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Jewish World Review April 5, 2004 / 14 Nissan, 5764

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Iraq needs 'social capital' ... ten minutes with Ray Salvatore Jennings of the United States Institute of Peace


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Ray Salvatore Jennings of the United States Institute of Peace is just back from eight weeks in Iraq, where his organization will be spending the next two years training Iraqis how to build and manage their own peaceful civil society after 30 years of dictatorship.

The USIP, which Jennings says "specializes in conflict management," describes itself as "an independent, nonpartisan federal institution created by Congress to promote the prevention, management and peaceful resolution of international conflicts."

Jennings has worked with USIP throughout the Balkans and Sierra Leone. I spoke with Jennings on Wednesday by telephone from his home in Baltimore:

Q: What's the difference between the reality you saw in Iraq and how the U.S. media have been portraying it?

A: I've been in this business for 12 years now, and every time that I'm home and getting most of my information through States-based media, it is — I wouldn't say "shocking" — but I would say it is "surprising" how different the presentation of facts on the ground is in the media here than it is from the reality we experienced there.

It's different because the way I and my colleagues usually work is rather deep in the communities of the places that are experiencing post-war trauma. My experience in Iraq, for example, is that the glass is five-eighths full.

Q: So you're an optimist?

A: I'm slightly optimistic. I think that the glass is leaking. And I think we have a very real possibility that the security situation will deteriorate. But I don't think it's as bad as is being presented in the press here, which tends to overlook a lot of Iraqi sentiments.

For the most part, I have to say, surprisingly — and this is a big difference from what I observed last summer — that Iraqis by and large right now are optimistic. They're more optimistic than I am. It's surprising, because last summer almost all of the Iraqis I spoke with were absolutely pessimistic. They could not see beyond the next week and were complaining bitterly about the lack of electricity and the lack of water.

Actually, people don't complain about those things anymore. They have improved, but now people are concerned and complaining about jobs and security. That's an enduring feature of their lives — insecurity — and that remains a very challenging feature of day-to-day life for Iraqis and will continue to be.

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Q: Do all the things that make up a civil society exist in Iraq — I'm sure they must — and are they in trouble now?

A: Yeah, they do. But just to make sure you don't see that as the only thing we're doing, we're actually doing a lot of training — training for national security officials, training for officials in a variety of ministries in the new government, training for new leaders who are being brought into the civil service of the new Iraqi government.

That's in another way building capacity for these individuals to take on responsibilities to govern.

Q: Are we merely keeping the peace or are we building a new nation for the long run?

A: I think what we're doing is "peace-building." The distinction here is that peacekeeping is essentially separating the parties and hoping that in that separation there will be some time for local actors to work out their differences. We've tried peacekeeping earlier in the '90s, and one of the lessons we've learned is that it rarely works simply to do peacekeeping.

What's often required, and what is certainly required in Iraq, is peace-building. And peace-building is like peacekeeping-plus. And that plus is actually working with local actors on the ground to enhance their ability to take care of their own differences, to take care of the challenges they're faced with.

That's the building part. That's building civil society. It's building leadership capacity. It's rebuilding infrastructure on the physical side. It's rebuilding the ability of a new generation of leaders to take charge in the ministries and in the general assembly and the governing council to actually take on the business of governance.

Q: What are we doing especially well there now?

A: Right now, it is physical reconstruction. I think you'll find most Iraqis admitting that in terms of bricks-and-mortar work, we have done a great deal of work that's highly visible and that most Iraqis sense has made a difference in their daily life. That's everything from cleaner water to greater electrical generation. They can now predict, for example, when the electricity is going on and off, which is very different from last summer. Different also from last summer is wastewater disposal, which in Baghdad alone was a tremendous problem. It remains a tremendous problem, but there's been a big improvement.

Q: What's the most important thing we should be worrying about in terms of long-term success there?

A: The counter to what we do well is what we don't do well. What we don't do well is building social capital. Social capital is this idea of building local capacity, building an ethic of participation. It's the soft side of the postwar reconstruction process.

The hard side is hard-wiring the infrastructure of a society. We tend to be able to do that. We can throw engineers at it. But what we don't well is the enhancement of the social capital of society — building initiative; building imaginative, creative new leaders; building recognition of what democratic governance is and what the rights and responsibilities are of citizens in such a society.

We're not good at that, and we need to worry about that because that is a very real challenge that we haven't quite nailed anywhere we've tried it since we began to engage in postwar reconstruction in earnest.


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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald