. Saddam Hussein drained the marshes, so the landscape is dead flat. It's bleak and endless dust in summer but, with a water table that's about a foot below the surface, it's quickly waterlogged and turns into thick sticky mud when it rains.

It's the flattest and bleakest landscape I've ever seen, with the shattered remains of buildings scattered randomly on the desert floor. Approaching the town, small patches of green appear where farmers illegally tap pipes to irrigate their land - one reason why the pipeline water pressure remains low - and I'm sure I spot some aeroplane wreckage turned into sculpture.

Down on the ground, the picture is dirtier. Plastic water bottles are everywhere, discarded by soldiers on exercise, who also leave the remnants of grenades used in training.

Later on in the week, when I make it to Basra Palace via a patrol along the Shatt Al'Arab River, it becomes clear why Iraq is called the cradle of civilisation. Basra, and the palace complex itself, is located on the west bank of the river, which is the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates. The river is full and wide and, while the town side is built-up and industrialised, the opposite bank is lush, green and fertile and populated with date palms.

The water is polluted, however, and Basra's defunct quays are lined with the rusting hulks of ships, Saddam's cruiser among them. These docks used to be the premier port of Iraq, but draining the marshes upstream clogged them and dredging is too expensive. The docks can only take small craft now and, instead, Umm Qasr port on the Persian Gulf receives the daily Dubai ferry and shipments of grain, iron ore and reconstruction materials.

International presence

Iraq is brimming with organisations trying to make things better, from the plethora of United Nations and governmental acronyms and abbreviations - UNDP, Unami, DfID, USAID - to international charities, domestic charities, umbrella bodies and private contractors. There are US charities involved in democracy education, charities in Kurdistan teaching women how to bring cases to international human rights courts, schools and hospitals being built and, of course, the controversial 'hearts and minds' projects undertaken by the army.

In the past, charities would have been welcomed in the aftermath of war, but the general perception here now is that NGOs are aligned with the coalition forces - bombings of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent has forced most to withdraw. More than 50 aid workers have been killed. Umbrella NGO Co-ordination Committee in Iraq says that, self-governing Kurdistan excepted, it now has just 60-70 member organisations, compared with 300 in summer 2003. The growing trend in the army to take on a humanitarian role has been one of the reasons, charities say, that the NGO presence is now only 20 per cent of what would normally be expected.

Most of the charities that remain have their headquarters in neighbouring Jordan and are unable to talk about operations in the country even in the most general terms. Those that do talk mostly wish to remain unnamed for security reasons. NGOs keep a low profile - in the past few months, it's noticeable that one has removed Iraq from the list on its website of countries it operates in, despite the fact that it is still working there. I was told that the minutes of UN briefings no longer name charity attendees. NGOs funding Iraqi charities can't publicise that fact because local staff will be at risk if it is known they have access to foreign money. "Kidnap is the biggest fear for the staff on the ground," says one source. "Of course they're afraid of the bombs on the ground, but being kidnapped ..."

New Iraqi NGOs

As international NGOs quit Iraq, the void is being filled by grass-roots domestic organisations keen to take command of the new dialogue between government and citizens and to rebuild the country. Western-style charities are a new phenomenon for Iraq, which is used to informal community-based assistance, as well as student, rural and women's activism. Thousands of NGOs have registered in Iraq. The people I speak to say signs advertising new civil organisations are pasted everywhere. Some are fakes, some are really political parties, some are one-man bands. Some work independently; others are partnered by foreign charities.

Just as NGOs operating in Africa are increasingly working with smaller local bodies, international organisations are funding Iraqi partners because they know the lie of the land. Many international charities say it is the only way they can work in Iraq.

One country manager for an international NGO says all her organisation's in-country staff are Iraqi. "We do try to use local organisations, because they can know much better who the really needy are," she says. "But it really has to be trust. A registration number with the interim government is not worth anything."

Registration has been a thorny issue. Draft legislation designed to regulate NGOs was released by the interim government on 26 January, but there are already fears that it's not up to scratch. Douglas Rutzen, president of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, says the development of the draft hasn't been an inclusive process. He warns that there are ambiguities in the text and that the Coalition Provisional Authority's now notorious Order No.45, dated 25 November 2003, doesn't bode well.

"The CPA Order is quite restrictive," he says. "It contains fundamental conceptual flaws and allows the authorities to exercise significant control over civil society. That's part of the problem."

Order No.45 requires foreign and domestic NGOs to register with the Ministry of Planning (responsibility later switched to the Ministry for Civil Society).

But charities are unhappy with the depth of information they have to give.

As well as staff names and addresses - a concern for Iraqis given the security situation - they are also required to detail their plans "prepared with consultation with the relevant ministry". One aid worker says this threatens charities' independence and neutrality. "It restricts your freedom to act," says this worker. "If you want to change your plans you have to inform them. It impedes your neutrality." In the end, most organisations either leave that section of the form blank or don't register.

