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