Civil society, heritage, the failure of IR: some observations

This is an unedited, unfinished piece.

Before we start to think about how to explore different uses and meanings of ‘heritage’ in Iraq, I think its important to critically explore the concept and practice of civil society in Iraq. I say this because the two concepts – civil society and heritage – are deeply connected, perhaps inextricably rooted, to not only the past but what also to what actually happens on the ground, to people and things. Importantly, both are intimately related to competing sites of power and group struggles. I think it may be impossible to really understand what heritage means in Iraq without first understanding what has happened to ‘civil society’ as a sector or site of nonstate activity over the past 15 years.

Heritage, in similar but also distinct ways to civil society, could be viewed as a ‘cultural process’ (Harvey, 2001, Laurajane Smith, 2006) tied to wider society and the terrain in which power, actions and interventions coincide.

The use and abuse of civil society in Iraq

One key difference is the level to which the US occupation used, abused, and cannibalised the concept and practice of ‘civil society’ during the past 15 years; fortunately, heritage, on the other hand, rests free of these ills. Whilst there may be hope to reclaim the concept of civil society from its misuse by the US military and political parties in Iraq – something that will take a significant amount of time and effort – the concept of heritage, on the other hand, does not come with the same recent historical ‘baggage’.

Whilst heritage may be a ‘cleaner’ arena of nonstate activity than civil society, it is nonetheless, tied to the country’s changing politics. For many academics and researchers, especially those not interested in politics, this is perhaps a dangerous road to walk. Although fraught with ideological struggles and overtly political positioning, I would argue that like civil society, heritage studies and its practice, especially in Iraq and the Middle East, cannot be divorced from the evolving nature of politics of the country in question (for some this is stating the obvious, for others this will act as a reminder). It is becoming increasingly pressing that archaeologists, heritage practitioners and those working in any part of the preservation/ conservation ‘industry’ and its related historical, educational and cultural dimensions cannot ignore politics; a deep, critical understanding of local politics will inevitably become integral to conceptual as well as practical work on all aspects of cultural heritage activity, and there are early signs of that from international Western donors.

If we are to explore heritage and the ‘sustainable’ development of cultural heritage in Iraq (which is a growing focus amongst international donors) then we need to dissect what we mean by such things as development, culture and heritage. This blog focuses mostly on civil society development in post-2003 Iraq, and acts as a precursor to articles on critical heritage studies in Iraq, which I use as a lens to explore tangible and intangible cultural heritage (both physical ‘Monuments’ and cultural, human aspects of life in Iraq).

I write this blog, focusing on civil society, to stimulate debate on this important topic in post-2003 Iraq, and for those interested in learning about the country. Unfortunately, most of what has been written on Iraq focuses either on elite politics (of those in power) or the US military. Little, if any, work has focused on social issues, development, economics, children, women, environment or ‘civil society’. Perhaps it is not the business of Western development agencies or NGOs such as Oxfam or Save the Children to critically assess civil society in Iraq (unless of course they are paid to do so). My critique of international NGOs in Iraq will also come in another article, and I will show, through detailed case-studies, how such organisations are mostly ‘contractor’ NGOs acting on behalf of their benefactors and respective agencies (ironic this is the case when they promote local NGOs in non-Western countries to act differently and not take money from the state!). As in most things in development and politics, there is a high degree of hypocrisy, which undermines the very foundation of these disciplines.

With this blog, as well as many others to come, I will attempt to describe what has happened in Iraq to this realm of activity over the past few years. Perhaps the single most important case-study and critique of international civil society promotion and development will emerge from Iraq, though unfortunately, much of Western academia has had a hard time grappling with the country.

The failure of IR

Inherent to my writing is a rejection of conventional ‘political science’ approaches and more critically, highlighting the damage that International Relations frameworks and associated ways of approaching the Middle East have done to inform our understanding of the region.

IR is designed to explore issues pertaining to political elites and inter-state relations. Unfortunately, most of those writing on Iraq are often trained in this school and often, perhaps nearly always, ignore such things as social relations and everyday life. This projection of conventional IR methods to understand Iraq is perhaps contributing to this school’s demise and a history of failure as we have seen perhaps on most things Iraq related from 2003 to today.