Successful Iraqi NGO sectors

Annie Demirjian, the United Nations Development Programme's team leader for governance and civil society, has seen a massive change in domestic civil society organisations in the past two years. A Canadian of Armenian origin who is fluent in Arabic, Demirjian says Iraqi charity workers are acclimatising to devolved decision-making. "There are plenty of success stories," she says. "During the constitutional discussions we found that, with a little support from the international community, local organisations really deliver high-quality work to their communities. Many of the NGOs have come a long way."

Iraqi women's groups, which have a long history of activism in Iraq, have particularly impressed Demirjian. "Some of the women's NGOs blew me away," she says. "If there's one entity that has its act together - given the security situation - it is the women's sector. I think it will flourish and may be the engine of Iraqi reconstruction."

She points to protests against the move back to religious law, which threaten to remove rights that were fought for by a previous generation of women. "They mobilised every Muslim," she says. "The first sit-in involved 500 women, the second 250 - and this was at the height of the security threats."

Independent public policy NGOs, unusual in Arab regions, have also flourished since 2003 as people have come to recognise that they are important from an economic, social and political perspective. "They have helped to generate intelligent public policy debate, to conduct some of the opinion polls and communicate that to constitution committee members, politicians and, through the media, to the wider population," says Demirjian. "I thought these NGOs really created miracles under the security conditions."

She estimates that more than 2,000 Iraqi NGOs have registered so far, although not all will prevail in the long term. "No more than 25 per cent were successful - and the successful ones are those that will continue with or without our support," she argues. "Many remain nascent and are struggling at a community level. Many are three or four-person shows or are fly-by-nights. Many, of course, represent political parties."

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, according to Demirjian. Most importantly, she says, the situation shows huge enthusiasm from Iraqis. But despite the obvious eagerness to learn, a lack of experience in devolved government makes for difficulties, she adds. "Federalism? In Canada, we had 125 years of history in making it happen, so when there was a public debate on the constitution, we knew what we were talking about," she argues. "We knew about division of power, division of provinces and regional issues - but in Iraq this was so foreign. For some of them it was a traumatic experience."

This change of mindset has proved challenging for many organisations, and problems with management and strategic planning are common. Trude Falch, resident representative for Norwegian People's Aid, saw the difficulties first-hand in Kurdistan. "There is a big problem in Iraq, because Iraqi society has been run in an extremely totalitarian way," she says. "To develop that into a more sound and democratic organisation is difficult. That learning process takes a long time."

One well-respected Kurdish women's organisation, Asuda, changed its leadership several times before it found suitable staff, she adds.

As a result, capacity-building workshops are springing up to cover everything from budgeting to corporate administration, management skills and human rights issues. I saw the outcome statement from a set of in-country workshops that drew 32 participants from 21 women's groups, human rights centres and youth organisations. The workshops covered management, writing proposals for funding, networking, lobbying and advocacy, and they aimed to encourage dialogue between groups, democratic management and well thought-out programmes.

"NGOs in Iraq lack the basic know-how," says Falch. "But they compensate for this with a lack of set working habits and culture. This means they are more receptive to training and are intellectually ready to recognise their shortcomings as well as their need to build their capacities on solid bases."

As international funding dries up this year, the spotlight turns on the Iraqis themselves. Demirjian believes they can make a difference. "When the security situation subsides, I think many of these NGOs will be strengthened," she says. "In terms of long-term nation-building, this sector will play a huge, important and efficient role. On that one I am very heartened - we cannot give up."


In a small town with a population of 450,000 close to Basra stands a clinic - a designated army showpiece. The building has been designed to house a maternity ward and a children's ward, and it is a truly joint effort: the army has put money into a blood bank, a US charity has paid for one floor and the Coalition Provisional Authority has funded another.

But since its completion last June the building has been standing empty.

"Walls. Everywhere in Iraq - just walls," the director tells me as we stand in his office, surrounded by a phalanx of soldiers, doctors and interpreters. He says that the charity funder promised lifts - and later shows me two empty lift shafts - and that no one will commit money for furniture or equipment.

A source working in the region discovers - after some digging - that some funding may be on the way. The civil military division of the army is also looking to help, but with a small budget, personnel changeover every six months and little contact with the people they're trying to help, it's not surprising that the new building is not quite the showpiece the army would like to see.


Charity is one of the five central pillars of Islam - the others being the declaration of faith, prayer five times a day, fasting for Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca - and is viewed as an act of worship. The Koran talks about spending in God's way, which means spending to help the poor and "that way you please your Lord", according to Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, chair of the mosque and community affairs programme at the Muslim Council of Britain.

Charity specific to Muslim recipients is called Zakah, meaning 'purification', and charity given to any needy person, regardless of faith, is called Sadaqah. Zakah requires Muslims to give away 2.5 per cent of their wealth (over a threshold calculated against the price of gold) at the end of every lunar year. Sadaqah demands Muslims give according to ability whenever there is need. There's also a third form of charity labelled 'lillah', meaning 'for God', and that can be used for any purpose that will bring about good.

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