My meeting with Vice President Biden

Iraq, July 6, 2009

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I met with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last Friday in a small roundtable discussion to discuss reconciliation in Iraq. Three non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were represented — Relief International, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and Mercy Corps. One Sheikh from a city south of Baghdad was present. General Odierno, the current Commanding General of Multi-National Force Iraq was in attendance, as well as U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill and the temporary United Nations ambassador to Iraq.

Of all the NGO representatives there, I was the only woman participating in discussion, and the only U.S. citizen.

Vice President Biden was interested in hearing our thoughts on the role of development in reducing tension between Arabs and Kurds, and in reducing sectarian violence within Arab Iraq. He also inquired on the effectiveness of U.S. assistance in developing Iraq — whether the lack of provision of basic resources to Iraqi people was a result of a lack of resources available to the Iraqi government or poor management. He also inquired about our view of the security situation in Iraq after the pullout of U.S. troops from the cities.

On the first topic, I said that while I thought economic development could have a big impact on sectarian violence, I did not think it would play a big role in reducing the tensions between Arabs and Kurds — except in situations where there are internally displaced people (IDPs) in host communities. The UN Ambassador agreed with me.

On the second topic, I brought up Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). I talked about the importance of community involvement in the development process, and about the Community Action Program (CAP). I talked about how Mercy Corps embeds themselves in communities and strives for the participation of all people — including women, the disabled and youth. I said that, without community involvement and contribution, projects are not as effective and are rarely sustainable.

I also said that PRTs find this process challenging, partially because they are wearing uniforms, which alienate a lot of the people they are trying to assist. I softened the statement by saying that, while their hearts are in the right place, PRTs cannot be as effective as
NGOs because of their uniforms, their security protocols and the fear of the military that exists in the civilian population.

On the third topic, I responded by saying that poor management was resulting in a lack of resources. I expanded by saying that poor management was resulting in a supportive environment for corruption, which was rampant in Iraq. I also said that while there may be a resource issue, realistically, more people should be able to access government resources than the number that currently receive assistance.

In terms of security, I talked about Mercy Corps' no-arms policy and how we rely on community acceptance to accomplish our goals. I said that we'd been in Iraq since 2003, and that we operate in some of the most challenging and insecure areas in the country.

I gave the example of my recent road trip from Suleimaniya to Baghdad as an example of how the improved security has opened our options. I also talked about going to Al Rashad to conduct focus group discussions and work directly with the community. I made a big point of saying that Mercy Corps employs more than 180 Iraqi staff, and only 18 internationals. I
highlighted that it is the Iraqi people themselves who do a lot of the work, take ownership of projects and work for peace and stability.

After the discussion, Biden walked around the table to me to thank me for Mercy Corps' participation. General Odierno also approached me, thanked for my comments, and said that he agreed with what I said. He said they've been frustrated by their inability to connect with communities, and that they've made a lot of mistakes.

I responded by saying that development workers have made a lot of mistakes over the last 60 years, but we've had time to learn from them and adjust our methods appropriately.