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Citizens learn to speak out, leaders learn to listen

Iraq, June 22, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Awatif in action, interviewing a farmer in his field. Photo: Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Boys at a secondary school in Kirkuk, Iraq that Mercy Corps is helping support. Photo: Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Fun in the playhouse provided by Mercy Corps through a local partner. Photo: Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps

Good things are happening in Iraq. Ordinary citizens are stepping up to rebuild and renew their country. People not accustomed to having a voice are learning how to make their concerns known to the leaders of their communities. Leaders are learning how to listen and respond.

Through our Community Action Program (CAP), funded by USAID, Mercy Corps is helping to build a more engaged and accountable Iraqi society, one that includes everyone: Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds; men, women and youth; minorities and people with disabilities. Since 2003, Mercy Corps has supported 1,400 community-based projects, from building sports fields to hosting craft festivals. We’re teaching citizens how to identify their most pressing needs and work with government officials to meet them. And we’re building capacity with government officials so they can be more effective.

Young people – whose voices have been among the least heard in Iraqi public life – are central to this process. While the program isn’t aimed only at youth, CAP’s focus on mobilizing communities offers an ideal opportunity to encourage youth to take leadership roles in community development. We make sure our Community Action Groups (CAGs) include youth representatives, who play an active role in the projects.

Coming Together to Learn and Play
Iraqi communities may lack material resources, but they’re rich in the untapped potential of the young. That’s why government officials and community members in the four southern governorates where we work have made it a priority to cultivate the development of young people and to secure support for CAP-sponsored projects. Thanks to their focus, 500,000 young people have directly benefited from projects initiated by their neighbors.

  • Schools. Iraqi parents, like mothers and fathers everywhere, want their children to receive a good education. To the community groups we work with, schools come first. Sometimes we can build a new facility. More often, we repair or improve existing schools. We add classrooms to reduce overcrowding, install restrooms and provide equipment and supplies – desks, computers, art materials – to create the best possible learning environment. Community members select projects, convey their needs to local government and ensure they’re fulfilled.
  • Sports. In a conflict environment like Iraq, stress and danger take their toll on young bodies and minds. We support sports and games that bring kids together through shared passion for play and develop positive skills like teamwork and discipline. Working with communities, we help build and repair neighborhood playing fields and clubs where kids can join a football game or practice fencing. We supply local teams with balls, nets, goals and uniforms. And we host athletic tournaments where young people can let loose through lively competition.
  • Skills. In Iraq it’s hard to acquire the computer skills that open doors to modern careers. We have established training centers where kids can learn about technology, improve their grades and job readiness, connect with their peers – and have fun.

Helping communities prioritize and meet their most urgent needs is a hallmark of all Mercy Corps programs. Our CAP initiative in Iraq is a powerful example of why this is a smart development approach. Where youth are susceptible to the lures of a violent time, it offers them a positive alternative: helping to make decisions critical to their own futures and the future of their country.