Ive been meaning to write several blogs and articles on the topic of project failure in post-2003 Iraq. This blog is one of several on the concept and practice of the ‘project’ which I think is a useful and effective way to understand change in Iraq and the ways in which local actors negotiated the changes happening around them. This area was covered in large part in my PhD thesis at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, where I studied the nature of foreign, domestic and regional interventions in the field of ‘civil society development’ and Iraqi organisations.
The ‘project’ in Iraq was prior to 2003 strictly the domain of the state. It was in the form of the ‘state plan’ which often envisaged ambitious economic change. State ‘projects’, prior to the war and occupation of the country, were designed to govern people and things in the image of state actors. After 2003, the state, which was subject to massive devastation by the occupation, was overrun by a combination of neoliberal policy and US military security considerations which saw it under attack and consequently hollowed out. The transition was sharp and stark, marking the end of the ‘state project’ and the birth of the ‘post-state project’.
From 2003, the ‘project’ became something that ordinary Iraqis could engage in. Unlike before, where the state had a monopoly over the ‘project’, in this new, post-2003 environment ordinary Iraqis themselves could engage in all things related to preparing and executing interventions in society. Ordinary individuals, who had been excluded by the state, were now considered to be a key component of change.
Initially financed by the US military, in 2003 and 2004, the project became a means with which subjugated and war torn Iraqis could engage in reasserting a new presence after totalitarian dictatorship. The ‘project’ defines the post-2003 neoliberal reality where individuals and organisations could organise themselves outside the state.
The ‘project’, a concretised intervention based on a set of assumptions and targets, budget and deadlines, became a main factor in the new age of neoliberal living in postwar Iraq. It came to define everything new that Iraqis were desperately trying to come to terms and negotiate after some four decades of dictatorship. For instance, newly established organisations, many of which claimed to be civil society groups, understood that their main work was associated with the projects they proposed to US military and Western development agencies and organisations. Indeed, without an understanding and engagement in the ‘project’, its particular arrangement and constitution, the great majority of civil society organizations understood their work would cease to exist.
Self-claimed domestic NGOs (non-governmental organisations) which modeled themselves on international organisations such as Oxfam, GreenPeace and Save the Children, a process that heavily involved a ‘copy-paste’ structure, were now the champions of the neoliberal project that engulfed the newly formed civil society sector.
Domestic NGOs were encouraged by foreign donors to implement activity that would ordinarily have been the domain of the state. With a state deliberately hollowed out and deprived of resources by the occupation NGOs came to represent a force of presence and a prized space of non state activity with which foreign interventions could be implemented. In this sense, and it would not be an exaggeration, domestic NGOs were living off the forced collapse of the post-2003 state.
Some of the early donor interventions in this period were designed to train and build the capacity of domestic organisations. Donors reasoned and programmed their interventions with the knowledge that ‘projects’ could not be implemented unless domestic organisations were well versed in the mechanics of organisational management. Whilst we do not know the exact figures USAID spent hundreds of millions on ‘capacity-building’ and organisational development. Indeed, some of its largest post-2003 projects were primarily focused on those two priorities. Large donors, of which USAID was the biggest, reasoned that effective projects would require professional and technically skilled local organisations.
By building the capacity of domestic organisations donors expected that their tax-payer money would go to good causes to rebuild Iraq. Such projects included anything from rebuilding schools, to managing health clinics, implementing back to school initiatives, to broader ‘strengthening civil society’ programmes that would protect and further entrench the NGO sector as a critical key post-2003 actor.
In the post dictatorship period, the immediate years after the invasion, the project would build a cadre of professionals and create a career based ‘sector’ . Such professionals were thought to go on to act as ‘change-agents’ and in turn discipline a largely unruly and war devastated and traumatized population with a view to reducing levels of aggression and violence in society. In effect, it would build a civil society based on Western understandings of life and help Iraq and Iraqis come closer to the norms expected of them.
The project embodied the idea that society could organise itself outside the state. It was, in effect, about neoliberalising NGOs and the space that they encompassed in society. This space or sector, which was heavily protected by donors and often regarded as part of their own operational remit, was considered a platform from which change of the type donors proposed could be implemented. Indeed, for a number of years, this is what happened; with support from USAID and its contracted US non-profits NGOs flourised in post-2003 Iraq, numbering at one point, in 2005, some 11,000 organisations.
Nearly all these organisations and the individuals leading them were trained in the ‘project’; their stories will be told in future blog posts.