Rebuilding delays in Iraq

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: is our government relief agency USAID actually doing what its name suggests it ought to be doing—which is to say, administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance.

NICK EICHER, HOST: WORLD Magazine has a story that raised some questions about all of that. In short, the Trump administration, at the urging of  Vice President Pence, seemed to be offering direct aid to help Christians in Iraq.

But it hasn’t been working out that way, not yet.

Mindy Belz is senior editor for WORLD. She reported and wrote the story and she joins us now. Good morning, Mindy.

MINDY BELZ, SENIOR EDITOR: Good morning, Nick. Good morning, Mary.

EICHER: You went into significant detail in your story, but put it in a nutshell for us, we’re talking about postwar rebuilding following the horrors of what the Islamic State did to Christians and Yazidis in Iraq.

BELZ: That’s right, Nick. If you remember, in 2014 ISIS invaded Iraq and took over about a third of the country. It emptied out the communities that belong to primarily Yazidis and Christians. Many of them, most of them have not been able to go back to their homes. It’s now 2019. We saw a concerted effort, a war in effect, in 2017 and 2018 to force ISIS out of those communities. But as yet, we have not seen—we’ve seen some rebuilding but not significant rebuilding. And late last year Vice President Mike Pence said enough of this and ordered USAID in effect to redirect funds away from the UN, away from places that weren’t helping these communities, and directly to the churches. And yet what we’ve found is even despite the pledges of the vice president that help is on the way, help is kinda, sorta, maybe on the way.

REICHARD: Well, why is that, Mindy? What’s the holdup?

BELZ: It’s a couple of things, Mary. One is bureaucracy and, you know, the leadership and a number of people I spoke to in Iraq when I was there earlier this year say that they really are battling Washington bureaucracy. But more than that, what we saw when we began examining deeply the projects that USAID says it has begun in Iraq, more than half of them still are being funded through the UN and through a for-profit government contractor—Chemonics—which has run into problems managing these kinds of programs in Afghanistan and elsewhere. And which, let me just reemphasize, is a for-profit company that’s managing American aid. And so it’s not answering to American taxpayers. It’s answering to its board. It’s answering to its bottom line. And it’s running an operation that is not getting aid to these communities as quickly as we have been led to believe would happen.

EICHER: Let’s talk about what this means for those on the ground there who need this help. What are the ramifications for them?

BELZ: When I began talking to the actual communities, the actual churches that thought that they would be working with the Americans to do this kind of work, what they said instead was happening is that, you know, rebuilding a school, for instance, and Chemonics would show up with furniture that had been imported from Asia somewhere and say, “Here’s your furniture.” When right down the street is an Iraqi man who’s trying to come back and trying to rebuild his business who’s a carpenter and who could have made furniture for the school. One church-led aid group there said, you know, we’ve been doing this for years and what we’re seeing now is not capacity building. It’s not actually restoring the community. So it’s a picture where we want to say yes, some things are happening now that weren’t happening before. But not in the way that’s been advertised. 

REICHARD: I’m wondering Mindy, is there a bright side to be found in any of this? 

BELZ: It’s important, I think, to say two things about the area that we’re talking about. First of all, this is Iraq. This is a country that’s been at war in one form or another for as long as many of us can remember. So it’s very hard territory. The security situation continues to be tenuous. You have competing militias. It takes six different checkpoints and several different languages to get out to these communities to even see what’s happening. And the U.S. is trying to address this in a very difficult situation. So we want to acknowledge that. The Trump administration has moved away from Obama-era policy, which was to take no responsibility for what’s happened in Iraq. But it seems to me that the United States by the slowness of rolling out this program and the kind of the missteps that we’re talking about is missing an important opportunity. Rebuilding these communities with American help is good for the church in Iraq and it will restore persecuted people. But it’s also a much less expensive investment than fighting another war with ISIS. This is a highly destabilized environment and this is one way to stabilize it. And it seems like we are not fulfilling our promises there. I fear that without our engagement we’ll watch this very important and ancient Christian presence in the heart of the Middle East disappear. And we also will watch this area perhaps fall into the hands of Iran or once again fall into the hands of ISIS type terrorists. We could look back and we might wish that we had rebuilt homes and communities as quickly as possible while we had the opportunity to do so. 

EICHER: Well, this is a highly important story and if you’ll visit us at worldandeverything-dot-org, pull up the transcript of this conversation, we will place a link so that you can read this story yourself.

Mindy Belz is Senior Editor for WORLD Magazine.  Always in depth analysis with you, Mindy. Thanks!

BELZ: Thank you.

(Associated Press, file/Photo by Farid Abdulwahed) Iraqi Yazidi women mourn during the exhumation of a mass grave of ISIS victims in Iraq earlier this year. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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