Street-level economics key to win in Iraq

(published in the San Antonio Express-News 03/19/03)

What a mess! A year since the Invasion of Iraq began, the economy of that country remains in shambles and is only slightly better than it was during the years of sanctions and a dictator's regime. 44% of Iraqis said that things are about the same or worse than they were a year ago, according to the most recent National Survey of Iraq commissioned by the BBC (Oxford Research International).

Unemployment is high, too few citizens have begun to rebuild their destroyed homes and businesses, there isn't a representative functioning government, and nation-building has progressed slower than expected hindered by several things: bureaucratic bungling, continued fighting, and lack of economic strategy.

From the very first, top-down management and political battles between The Whitehouse, DOD, the State Department, and the United Nations, brought economic paralysis to Iraq. Then, bureaucratic infighting slowed the flow of desperately needed dollars. Only just now are contracts being awarded from the $18.4 billion that Congress allocated for rebuilding.

Next, the military leaders of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) found that they were untrained for the task of economic development and out of their depth at managing civilian agencies. They quickly staffed positions with reservists and fresh university grads who knew little of the country they were to oversee.

Finally, security remains a constant problem. Daily bombing and killings led to an almost complete pullout by aide agencies - from the Red Cross to Feed the Children - that might otherwise have helped.

The result is that, for all the America's good intentions or not, circumstances in Iraq remain critical and a greater emphasis needs to be placed on economic strategies before they unravel further.

Street-level economic development is the lone key to rebuilding Iraq and repairing the economy, stabilizing the political situation, and restoring security. Recent events in Haiti delineate all too well what happens when people aren't given access to the economic resources and jobs needed to create a stable society.

This is particularly crucial in Iraq's capital city of 6 million; for "as goes Baghdad so goes the country," one coalition officer recently noted.

To understand the difficulties of economic development in Baghdad I talked to local businesspersons during my most recent trip. The following is only one of many stories that illustrate the challenges felt in that city.

The Abdul-Hamid family used to live in upper-middle-class comfort in their Northeast Baghdad suburb. They built up a prosperous tire store business through the years and enjoyed satellite television and computers in their home. During the "Battle of Baghdad" they fled the country, only to return to find their 3-story home gutted after an April 6 firefight between the army and insurgents. Not only did they lose all of their family possessions but also their entire inventory of tires that they had also stored for safekeeping. They would like to rebuild their business and their life but don't know where they will get the funds - there is no insurance for such cases.

As the occupation of Iraq enters the second year, there is some optimism that Baghdad's economy will receive a fresh look.

The Army's 1st Cavalry Division, from Ft. Hood Texas, is deploying to and will have primary responsibility for the area of Baghdad. Commander General, Peter Chiarelli, and his staff have been meeting with civic, business, and academic leaders to understand what is needed to manage such a large city and have expressed a desire to "think outside of the box."

They are taking the knowledge they have learned with them to Iraq and hope to have a significant impact on improving Baghdad and the country in general. The Division soldiers won't be working in a vacuum but rather engaging directly with Iraqi business and civic leaders - and ordinary citizens - on a daily basis throughout the city.

There is immense hope that in the coming months a greater emphasis will be placed on street-level projects that will result in the creation of jobs, meet basic human needs, and foster Iraqi ownership and self-sustainability…the key to "winning".

Peace, Charlie


Charlie Jackson, founder of Texans for Peace, recently returned from his second trip to Iraq, undertaken through the Christian Peacemaker Teams organization of Chicago. He is a high-tech CEO and lives with his two sons in San Antonio.


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