Aid worker see potential, risk in Iraq
Maybe it was his conviction that aid-relief operations on the ground in Iraq were doing more harm than good. Or perhaps it was the realization that he would be developing a unique organization, one that would have profound effects on people’s day-to-day lives.Whatever it was, seven months after vowing to never return, John Barbee found himself back in Iraq. In February 2004, the Glenwood Springs resident and 40-year veteran of international aid projects began a three-month stint in the northern Iraqi town of Arbil, where he helped sow the seeds for what he believes is the only solution to recovery in Iraq.”I was asked to help my old organization – the one I worked for in Tajikistan for five years,” Barbee said of his reason for returning to Iraq, where he had first been stationed in June 2003.The organization, which Barbee requested remain anonymous for security reasons, asked him to expand aid-relief operations into the Al Anbar province, which is on the western edge of the Sunni Triangle and includes cities like Fallujah.The primary goal of the group is to foster a culture of cooperation and dialogue. His job was to teach Iraqi citizens how to develop and sustain organizations to perform the tasks needed to rebuild the country – everything from helping people find shelter to securing safe drinking water.”Basically, we were there to engage with community people and community groups to get them talking again,” he said.For weeks, Barbee and his staff carefully selected and trained a 16-member team in a variety of tactics designed to help Iraq’s communities recover from nearly 30 years of Saddam Hussein’s rule and more than a year of war.
Barbee’s first visit to Iraq left him frustrated and concerned about the fate of the country. “They had no plans in place,” he said. “It was abundantly apparent by the time I left that if a plan was in place, we could have gotten a lot more done a lot faster.” When L. Paul Bremer, the recently departed civilian administrator in charge of the occupation, declared the former Iraqi military defunct and eliminated its pay, Barbee claims things spiraled out of control. “Basically Bremer did nothing in that process to empower Iraqis, they just appointed a governing council of mostly expatriate Iraqis which had no positive leadership potential at all,” he said. “All of a sudden, we became an occupation force with a relentless stranglehold on the country, and we had to start from scratch, worse than scratch. All these guys were alienated, it was just a mess.” Distrust and national pride spread like wildfire across the country, Barbee said, as former Iraqi soldiers, who had thrown down their arms when Saddam’s regime was overthrown, were now hell-bent on destroying the Americans. “We have eliminated Saddam but created a lot of other problems,” he said, adding that now there is not only a distrust of the military, but of all Westerners, aid workers included. Even the people Barbee’s organization worked with on a daily basis were suspicious of his intentions. “They were at first very wary and untrusting, not just of me, a foreigner, but also of the [Iraqis] who were helping,” he said. But as the group “explained and engaged them in dialogue and discussion of the problems in Al Anbar,” they began to realize the effort was sincere, he added.
While the low-profile, trust-building philosophy behind Barbee’s organization would seem like a popular approach to creating stability in Iraq, it isn’t, he said. As Barbee trained his staff in private, secure locations generally out of sight in the northern part of the country, other aid groups hummed around Iraq in convoys stacked bumper-to-bumper with SUVs.”When you travel around in Land Cruisers, you make yourself look like a lightning rod,” Barbee said. “You shouldn’t be surprised when you get struck.” Another basic difference between Barbee’s organization and most other aid groups can be found in the faces of the staff. The group Barbee worked for is run and staffed mostly by Iraqis, as opposed to the more common organizational model that has Americans surrounded by high levels of security running the show. “How in the world do you foster a dialogue with people when they can’t even visit your office?” Barbee asked. “They do everything but strip-search them – it’s obviously a foreign place, and a dangerous place where they’re going to be targeted.” Barbee and the rest of the Westerners involved in the organization, which receives funding from the United States Agency for International Development, knew, in order for anything to succeed, they needed to remain invisible, he said. “We have been very careful regarding media coverage of this project in Al Anbar, we do not want it to be targeted by the ‘bad guys'” he said. “It is indeed an indigenous Iraqi project that is totally dependent on these folks’ motivation and ability to carry out the objectives.” Barbee said he made it clear to his staff that they needed to be as independent as possible. “We told them, ‘We can’t protect you. If we go there, you’ll be less protected. They’ll target you because we’re there,'” he said.
Barbee is a ringer for the kind of work he’s doing now. His experience in international development began in the 1960s with the Peace Corps in Afghanistan. Between 1997 and 2001, he helped the newly independent state of Tajikistan in Central Asia develop its first non-governmental organization.Now, three months after leaving Iraq, Barbee said his employer has expanded to include “civil society resources in five different places,” including Basra, Baghdad and Al Hillah, and he thinks that number can grow to 10. “This project is very ‘visible’ and protected in Al Anbar by its growing number of constituents who understand what it is about and trust its implementers and participants,” he said.And while Barbee feels good about the work he and his team have done so far, he knows that Iraq is walking a tightrope.”If new U.S. leadership can begin to regain the trust and support of our international allies and together with them support this sort of programming that fosters growth and participation of Iraqis, then I am optimistic about the future,” he said. “But if we continue the way we have, making unilateral decisions and operating in a ‘top-down’ manner without truly engaging the international community, [and] the Iraqis and their neighbors in a productive way, the future for Iraq – and the U.S. – is seriously in jeopardy.”