Conventional IR approaches are primarily concerned with elites; those in power or about to rise to power, or the challenges to those in power. Like the liberal peace (perhaps the sister twin of IR, which I will write about in another blog) IR is oriented towards power typically of a military or security kind. It is about status – quo, not transformational change. IR as well as liberal peace does little in making us understand or address the great challenges of the 21st century, namely poverty, inequality and global injustices – indeed, I have often argued that the liberal peace does not address the poor in any meaningful way.

IR approaches have often perpetuated a sectarian lens in relation to Iraq, as their focus is only on elites whose politics are intertwined in the political system the US imposed in Iraq. In Iraq, the sectarian political structure imposed by the US and its elites is not only fracturing the country but is simply not a system that is capable of governing (since 2003 there have been no major social development programmes or other forms of progress for the far majority of the people of Iraq). There continues to be a massive disconnect between Iraq’s political system and wider society (the two only meet with money and violence, not through legitimacy, governance or services).

IR analyses on Iraq continue, perhaps in a self-serving way, to perpetuate sectarianism in the country as a kind of inevitable social structure emerging from the people – which is one of the biggest fabrications promoted by the US occupation and its allies and those whose interests, particularly material and political, were tied to new sectarianism in Iraq (Shi’i political elites, Kurdish political elites and separatists).

IR’s approach to such things as civil society is largely under-developed, perhaps for the reasons outlined above. ‘Mainstream’ civil society is considered to be complementary to the type of state promoted by ‘conventional’, liberal theories of the state, and are therefore part of the wider liberal canon on state and society and has constituted, for decades, the official policy of ‘democracy promotion’ and international or global civil society doctrines.

Liberal notions of state and society

Liberal notions of state and society (in this case civil society) were the preferred archetype – a model officially promoted by USAID, Dfid and other Western development agencies. No where can you find literature in these government bodies on ‘contentious politics’ – or civil society as a product of existing culture, social relations, history, etc. This is not an unwitting omission, but a deliberate one and masks a dishonest truth about the purpose and politics of ‘liberal’ interventionism.

For international donors, such as Dfid and USAID, civil society is a ‘sector’, often viewed with strict boundaries in which nonstate, ‘free’ and ‘independent’ associations exist to hold the state to account. This definition is though couched in such technical terms as ‘capacity building’ and ‘civil society strengthening’ and ‘democracy’ is ideologically oriented, informed by liberal notions of the boundaries and relations between state, market and society.

The failure of civil society development in Iraq

Contrary to mainstream and donor promoted notions of civil society, in my research on Iraq, I understood civil society in relation to competing local structures and politics under the occupation and after its formal end.  I often failed to understand Western Donors deeply politicised (but couched in technocratic, professional language) and ideational meanings of the term which were not only far-fetched, but had little resonance with actually existing civil society, and therefore failed to account for what was going on in the country. This absence of local politics integration in large donor projects was one of the key reasons why they failed and were littered with endemic corruption (it simply ignored the agency of local actors and the politics they indirectly espoused through the NGOs they created or were part of).

For donors, civil society was either an extension of the elitist politics they promoted (consolidating the sectarian system) or tied to the priorities of US occupation security (such as the Surge and the Sahwa Awakening Councils – George Bush Junior’s New Way Forward from 2007 onwards pumped hundreds of millions to Iraqi civil society). After all these years, and because of these interventions, civil society is now a largely tainted realm of activity. This is unfortunate given the great hope many Iraqis had in the early years of the occupation before political parties and the US occupation began shape it for their own priorities, agendas and interests.

