Although policymakers and the news media seem surprised by the most recent crisis in Iraq, the reality is that the Iraqi state has been steadily deteriorating for months, writes Beza Tesfaye, a research advisor at Mercy Corps, in this guest post. Stoked by political rivalries and an unwillingness to reconcile, sectarian tensions have been taking a consistently violent turn since 2013. There is no question that the rise of ISIS in Iraq is a multi-faceted issue, but the marked absence of an inclusive, transparent and participatory system of governance may have contributed to creating an opening in which violent extremists could insert themselves into the domestic scene.
U.S. policymakers have become increasingly frustrated with a lack of progress after the thousands of lives lost and the billions of dollars spent to pave the way for democracy in Iraq. But given the Administration’s shortsighted engagement in this challenging country, any transformational improvements should not have been expected. For starters, U.S. commitment to long-term development programs – the programs that build economic security and strengthen political stability – has been dropped, as USAID was virtually zeroed out in FY14 and in the FY15 request, and funding in 2013 was pre-emptively cut back from previous projections. Only limited, short-term activities by the State Department in Iraq have continued to receive funding. Overall, the country is among the biggest losers in the administration’s FY2015 international affairs budget, slated to receive only $23 million in U.S. development aid – a 69 percent reduction from 2013.
In recent years, a significant portion of U.S. development assistance to Iraq has been spent on helping to increase political engagement by building democratic institutions, enhancing local government capacity and supporting the development of an independent civil society. Through these efforts, civil society has been gradually gaining a voice, channeling popular concerns to the government. There’s been good progress, but it is only the beginning. As one activist put it, “Democracy is incomplete in Iraq. Donors are leaving, but we still need support.”
At the very moment that Iraq’s fledgling civil society is beginning to gain traction, funding for civil society development programs is drying up. In 2011, the U.S. government was spending an average of $802,000 per soldier in Iraq—or $80 billion per year for a minimal 10,000-troop presence. This year, the State Department’s FY 2015 request for investments in civil society development programs dramatically pales in comparison: under $15 million.
What’s effective for improving governance?
A recent report by Mercy Corps sheds light on the link between civil society and governance in Iraq. Data from a nationwide public opinion survey indicate that civil society investments are vital for the development of an open, participatory and accountable system of governance. The main takeaway from the study is that an effective civil society may actually help boost citizens’ views of the government’s responsiveness and legitimacy—important outcomes for democracy and peace. Moreover, civil society organizations are setting a needed model for democratic engagement by creating coalitions across sectarian, ethnic and religious lines, proving that internal divisions can be overcome to address shared everyday concerns such as access to public services.
In practical terms, countries that have a stake in Iraq’s long-term stability should do more—not less—to support civil society’s role in bridging gaps between citizens and government and between divided communities. For example, Mercy Corps’ conflict-resolution work in Iraq has already helped resolve more than 200 major disputes that otherwise might have resulted in more bloodshed. Sustaining such efforts should be a core part of a revamped long-term strategy of engagement in Iraq.
Today it seems that we may have missed the best chance to help Iraq, but in reality the U.S. and other stakeholders still have the opportunity to shape a positive outcome. As institutional donors begin to respond to the humanitarian crisis caused by the most recent fighting, it is critical to keep in mind that solving the current conflict and averting future crises will require steadfast support for democratic development. In the FY2015 appropriations process, Congress has the ability to reverse the devastating funding cuts that threaten to cripple civil society in Iraq. Although the Senate has already taken important steps in this direction by slightly increasing funding over the Administration’s request, there is still a deficiency in funding for programs that can help improve governance, especially in light of the need for such initiatives in Iraq today. In the immediate crisis, civil society can also play a larger role in the recovery process if humanitarian funding is channeled through local organizations, with technical assistance from USAID and international partners.
It’s clear that improvements in the political situation are unlikely to be achieved without internal commitment and continued external engagement. Still, in the long run, funding programs that enable Iraqis to address shortcomings in governance is perhaps the most cost-effective means to peace and stability. The recent events remind us that the U.S. needs a long-term vision if it seeks to influence positive changes in Iraq. In addition to seeking a political resolution to end the conflict, the U.S. should advance the indigenous development of democratic peace by supporting local civil society groups that are slowly changing the political and social landscape in Iraq.
Beza Tesfaye is a research advisor at Mercy Corps and lead author of the new study “Bridging the Gap: Evidence on the Links between Civil Society and Good Governance in Iraq.”