Friday, May 04, 2007

Another epitaph on the Iraq disaster by someone who was supposed to fix it

A world turned upside down

The former chairman of the fund for Iraq's reconstruction no longer believes the country can be saved


Last month, my term as chairman of the donor committee for the International Reconstruction Fund Facility for Iraq (IRFFI) expired, and I left the job despondent. I have no real expectation that Iraq can be reconstituted as a viable entity, whatever is done. Many of my colleagues, Iraqi and international, have privately shared that view for some time. We knew we were working in a glass bubble, isolating ourselves from the carnage on the ground. That sense of hopelessness weighs increasingly heavy.

The latest meeting of the donor committee, last month in Istanbul, was typically frustrating. The Iraqi delegation was preoccupied with process, wanting greater political control over the multilateral reconstruction facility. (They already have decisive influence.) Symbolism seemed more important than substance and the issue dominated our deliberations. Much effort over the previous months, aimed at reaching agreement on substantive reconstruction priorities such as strengthening Iraq's capacity to manage its challenges effectively, came up against the insuperable barriers of special interests and bureaucratic infighting.

Some participants become destructively defensive. Over dinner, an Iraqi cabinet minister launched a vitriolic attack against a senior United Nations representative at the table, condemning the world body's entire involvement. The minister's initial concern was what he termed the grossly unfair image of violence, chaos and mismanagement his country had acquired, suggesting our UN colleague was entirely to blame. There might be, at most, the minister said, some tens of thousand of internally displaced persons in Iraq, but nothing close to the UN's official figure of close to two million. The minister was undeterred even by the fact that the estimate of two million comes from the Red Cross, not the UN. That the displaced are in severe need had no effect on him.

Under the present circumstances, mistakes are inevitable and blame is cheap. Yet my former UN and World Bank colleagues, who administer the IRFFI trust funds, particularly those who spend much of their time in Iraq, seem to be the real heroes. They are the ones who take the risks in an effort to make things better. Their efforts, toward the eradication of infectious diseases and ensuring basic education, for instance, most often go unnoticed and unappreciated.

The European Commission is the only body to have stayed the course with major new funding. The United States, though insistent on having a seat at the table, contributed very little financially to the fund. It seems multilateralism has become taboo for Washington, despite the fact that even a modest U.S. contribution would have encouraged others to remain active. Excepting for the EC, the fund is now bereft of significant donors. While this may be understandable given the futility of the political and security situation, it is tragic given the needs of the Iraqi people. The government in Baghdad is unable to muster the funds to serve its own reconstruction efforts.

The sense of collapse is pervasive. The players continue to plan and debate, however ineffectively, simply because there seems no alternative. Washington likes to lay blame at the feet of the Iraqi government, particularly Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

There is no doubt that critical challenges have not been met by Iraq's leadership, but is it realistic that they ever could have been?

Mr. al-Maliki is an easy target for a U.S. administration that, in 2003, unleashed forces it should have known it could not control.

How could reconstruction efforts succeed embedded in chaos? The Iraq Study Group, a U.S. initiative co-chaired by the respected James Baker and Lee Hamilton, was left floundering after its recent report. Recommendations that "the United States should work closely with Iraq's leaders to support the achievement of specific objectives . . . on national reconciliation, security and governance" ring terribly hollow. They force people to ask: Just what have the Americans been doing for the past four years, if not this?

The United States has a moral obligation to the Iraqi people. For Washington and for all donors, assistance must now swing from the reconstruction goals toward urgent and rapidly growing humanitarian needs.

Despite my Iraqi minister's claims to the contrary, 20 per cent of Iraq's population has been displaced -- four million people. About half have been displaced internally, the rest to Jordan and Syria. These latter two states are, themselves, fragile and must confront rising Islamic radicalism, so richly augmented through the U.S. and British intervention in Iraq.

It is in that direction that Western and regional governments must now focus their attention. It was reported last week that "al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq are planning a mass casualty strike against British and other Western targets possibly with radioactive dispersal weapons, according to a secret British intelligence assessment."

Reconstruction, sadly, is close to having run its course in a world turned upside down.

Michael Bell, the Paul Martin (Sr.) scholar on international diplomacy at the University of Windsor, served as Canada's ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.


The International Reconstruction Fund Facility for Iraq was launched in 2004 by the United Nations and the World Bank to help donor countries channel their resources and co-ordinate their support for reconstruction and development in Iraq. According to the fund's website, 26 donors have pledged more than $1.4-billion (U.S.) to the trust fund facility. Michael Bell was chosen by Canada to fill its chair at the head of the donor committee.

Original article posted here.

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