Unlike civil society, Heritage, on the other hand, was a threat to US imperial designs, its new sectarian politics in the country and the construction of a new state beholden to US patronage. Heritage, as the US saw it, was a repository of the past, and what the US wanted to do for many years, but particularly in the early years of the occupation, was to wipe Iraq clean the country of its history to re-create the country in an image of its own choosing, readying it for a combination of neoliberalism and clientelism. It was not surprising, then, that most of the funding post – 2003 directed to civil society went to ‘new organisations’ that deliberately tailored their organisations to meet US agendas and donor priorities (democracy promotion, human rights, women’s issues (elites, not ordinary women), and civil society strengthening, however nebulously defined). By 2018, after 15 years of some of the world’s largest aid flows, Iraq still does not have any meaningful heritage organisations concerned with the people of Iraq and their histories. In sum, there was no money in this ‘sector’ for heritage organisations to exist.

Specifically, in my PhD studies, which was based on field research in addition to my own knowledge working in the NGO sector in Iraq, civil society was a site of contestation between competing factions, groups and classes. In this Gramscian definition, civil society is in many ways an extension of politics, whether formal or otherwise. In my research I redefined civil society in ways that critically explored politics and society; for this purpose, I also devised new typologies of NGOs and civil society organisations.

One common failure of liberal peace studies on Iraq – using conventional civil society peacebuilding definitions (NGOs as being non-political for instance) was that anything else that was not derived conceptually or practically from the context would fail to understand what was going on. Indeed, if your main focus was on creating a liberal state beholden to US patronage and neoliberalism, and in the process trampling on whatever existed, then it would not be surprising to see the natural resistance, whether violent or otherwise, to such aggressive political and cultural impositions.

This is perhaps one of the key reasons why we still don’t really have much research on civil society organisations in Iraq (from a liberal or IR perspective, they weren’t ‘NGOs’ like the ones in the West, and were therefore disregarded. I know this to be the case in most studies of civil society (those very few studies on this) on Iraq. In a sense, such in-built ignorance robbed local actors of agency (this is typical of IR) by replacing it with irrelevance as they did not conform to ideational criteria or definitions of ‘mainstream’ civil society.

Rejecting local agency

It is frustrating to see Western assistance, particularly civil society strengthening programmes, informed by this liberal view of life, but that any notions of local politics and for that matter contestation, was, at least officially, simply ignored. Ignoring local agency, history and more importantly re-writing Iraqi history (which was an active part of the US occupation and its elites) helped create or accentuated the environment in which al Qaeda, the Islamic state, militia groups, state and nonstate violence existed.

It was not surprising, then, that nearly all, and I would say perhaps all, projects in the country were dogged by a lack of appreciation of Iraq’s recent history and the changing nature of its politics. There are many, often major mistakes, of USAID programming in post 2003 where things went so badly wrong, that they lost millions of US taxpayer money, and not through corruption only, but because of a lack of appreciation or reading of Iraqi politics. For example, large USAID projects were transformed from civil society strengthening programmes, to security oriented, or at times, humanitarian programmes. This absence of factoring in contention and local politics is not only a failure for USAID – indeed after all these years in Iraq of major project and donor failure – that this continues to be the case in its aid modalities and programming.

If we are to view civil society as a ‘process’ tied to politics, change, contention and power of competing groups in Iraq, then it would not be a major jump to view it also as a site for progress and development. Indeed, if groups in society are competing with each other for such things as resources and legitimacy then they are also at loggerheads with each other over ideas. When I started my PhD in 2011, I often thought of civil society as a realm of both politics and the search, as I witnessed it in post-2003 Iraq, for something different. Initially this was manifested, in the early years of the occupation, as something deeply tied to resisting the legacies of ‘lost’ decades endured under Ba’thist dictatorship. Local civil society organisations and groups – at this stage not organised into ‘NGOs’ – were all searching, whether at a group or individual level – for change. This was often manifested in what was a ‘burst’ of civic energy – anything counter to the militaristic society that had come to define life under dictatorship prior to 2003. Addressing this trauma was not easy, and whether people were self-aware of themselves or not, most organisations, individuals and groups I met and saw in Iraq immediately after 2003 were searching for a way out for of the miserable lives they had come to endure, particularly under international sanctions and military dictatorship. Civil society was a conduit for these energies.

