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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