Scholar Traces the Rise of Nongovernmental Organizations in Iraq

/ 12 Nov 2019

Scholar Traces the Rise of Nongovernmental Organizations in Iraq

Mehiyar Kathem, an Iraqi historian, is writing about the period of Iraq’s history that followed the American-led invasion in 2003. Focusing on the rapid growth of nongovernmental organizations, he has found that they became “platforms for political interests” that nevertheless used the sort of civil-society rhetoric about being independent that Western donors love to hear.

Nongovernmental organizations grew prolifically in Iraq after 2003, Kathem has found, in the chaotic aftermath of the invasion, the overthrow of the dictator Saddam Hussein, the destruction of the country’s state institutions and the faltering first steps that were taken toward rebuilding the country.

In this time, he says, nongovernmental organizations became woven into the fabric of Iraqi society. They have survived, he says, in a Darwinian process in which they have continually adapted to their environment. He describes his work, which has already appeared in some scholarly articles and will eventually appear in a book, as an “ethnography of institutions.”

Opening the Doors

Kathem is a postdoctoral researcher in history at University College London and coordinator of the Nahrein Network, which promotes humanities scholarship in Iraq.

Opening the country to foreign and local nongovernmental organizations, he says, was among the torrent of measures that the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority introduced in its attempt to turn Iraq into a kind of liberal democracy as quickly as possible.

On November 25, 2003, L. Paul Bremer III, the American diplomat who served as the authority’s administrator and the country’s de facto ruler, issued Order Number 45, formalizing the role nongovernmental organizations would be invited to play as the builders of civil society in Iraq.

Under Saddam Hussein, any kind of organization—sports clubs, trade unions, women’s groups—had to be affiliated with the state, and because they were branches of the state they could not be considered civil-society organizations.

In response to Order Number 45, applicants thronged the Baghdad Convention Center inside the Green Zone, the Coalition Provisional Authority’s capital within the Iraqi capital, to register their NGOs.

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“The NGOs became an extension of the political contest going on in the country. They became platforms for political interests.”

Mehiyar Kathem   An Iraqi historian

In 2011, the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq, based in Geneva, reported that “between 2003 and 2010, the number of Iraqi NGOs considerably increased and were estimated somewhere in the region of 8,000 to 12,000.”

But the NGOs that sprang up were mostly American or European in origin, says Kathem, and were motivated by a specifically American or European idea of civil society—a realm of independent, free-standing organizations separate from the state.

Adapting to Local Conditions

As Iraqis assumed roles within the NGOs, “they learned the language of democracy, civil society and independence,” Kathem says. But as time passed they adapted to local conditions. “The NGOs became an extension of the political contest going on in the country. They became platforms for political interests.”

For instance, an NGO called the Iraqi Al-Amal Association works on gender equality, health and education, peace-building and coexistence, and training and capacity building. It describes itself as “a non-political, non-sectarian association of volunteers actively engaged in projects for the benefit and well-being of the Iraqi population regardless of race, gender and political or religious affiliation.”  Iraqi Al-Amal was founded by Kurdistan members of the Iraqi Communist Party, which has deep roots in the history of modern Iraq and took part in the 2018 parliamentary elections as a member organization in the Sairun Alliance, led by the Shia Islamist Muqtada al-Sadr.

Another NGO, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, was founded in 2003  by the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq, which is separate from the Iraqi Communist Party.

Although the two groups share a common outlook, the Al-Amal association and the Organization of Women’s Freedom see each other as rivals, Kathem says, and compete for the international grant money that keeps them going.

As a result, Kathem says, “We need new ways of classifying NGOs that are based on what they actually do and whom they represent, rather than what they say they do.” Requests to the two organizations for comment were not immediately responded to.

In post-Saddam Iraq, Kathem says, “NGOs have come to represent class and group interests,” and are being woven into the fabric of tribes, factions, regions, political parties, loyalties and affinities that make up Iraqi society in all its teeming variety. This is the same complex fabric that Hanna Batatu, the Palestinian historian, used more than 1,200 pages to describe in The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, generally regarded as an authoritative work.

In this development Kathem sees the danger of what Indian author Arundhati Roy has called “NGO-ization”—the state of affairs in which NGOs assume the responsibilities of the state at the expense of political action. “They defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right,” Roy says.

Money and Its Murky Trail

In the protests now taking place in the streets of Iraqi cities, NGOs are conspicuously not involved, Kathem says.

“Corruption is not the right word to describe how many of the NGOs used money. It could be called reallocation.”

Mehiyar Kathem  

“The protests are led by young people from the poorer groups in society who want to reclaim their country. They are opposed to a status quo in which NGOs are used by classes, groups and remnants of the state to get advantage in a system that has collapsed.” (See a related article, “In Iraq, Hunger for Jobs Collides With a Government That Can’t Provide Them.”) 

The United States poured billions of dollars into Iraq during and after the 2003 invasion, and much of this liberality flowed into NGOs. While the organizations were seen as part of the transition from dictatorship to freedom, and secure careers in the NGO sector began for a new kind of Iraqi professional, a lot of money was lost to what might be seen as corruption.

Bogus NGOs came and went. In 2011, the year the greater part of American forces withdrew from Iraq, a new registration regime for NGOs came into effect, reducing their numbers from thousands to hundreds.

“Corruption is not the right word to describe how many of the NGOs used money,” Kathem says. “It could be called reallocation; that is, money being used in ways that are not visible to donors. How do you monitor money in a country like Iraq? A lot of the money is spent on other things; it is used to buy houses; it goes to different class interests.”

When the United States forces left Iraq, aid money dried up, and Iranian money appeared to replace it.

Peter Gardner, a lecturer in sociology at the University of York and a specialist in peace and conflict studies who is familiar with Kathem’s work, says that in reading it “the highly muddied waters of NGO operations in post-invasion Iraq are revealed with utmost clarity for their imperialist underpinnings. He tracks and exposes the flow of ideas, ideologies and finance inherent in postwar rebuilding in Iraq.”

By now, Kathem says, NGOs have become such a familiar part of the social landscape in Iraq that in colloquial Iraqi Arabic people no longer say “munazama ghayr hukumia”—the literal translation of the English term nongovernmental organization—but “NGO.” It is now a part of the language.




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