The CPA considered Civil Society to constitute a threat to the occupation

At this stage, and for much of 2003, the invaders of Iraq – not only the US military but the Coalition Provisional Authority – the civilian administration of Iraq – viewed civil society apprehensively. Imperial plans to transform Iraq – from a centralised state beholden to Saddam Hussein and his political party – to now US patronage – would take not only the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and ‘de-baathification’ but importantly, and this is often not addressed by Western and Iraqi researchers, a subduing of Iraqi society as it was feared it would be here that anti-occupation organisation would originate. It is not surprising, then, that civil society was hit hard with CPA Order 45 (written by a US general), Iraq’s first post-2003 civil society law, which asked for comprehensive monitoring and review of civil society’s funding. Silencing civil society, as the US viewed it at this stage, would help Iraq ‘transition’ to a capitalist, US patron – a client state, unlike the Gulf countries. CPA officials, however, were surprised to learn that civil society actors were not necessarily anti-occupation and should be supported, perhaps becoming an intimate part of US occupation policies.

Critically assessing heritage

Like the concept of civil society, heritage too is nebulous and perhaps lends itself to multiple dimensions of human life. If we are to understand heritage as a process tied to wider society – perhaps the tangible and intangible product of past and existing societies and peoples – then understanding what actually happened to Iraq during those past few years will be a good starting point for new debates on heritage, and importantly, the ‘sustainable’ development of cultural heritage, which is an increasingly important component of international development assistance. As I have shown, civil society and particularly the situation of Iraq’ NGOs could offer us important insights into addressing the concept and practice of ‘heritage’ in Iraq.

If indeed civil society is intimately tied to politics, then heritage is similarly connected to culture, and how individuals and groups use it to make sense of the world around them. Both are tied to history, and are products of the past. Whereas civil society was something that was funded by international organisations and donors (USAID and UNOPS were the largest), heritage, on the other hand – largely because of its potential challenge to occupation policies but also because of its inability to offer anything meaningful or tangible to the occupation, was left to the harsh forces of looting and destruction that has particularly befallen tangible cultural heritage and Iraq’s rich heritage of monuments. The sectarian political system imposed by the US and promoted by Europe has failed Iraq’s people and has done irreparable damage to its heritage; heritage is under attack because political sectarianism of the type emanating from Iraq’s political system is counter to heritage diversity, and does little to protect the physical nature of tangible cultural heritage (unless of course sectional, or sectarian heritage, is used for political purposes, such as the Shia political elites using Shia symbolism and sites for their own legitimacy).

I would like to instigate debate here on the importance of heritage, perhaps even more importantly than civil society, as an integral component of development in Iraq. It was not used and abused by the US occupation and its military (civil society was not so lucky) and heritage also offers ways in which a new international engagement could be established that has less political baggage as civil society. For Iraqis, perhaps more importantly than the concept of civil society, heritage is intimately connected to people’s existence (civil society has become too tamed, too corrupt, dominated by NGO cartels and political parties) and offers a way to bring otherwise disparate communities under a national heritage programme that respects Iraq’s diversity. In this sense, and perhaps in many other ways, heritage should be a seen as a ‘cultural process’ tied to peace-making, development, and an alternative to the sectarianism that has become the very antithesis of being human and civilised.





About Mehiyar

Dr Mehiyar Kathem is a researcher at University College London (UCL). Mehiyar completed a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he researched peacebuilding interventions and the formation of Iraq’s domestic NGO sector after the 2003 War. During this research, he looked at the gradual evolution of Iraq from totalitarian dictatorship through the country’s emerging domestic organisations. His research interests include statebuilding, civil society peacebuilding and the ways in which development, politics and money interact at a local level. In 2012 and 2013, Mehiyar conducted field research in Iraq for his PhD programme, spending a year meeting with and interviewing domestic NGO actors, political parties, government officials and international donors. Previously, Mehiyar worked on a number of grassroots programmes geared to build the capacity of civil society organisations and continues to advise international donors on the effective design and delivery of projects in Iraq. He tweets at @mehiyar

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